I had quite the little cycling adventure yesterday, venturing into some areas I'd never been, and facing the most heinously-steep road I'd ever seen. The total distance was 191km (118mi), making it my 7th-longest ride ever. This blog post, mostly as a diary for myself, is almost as long.
The distance was no problem, but as it seems with many of my longer rides, lack of time management does me in and I have to kill myself to get back in time for something (in this case Saturday-evening Mass).
The outline of this ride was simple... head down to Iga City, a place I'd never been, because, well, I'd never been there. Then cut across to Nara (which I'd cycled to once, last month), then from there across to Osaka Castle.
By the time I got to Osaka Castle I would have had 140km (87mi) of mountainous riding, but then the return home would be all flat, mostly along nice cycling paths. I've blogged about that 51km (32mi) Osaka-Castle ride a few times, here, here, and here. I thought that even if the ride thus far had tired me out, the flat return taken at my leisure would be no problem. Sigh, if I could only plan better.
Anyway, I knew it would be a long day, so I planned to take it slow and steady.
Cycliq Fly12 — map & image data — nearby photos
relaxing at 47kph (29mph) on National Route 1
I felt a bit cheap as I blew past the cyclist seen in the photo above (a screenshot from my bike's front video camera) as I was drafting the truck. I was far enough back that I could easily react safely to anything the truck did, but close enough that the draft effect was huge. Even at 40~50kph, I kept having to use my brakes to maintain the safety buffer.
The big danger to drafting a truck like this is a danger shared by motorcycles: traffic can't see you behind the truck as you approach them, so someone in a rush wanting to pull across your lane the moment the truck passes could hit you. This wasn't a concern this morning because it was rush hour, and there was an SUV right behind me the whole time. (Maybe it was drafting me! 😉 )
So, despite taking the initial steep descent easy, half of this 6km (3.6mi) segment was drafting, so I set a PR by a minute and a half. (I'd feel bad about the drafting if this were a hotly-contested segment on a different kind of road, but drafting is always inviting on this section of the road, and the segment is not at all hotly contested because it didn't exist until I made it a few minutes ago.)
Soon I was in the mountains. It was cold.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/160 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
8:40am - taken while cycling at 22 kph (14 mph)
It was about 4℃/39℉ when I left, and only got colder as I went. It was also misty/rainy.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/2.2, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
8:40am - taken while cycling at 19 kph (12 mph)
I don't have many photos from the early part of the ride because I didn't want to stop to take them. (What I do have was taken on the fly.) Early in the ride while exiting Kyoto, I realized that I had not had to stop since pulling away from home. Normally in the city you'll get caught by a red light or something, but for whatever reason had gotten lucky so far, so I wondered whether I could make it to the castle in Iga City without stopping.
Getting through Otsu (where I was drafting the truck) required some creative on-the-fly re-routes to avoid red lights, but once I got through that it was mostly rural mountain road the rest of the way.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/1600 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
a misty sleet started just after
8:56am - taken while cycling at 20 kph (13 mph)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/4.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
8:59am - taken while cycling at 27 kph (17 mph)
The first 50km of the ride were more or less a mild uphill, culminating at Otoki Pass (御斎峠), after which the road pitches down into a 7% descent for 3.6km. This looked like the kind of descent that I would love, and in planning the ride I thought I might KOM it (“King of the Mountain” — register its fastest time), but I abandoned that idea when I lost feeling in my fingers. It was freezing (literally, the temperature was 0℃) and he roads were wet. Not my cup of tea. I went very slowly.
I would love to try the descent again when it's warm and dry. Or at least warm. My fingers were killing me.
From there I had to work my way through the city to the castle:
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
There were a few folks walking around, and one stall selling something that looked warm and tasty. But the ambiance was destroyed by a loudspeaker playing some kind of “welcome to this super lovely place that you should think is super lovely” kind of audio, on a loop. For having a culture with such a deep sense of beauty, Japanese sure know how to destroy it.
Anyway, I was pleased to have made the 62km trip completely nonstop, the wheels of the bike never stopping between when I pulled away from home to when I stopped to take the photos above. I'm geeky that way, to find pleasure in essentially-meaningless “achievements” rooted mostly in luck. My greatest such achievement was doing ⅔ of a loop around Lake Biwa — 125km (78mi) — nonstop, on this ride.
Now that I could feel free to stop, I next did so at a convenience store for a cup of coffee and some lunch (a chicken breast and a junky sweet bread). Then it was off to the city of Nara.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 46mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.2, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
it seems that Nara has some set cycling routes that this was part of
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
beginning of one of the day's climbs
I was happy to start climbing again, to generate some heat, as my fingers and toes were in the midst of a competition to see who could feel colder. I had thick winter socks, thick neoprene toe covers, then my shoes, and then thick fleece covers over those, but still my toes were killing me. I need heated socks, or something.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 26mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.2, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
The running-kid signboard is a common sight along roads in Japan, reminding (imploring) drivers to go slow for the safety of children. This one looks to be commercially made, but the home-made ones can be quite quaint.
