Saturday, October 17, 2015

Cycling Japan

The rain, when it came, started on the outskirts of Kyoto. A few spots, barely enough for a raincoat, and the only inclement weather of our 1
2-day tour of Japan. Our luck with the weather was emblematic of a fantastic trip.

It is about 650km from Izumi in Kagoshima prefecture to Kyoto if you join the dots of the cities we passed through on the route, although more like 580km allowing for twists and turns and subtracting the odd ferry or bus transfer. Along the way the beauty of Japan reveals itself in dozens of subtle and enchanting ways.

The trip, Japan Highlights by Japan Biking is billed as “pure indulgence for the senses and happily our experience well and truly lived up to the advertising. There were equally-matched highlights for me: the riding, the scenery, the food and the accommodation. Its hard to have a bad time riding moderate distances on an unladen bike, so the first was a bit of a given. Less expected though was the stunning quality, the delightful routes, the variety of the food and the wonderful accommodation

Our group met in the small southern town of Izumi, where our guide, Thomas Holvoet, lives. We had hired a pair of hybrid bikes rather than bring our own, so Thomas quickly fitted the pedals and saddles wed brought from home and after a quick test ride and a few adjustments we were ready to go. After an afternoon spent around the hotel our tour group met for an initial briefing. Our riding companions for the next week and a bit would be some friends from Tasmania and a group of seven - six from California and a Brazilian woman who had done several similar trips together. They had mostly bought their own flash matching Richey Titanium Break-Away travel bikes. 

We met and chatted over the first of many fine meals to come over the following days. Early the next morning we started off with some gentle stretching as Thomas chanted us through our routine with a count of one to ten in Japanese, then at last we were on the road for a gentle tour of Izumi and its samurai neighbourhood before turning north in earnest.  It quickly became apparent the care with which Thomas had prepared our route. We rode on quiet roads and paths, through small quiet neighbourhoods and lush green rice fields. There was little traffic and the small climbs of the first day were rewarded with lovely coastal views. Thomas rode with us, leading sometimes, following at others. Several of the group were equipped with GPS devices he had supplied, making route finding easier - although we always seemed to go better with Thomas at the helm weaving our way through the twists and turns. 

Before too long we were greeted by the sight of our support van and the wonderful Mida-san to provide us with refreshments. The day was warm, so the break was welcome. Coastal views and some not too demanding ups and downs followed with a cracking roadhouse lunch of noodles along the way. Our goal for the night was a hundred-year-old Hinagu Onsen Ryokan. This delightful old-style Japanese inn was typical of the lovely places we stayed over the 13 nights of our trip - an absolute delight with crisp cotton yukata gowns awaiting our trip to the spring-fed outdoor onsen where the grime and cares of the days riding were quickly scrubbed and soaked away before a few beers and dinner.

The rhythm of the following days wasngreatly different. We started our mornings with a tasty and varied Japanese breakfast, which always included some form of pickle and miso soup and rice, often accompanied by fish and dried seaweed and other delicacies. Then the road opened before us, through the small plots of rice nearing autumnal harvest and the compact Japanese homes along the way. The drivers we did encounter were almost invariably courteous and gave us plenty of room in passing.

There was some spectacular scenery and some challenging climbs in the surprisingly warm temperatures. My favourite was the ride across the caldera near Mt Aso on narrow farm paths that ran through verdant fields stretching right to the edge of the old crater. Then there was the descents - and we had a few - which wound down roads sometimes scarcely wide enough for a single vehicle, twisting and turning downward seemingly forever, repaying in spades the hard work of the preceding climbs. 

And the climbs? I enjoyed the challenge as the road rose up, often finding myself at the summit before Id expected and ready for the cool run down. The GoPro video camera I had mounted on my handlebars worked overtime capturing some of the long downhill runs through tall bamboo groves and forests and I often found myself at the back of the group with the sag wagon sometimes not too far away because Id stopped and taken too many photos, if there is such a thing as too many photos in a land of such great scenic beauty.

Contrary to what I might have thought at the outset, our little group stuck together quite well on the road. The impetus among the faster riders to speed off into the distance was less than one might have thought and it was generally the case that we were only a few minutes apart at most breaks - a little longer at the end of substantial climbs. One of the great things about cycling is the egalitarian nature of most bunches and we were no eception we whiled away the miles chatting about this and that as one companion or another drew alongside. I spent a bit of time off the back of the bunch too, enjoying the spectacle as it rolled by in quiet solitude. And so the towns of Kyushu passed under our wheels. After Kumamoto and a visit to the castle, we rode into the magnificent caldera of the Mt Aso volcano - although some small eruptions prevented us getting as close to the volcano as we would have liked.