Behind it is something that looks decidedly from another era...
This one shows a police officer and a child with a grotesquely large arm. (Children in Japan are taught to raise one arm above their head when they cross the road, to make themselve more visible.)
Below the people there's a slot... perhaps it's also a trash can? Below that, barely visible, are molded letters saying “Look Right, Look Left”, and below that is an advertisement for “Crazy Motor Works Mikai”.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 32mm — 1/125 sec, f/2.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Between the cities of Iga and Nara are some mountains that I would be crossing at Mima Pass (水間峠). At the pass there's 830m (half a mile) tunnel, or intead one could take the original road up and over that the tunnel bypasses. Along that short stretch of originally road is essentially nothing except one small garage-like building.
The above photo represents a situation I see often, but don't fully understand. Someone clearly intends to block off the road, but two of the three signs say “the road farther ahead is closed to traffic”. (The third sign is about fire safety.) I can understand putting a sign here to warn of a dead end, but why put the barriers here if the road is not closed here?
Secondly, these are put up by the local neighbored association. Do they have the right to take exclusive control of a public road? This is “Nara Prefectural Route 80”, not “Mima Village Private Drive”. And it's not like a small village is trying to prevent through traffic from destroying their ambiance. There is nothing along this stretch of road except for one garage-like building, and at one point access to a farmer's tea field. Why does someone care about blocking traffic on this road?
Finally, what does the sign really mean? The thing being prohibited is “通行”, normally translated as “passage through” or simply “traffic”. Depending on context, this word can apply to all forms of transportation, including pedestrians. It's used on the sign in the cycling “Keep Left” photo above, there meaning simply “travel/movement”. When this word is used on a sign to mark a one-way road, it also applies to bicycles, but not to pedestrians.
In this specific context, I think it refers only to motor vehicles. I don't know why they would want to prohibit motor vehicles on this public road, so I can't really justify why I think they don't mind bicycles and pedestrians, except that they didn't use the completely unambiguous and common “No Entry!” (立入禁止). Had they used that I would not have taken the road less traveled, but they didn't, so I did.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/2, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
on the entire road
(with enough fire wood to last years)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/1.7, ISO 320 — map & image data — nearby photos
Mima Pass (水間峠)
12:00pm - taken while cycling at 10 kph (7 mph)
The bypass road exited the forest and joined to the main road for what would have been a lovely descent except for the screaming headwind on this side of the mountains. It would be with me for much of the rest of the day.
I made my way into Nara, to have lunch at “Manma-tei”, a curry place run by a cycling family, famous among cyclists. I'd met the owner when we were both extras in a cycling-related movie last month, and visited soon after when Manseki brought me on my first trip to Nara.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/200 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
at a closed “Manma-tei” (まんま亭)
It's apparently normally a mad house on a Saturday, but today they were closed for unknown reasons. Not long after I arrived, this couple showed up having ridden from Kobe and seemed to be positively shocked to find it closed. The first thing out of the guy's mouth would be literally translated as “lie!”, but with his tone of voice, the more culturally-realistic translation is closer to “no $&@#ing way!”. They spent several minutes just exchanging such comments between themselves as they tried to come to grip with the reality that they'd have to make different plans.
In the short time before I left, three other cyclists showed up. I guess I'm not the only one to have not checked the web site. Oh well. I had plenty with me. I gave the couple above some tasty sweet-potato bean-paste energy gunk snacks, ate some myself, and headed off to Osaka by way of Nara Park...
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 46mm — 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
can't even be bothered to use the crosswalk
Nara Park (奈良公園)
12:46pm - taken while cycling at 17 kph (11 mph)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/160 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
much more so than this time I visited
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 70mm — 1/125 sec, f/4.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
with the selfie-taking girl
I wanted to get some deer poop (chocolate-covered peanuts labeled as “deer poop”) for Anthony, but forgot. )-:
Passing by Nara Station, I paused for a bit to watch a drum/dance performance.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 65mm — 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
to the famous Shima Uta (listen)
I knew the road from Nara to Osaka would bring me over a really really steep climb, and I was both looking forward to adding that notch to my belt, and also somewhat scared of it.
It was very tough and very steep, but at one point I thought it wasn't so bad, until I finished and realized that I hadn't even reached that climb yet... I was on a nameless different climb with an average grade of “only” 14%, and for only 600m.
I wasn't sure what to expect for the real climb until I descended out of the forest and saw this across the valley:
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
I didn't shield the lens well from the sun, so the photos are all washed out, but across the little valley was another mountain with roads that looked like they went more or less straight up:
As I said, the photos perhaps don't show it well, but this scene struck terror in me. I posted a blurry iPhone version of this photo to the Cycling Kyoto! group on Facebook, with a caption “Shit's About to Get Real”. It's an impressive, imposing sight.
The road through the rice fields right of center is the one that stands out the most at first glance, but that's not The Climb, that's a shorter climb that I would not do this time, but that's now on my list to do sometime.