Some more climbing, and some delightful riding on quiet country paths took us to the town of Yufuin, where we were treated to a fantastic meal and once again delightful accommodation. After Yufuin came a generally downhill run with a break for spectacular views before a series of switchbacks deposited us in Beppu, a tourist town of hot springs where we enjoyed a lunch cooked over the steam venting from far below the earth.

Thee only drawback to being on a guided trip is that the caravan must move on. I would have liked to have spent another day or two in Beppu, tourist trap though I suspected it to be, but the ferry trip across to Yawatahama proved to be a nice break to the rhythm followed by an enjoyable climb out of town on a quiet hillside road. 

We were now on the island of Shikoku and stayed the night in the delightful town of Uchiko, where the moon festival was in full swing. Rather than being accommodated just out of the centre of town as we were expecting we were right in the thick of things and we were able to enjoy strolling through the festival and its many attractions and take in a late night visit to the town's rather impressive lying Buddha.

Onward once more, over a couple of 300m climbs before reaching Matsuyama - which is famed for its public baths fed by hot springs. After a warm day in the saddle I was keen to dive in the shower, but was greatly entertained by the stories of those who had ventured across the road and braved the baths. Everyone seemed to have a different tale of how things had gone wrong, from forgotten tickets to forgotten soap or some hilarious breach of etiquette which had them retreating behind a cloud of apologies. The own itself was charming, no less so for the custom of Japanese people frequenting the baths to promenade in their yukata, which we had become quite accustomed to wearing around our accommodation.

After a rest day and a transfer by bus to Tokushima, we took a ferry to Wakayama on Honshu island. There followed a long, but most enjoyable climb - despite the heat - out of town and onward up Mt Koyasan. The final few kilometers were a bit of a push, but we arrived in the cool heights of Koyasan to soak in the astonishing culture of the temple and the monastery where we stayed and delighted in a terrific vegetarian meal. After breakfast the following morning we enjoyed a thrilling descent before a flat ride into the town of Nara, where we fed the delightful deer and stayed in the middle of the town's lovely park. Another highlight.

Our trip was now drawing to a close and while the ride to Kyoto was flat and fast and enjoyable, I was a little sad that we couldn't go on for a few more days at least. We had at least the city tour the following day to take in some of the sites of Japan's ancient capital before a final meal as a group and farewells the following morning.  

It was a magnificent trip, as promised a real taste of Japan - just long enough to feel immersed in the country's gentle and ancient culture, but also short enough to leave me keen to return and again travel by bicycle through this fascinating and alluring destination. Thanks to Thomas for delivering an unforgettable trip, just like he promised.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Cycling Fukuoka.

I'm probably preaching to the converted, but travelling by bike has to be one of the best ways of sightseeing. In a car, things zip by too fast, and walking is a slow and laborious way to get around. We're in Japan for a 12-day cycling tour in the south of the country. I'd allowed a couple of extra days either side so as not to be too rushed and we found ourselves in Fukuoka. Wanting to make the most of our stay I booked us in with the good folk from Fukuoka Bike Tour for a half-day adventure to get the cobwebs out of our legs.

There were only two of us booked on the Saturday morning trip, and we met our guides -Takaya Seri and Makoto Tanaka  outside their office just before 9am. A quick orientation and we were off along the footpaths and back lanes of Fukuoka. 

Cleaning our hands before entering a temple.

What a trip it was. Within a few hundred metres were were visiting a magnificent temple, then another and soon we were at the city's fish markets where we sampled some of the wares including some delicious seaweed from one of the suppliers. I was worried how we would go in the traffic of a crowded Japanese city, but our route wound its way through narrow streets and lanes which we would never have had a chance of finding on our own. 

At the fish markets.
After the fish markets we passed through one of the city's big parks and rode down to the waterfront. Fukuoka has a beautiful seaside area with a lovely promenade and the fresh sea breeze cooled us down as we watched an expert fisherman land Spanish Mackerel one after the other.

After a ride through the docklands, it was time for lunch and we stopped at a very busy ramen restaurant popular with locals. Ordering was via vending machine and people were seated at tables as seats became available. The turnover was frantic. The pork ramen noodles were very tasty, particularly with the addition of ginger and ground sesame seeds. It was an experience we would certainly have missed without our wonderful guides.

Delicious pork ramen noodles.

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the ancient wall build in the 13th century to repel the Mongol invaders. Fukuoka has an amazing history, in part as a trading hub because of its proximity to China and Korea, a proximity which also brought invading hordes. What was also astonishing was how far the waterfront has moved in 700 years. These walls were on the seashore when built, now they are several kilometres inland. 