The climb I would do is more than twice as long, tracing the fold in the mountain that runs up the center of the photo. It's the eastern ascent to Kuragari Pass. I had somehow heard of this place and its ridiculous climb, so it had been on my list to visit.
Before starting that climb I had to finish the descent from the little bump I had done. This part of town had a lot of “doughnut streets”...
New streets beyond a certain grade have to have some kind of anti-slip feature, such as grooves or, commonly, these ring-shaped indentations. Lots of streets in this area had them.
I didn't know the details at the time, but The Climb I was apprehensive about turns out to be 2.9 km (1.8 miles) at an average grade of only 11%. This is a very steep average over such a long distance, but comparable to some climbs closer to home, such as this. Had I known the details I wouldn't have been so apprehensive, and it turns out that I had no trouble with it. I took it easy and slow.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 25mm — 1/200 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
source of the smoke seen in the “Washed Out” photo above
2:11pm - taken while cycling at 7 kph (5 mph)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/1600 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
with an over-the-shoulder shot
2:13pm - taken while cycling at 6 kph (4 mph)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/800 sec, f/7.1, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
a few minutes later
2:19pm - taken while cycling at 7 kph (5 mph)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 35mm — 1/125 sec, f/2.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Kuragari Pass (暗峠)
The rock has the name of the pass engraved on it. I've seen photo of cyclists posing in front of it, so I know I've heard about this area before. The climb wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
from a scenic toll road that passes by
with the road I took emerging from a tunnel at the bottom
I had crossed over all the mountains seen in the photo above, since Iga City is beyond it all. The strip of mountains in the center of the photo is where the “false climb” was. Toward the right, at the foot of that strip of mountains, is a big water tower with two electric towers behind it. The “Washed Out” photo was taken from just in front of those towers.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
a short (60m) section at the top was almost unridable
So, it was time to head down toward Osaka and home, but I thought since I was in the area, I may as well turn around at the bottom and do the climb from the other side as well, just to get them both checked off my list.
Now, before I go on, I have to stress that I like to test myself on steep roads. Really really steep. It perhaps started with the short 21% “Nasty”, and the 32% section here. I often go out looking for new, disgustingly-steep roads, such as I did the other day, or here, and many other rides. I look for the steepest I can find, and ride it. Maybe slowly, but I ride it.
All that being said, nothing prepared me for the horror of this descent. After leaving the pass the road slopes down briskly for a short while, then pitches down like a “death drop” slide at a water park, and just keeps plummeting down. This descent is unrelenting, averaging 18% over 2.1km (1.4mi).
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 65mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
as the road plunges back into darkness in the far background
What horrified me about this descent was not the descent, but thinking of it as an ascent. Had the road been wet the descent certainly would have been horrifying (like the one described here), but as a climb this road felt unreal.
There were multiple sections where the grade exceeded 30% for more than 50m. Any one such section buried in a mild section of road somewhere would turn that climb into a local monster, but these were tied together by 20% and 25% sections. The middle 1.1km of this climb averages 21%, bookmarked by “milder” sections that themselves would be considered beyond extreme to many cyclists.
I'd never seen such unrelenting steepness before, and the thought of climbing it scared the hell out of me. The unrelenting steepness over such a distance made it feel an order of magnitude worse than anything I had ever attempted. 10 times worse.
I felt mentally scarred and paralyzed by the thought of it, but forced myself to turn around at the bottom and head back up.
It was worse than I thought. I simply couldn't do it. I had to stop and rest, and did so for a couple of minutes. But then the problem was how to get started again... it's not easy to clip the shoes back into the pedals on such a steep grade, but with trouble after a few tries I could do it and continue up.
But it didn't last long. It was just too much for me. For the first time ever in my cycling life, a climb was too difficult for me to even finish. I gave up.
It turns out that I got almost half way before failure engulfed me.
Feeling utterly defeated, I headed back down and then plodded across the vast urban expanse of Eastern Osaka.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 75mm — 1/125 sec, f/5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Osaka Castle (大阪城)
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 41mm — 1/125 sec, f/4, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
The headwinds and the extra attempt to climb the mountain had put me an hour behind schedule, and I had two hours to make what I had planned to be a relaxing three-hour ride home.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 44mm — 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
Kyoto is 50km ahead, with what looks like rain
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 26mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.5, ISO 200 — map & image data — nearby photos
4:20pm - taken while cycling at 23 kph (14 mph)
The wind was strong from my 10 o'clock, but at least not gusty. I should have been able to average 30kph (19mph), but it kept me down to about 25kph (15mph), further putting me behind schedule. The need to rush made this the worst, most-punishing part of the ride.
Panasonic LX100 at an effective 24mm — 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 3200 — map & image data — nearby photos
I got home just before 6:30, threw on some clean clothes that I hoped would mask the smell my body had been cultivating all day, and made it to Mass not all too late. I tried not to sit close to anyone.