Remains of the old city wall.
After lunch it was time to head back into town. A final stop at a famous local cake shop topped off a most excellent day. Japan is a great place to ride a bike. My first impressions are of careful and considerate motorists and good facilities for people on two wheels. 
If you find yourself in Fukuoka and have some free time, I can highly recommend this excellent tour.

3500km so far this year.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Keep it simple.

A spring weekend, no need for anything too epic. Good weather and good mates equals good times. We're lucky to have such superb cycling country on our doorstep and there's still plenty more to explore.

On the road looking towards a snow-capped Mt Weld.

Glovers Bluff Lookout.

On the way to the Airwalk.

Hugh takes the safe route on one of the suspension bridges near the airwalk.

In the magnificent tall forests along Edwards Road.

Nearing our destination.

No cars, great scenery, doesn't get any better.

Descending from Glovers Bluff.

Heading down towards the Airwalk.

Video highlights:

3355km so far this year.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Cleaning a bike.

Cleaning a bike is one of those tasks I really don't put much thought into. Generally I give the frame a touch up with a rag once a week or so and lube the chain when needed. A few rainy rides have left the Niner looking more than a little bit muddy and since it was sititng in the back of the car when I visited the car wash today I decided to get my money's worth.

There's a couple of schools of thought on bike cleaning. There's the damp-cloth-wipedown brigade and the 'hose it off' school. I suspect the former is typical of most roadies and the latter of mountain bikers. In this case - a medium dirty bike - 60 seconds with a pressure washer saved me a lot of work.

Whether you're using a garden hose or a pressure washer like the one I used at a commercial car wash it's ok - and often far better - to spray your bike clean when it's caked with mud. There's just a couple of things you'll want to keep in mind.

Firstly, make sure you remove anything that doesn't like getting wet. Erring on the side of caution, this would include most cheap lights and certainly any electronic gear like Garmins or other GPS devices and the like, which will do just fine in a rain shower but might not fare too well if they cop a high pressure blast. If you have a Brooks or other leather saddle, or leather handlebar tape, you will want to make sure that they're covered or otherwise spared. (I have no experience with electronic shifting ensembles, so ask your local bike shop.)

The other tip is that high-pressure water doesn't do the grease in bearings any favours, so don't go directing the spray at hubs or bottom brackets. (If there's a choice, skip the soapier settings.) One easy way of avoiding the most vulnerable areas is to give the most of frame a going over from the sides, keeping away from the hubs and BB shell and finishing the job by doing the hubs and BB areas from the front and rear. The Niner has full-length internal cable housings so I wasn't too worried about getting water in them, which is another potential problem. In most cases it's also best to steer clear of your handlebar tape too if you're planning to ride too soon after the wash because most modern types are nice and spongy and take a while to dry out.

I didn't have anything with me to wipe the bike down today, but fortunately they're pretty robust beasts. I bounced the Niner a couple of times to shake off the excess water. Before I ride tomorrow I'll wipe down the chain and relube it and the pivot points on my dérailleurs and we're good to go again.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Randonneuring in China

Having been to China a few times and done a spot of cycling there, I'm a keen follower of how the sport of randonneuring is developing there. Randonneurs of China have a great Facebook group which Hans Ngo keeps bubbling away. Having organised a small outpost of audax in Australia, it's hard to imaging the challenges of being the front man for a rapidly expanding sport in a nation of more than one billion people. Hans had caught the eye of the mainstream media, theres's a lovely writeup on the club in the California Magazine. Highly recommended. I hope to do a ride there one day.

Sunday, August 02, 2015


I'm having a play with different ways of presenting stories. Here's a little collection of images I've put together of some of my favourite gravel riding photos from the last few years. Most of them have had an outing on this blog, but it's never a bad time for a 'best of' album.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bracken Ridge.

Home through the rain.
Thanks to a lingering cough, which I suspected wasn't going to be helped by a day riding in the rain in near-zero temperatures, I decided to sit this one out. Given I didn't have much else to do I decided to follow the guys along in the car and get some photos.

The first climb out of Glen Huon.
The circuit is a classic loop from Huonville, out towards Judbury then up the steep climb of Bermuda Road. It's a particularly steep pinch to begin with, although it levels out for some temporary relief before heading up again on even rougher roads. Once up the top there's a fire trail down towards the bridge across the Huon River near the Ta Ann veneer mill.

Nearing the top.
I shadowed the group of five who had set out for the ride despite the dire weather forecast, leapfrogging them with my iphone camera for a bit and then with a fancy SLR one of the riders had brought with him - which made my task more fun and his a little lighter.

I had to drive a longer loop around possibly the best bit of the ride, which is the descent of Bracken Ridge. By all accounts it was a bit of a stretch for road bikes in the wet today.

Once over the Huon River Bridge, the return journey is a pretty nice ride most days, with the possible exception of the climb up the back side of Denison Hill. The forecast snow held off and while the temperature was low and it rained intermittently nobody seemed to be complaining too much. Out loud anyhow.

It's not hard to be reminded why we like riding these roads so much and why gravel bikes are enjoying such popularity at the moment. I saw about three cars in 60+ kilometres. We basically had the road to ourselves.

Once Denison Hill is crossed, the finish is in sight. True it's 20km back to Hounville but the worst of the climbs are over, which is a welcome development for tired legs.

After a few more photos shelters by the tailgate of the car, I left the guys in peace to complete the ride. Despite the weather and the mud it looks like everyone had a fun time.

2827km so far this year.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Oppy 2015

It's no secret that the Oppy - properly known as the Fleche Opperman All-Day Trial - is my favourite ride. There's a lot to like about the Oppy, the challenging distance, the night riding, the company of like-minded folk on a most enjoyable jaunt. This year was my sixth Oppy in Victoria, having completed in 2013, 2011, 2009, 2008 and 2007. This year, the Tasmanian contingent in the famed Lancefield Lairs was doubled, with Hugh coming along for the ride as well.

There's always a lot of preparation for this ride for me. These days it involves packing a lot of gear into a bike box, a flight from Hobart to Melbourne and the unpacking and travel at the end. I caught up with Hugh at Melbourne Airport and we bundled our gear into a hire car and set off for Lancefield where Andy kindly fed us and put us up for the night.

The course for this ride is a matter for the each team captain, subject to the rules of covering 360km in 24 hours from 8am Saturday, at least 25 of them in the last two hours. Steve chose a familiar route, up through central Victoria, turning west and ducking briefly into NSW before a night stop and the ride back down to Rochester, with stops every 60 or so kilometres for food and a wee rest. Our team was a strong one, overflowing with Oppy and Audax experience.

The scenery in Victoria is unlike that of Tasmania. For a start, the place is astonishingly flat. We cruised along on the road to Seymour and I marvelled at how little climbing there was. I always argue it's one of the reasons cycling is so popular in the state. 

On we rolled, making reasonable time, despite more than our fair share of punctures and a broken spoke. A brief bout with an upset stomach slowed me down for a bit either side of the lovely town of Dookie, so I lived on gels for a few dozen kilometres and waited for things to sort themselves out, which fortunately they did. Aside from that, I seemed to be travelling pretty well, none of the normal neck pain I get on longer rides, and the contact points of hands, feet and bum were also going ok. 

Nightfall provided a welcome drop in temperature from the 30 degrees of late afternoon. Not long after out pizza stop we donned our reflective vests and sailed off into the setting sun. It's a nice time to be out on the bike.

The wind, which was predicted to be a challenge for us, rose a little in the night - but not so much as to make the riding unpleasant. The stronger riders took the front and the rest of us were content to travel along in their wake. The chatter of earlier in the day died down to almost nothing as the evening wore on, a sure sign we were getting weary. The final 30km into Moama is a favourite of mine, a mixture of very ridable roads and the proximity of a decent rest.

We reached our night stop at the caravan park in the very early hours of Sunday. A 3am arrival and a quick shower meant only a couple of hours sleep before the 6am departure. No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I was out like a light.

The alarm sounded what seemed like a few seconds later. A quick breakfast and we were back on our way, this time into a stiff headwind. Although we had left a few minutes late we seemed to have plenty of time to finish the last 30km even at the slightly-sub 20km/h speeds we were managing.

After the first hour or so, it was apparent we weren't making terrific time. I did some mental calculations but I wasn't overly worried because we'd had tight finishes before. Not far from town we spotted the riders from the Lair's Petite Oppy (180km) team waiting for accompany us to the finish. A few riders stopped and a few of us continued on at a stately pace.

A few minutes down the road the second group was not longer in sight - which seemed a little odd. We continued on and discussed what it might all mean. It didn't make sense they'd all dropped off the pace, it must have been a mechanical problem or a puncture. The clock continued to tick down. With a dozen minutes and less than two kilometres to go, we pulled over to the side of the road. What would this mean for our finishing hopes?

The time ticked by with no sign of our teammates of the last 24 hours and our Petit Oppy comrades. There were murmurs of consternation and debate about what course to take but we waited somewhat confident that they would be along in good time. Then the lights appeared, far down the road and drew towards us, slowly at first and then more quickly. Happily reunited we were on our way once more, the final distance being a bit shorter than we had reckoned. We arrived at the Oppy statue in Rochester with three minutes to spare. 

Another year, another most memorable ride.

1703km so far this year.