Japan Clover Hokkaido 1200

Ride report from Dave Thompson:

The clover Hokkaido 1200 was unique in a number of ways:

  • rushed by flying in on the 13th, check in on the 14th and then riding on the 15th, given the 13 hour time difference from Toronto
  • the predicted weather, rain for three days and then sun… yes, that’s how it was… oh yes, and cold to boot
  • as a ride, 4×300 km out of one location
  • completely foreign culture & food

The trip from Toronto went without a hitch.  The 13 hour flight was followed by sub-2-hours in Tokyo Haneda airport clearing customs and immigration, collecting bags, taking a shuttle to the domestic terminal, going through check-in and bag check and security and boarding the flight to Obihiro on the island of Hokkaido; 1:30 later landing in Obihiro, collecting bags and taking a taxi to our hotel.  I was totally impressed by the efficiency of the Haneda airport operation, in spite of the fact that these were separate flights, not defined as connections.  From noon on the 12th, Toronto-time, we ended up in our Obihiro hotel something like 9pm.  Around 18 hours from leaving Toronto we were a world apart and a day ahead.

There was no time for jet lag.  The next day we were up (Sandy was traveling with me and we met Hamid and Shab at the hotel); I assembled my bike and rode to the ride hotel with Hamid while Sandy and Shab taxied with the bags to the hotel.  Shab stayed there for the duration, working as a volunteer; Sandy had a hotel in Obihiro, did some exploring, visited others at the ride hotel etc.

We had time for lunch and dinner, ride check-in and briefing, sleep and then a 6am start.  The ride briefing was where it finally hit home that the rain was real.  Potential re-routing was discussed in case of road closures.  Heavy rain could produce landslides.  The route didn’t change but the rain came and came and came.

I have to say that the first three days of this ride rank among the most miserable days that I’ve ever spent on a bike.  It was wet and it was cold and it didn’t stop.  Temperatures ranged from 8-12C most of the day; down to 6C at times.  I’ve never, apart from the 2012 BC Rocky Mountain Day one, worn my rain pants for an entire day.  My rain pants got more use over the first three days of this ride than the cumulative use in my entire randonneuring career (if you can call it a career!).  Leg warmers, rain pants, arm warmers, short and long sleeve jersey, heavy jacket, head covering, shower cap … I wished at time that I could cover my face as I was losing a lot of heat from the rain pelting my face.  On day 3, I even wore my heavy wool jersey.  It probably helped but I was constantly on the verge of being too cold.  We stopped at every opportunity for something hot to warm us up — ramen soup, coffee — warmth inside stores was short lived; the soup and coffee only slightly less so.

Day 4 made up for some of this. It was nice to end on a positive note. It started out clear and cool; the temperature dropped to 3C as we moved towards the coast; it then warmed up and finally, finally, I was able to pack away all the extra clothing … sun, glorious sun, how I’d missed you!

The scenery, (ahem … when we could see it), was pleasant but not not remarkable. It’s hard to compare the Hokkaido Island mountains with the Italian Alps. We were never above the tree line.  The coastline was pretty, but so is everywhere else. Rolling farmland is pleasant, some different crops to behold. But… unlike some other rides, it was never boring. There were parts of the Italian ride – endless rice fields, for example – that went on forever. I don’t get as bored with rolling hills, even when it means a long, long time between services.

The roads were reasonable, much better than the lowlands of Italy. Sometimes dodging a crack in the road; a couple of sections where there were annoying rhythmic breaks, but that was the minority. Many kilometers of tunnels, a couple over 5 km, broke the monotony (and the rain!). Those tunnels also cut into the ridewithgps expected climbing, often cutting the tops off those hills. A hundred tunnels? More? I didn’t try to count. There were some long-ish climbs but the grades were never punishing. I don’t remember a grade over 7%.

The services were mostly frequent; well stocked convenience stores with bathroom facilities. Only Day 3, with a pre-warned approximately 100 km with nothing, might have been a problem, but it wasn’t, due to the warning. Besides, I don’t drink much in steady, cold rain. Then again, I don’t eat much from my pockets in steady, cold rain :).

Convenience stores in the area mostly don’t have gas stations attached. 7-Eleven, Saicomart and Lawson are everywhere and many are 24 hour. They all stock Ramen Noodles of many, many varieties and hot water; a selection of sushi-like products and a place to sit. I ate more noodles and rice during those 4 days than I’ve had in many years.

The ride was extremely well organized. It’s certainly easier with the clover format. The menu varied from day to day. Rice was always available, of course; soup, salad items, breakfast items usually included eggs; there was enough protein, but certainly not as emphasized as in North America. Some of the wrapped rice items (in seaweed) were perfect for stowing in your pockets, and we did. Ziplocs helped :). Cheese wasn’t in short supply, rather it was non-existent. Even in the convenience stores, any cheese was more of the processed kind.

There was usually one car with volunteers out on the route, mostly stopped somewhere as opposed to cruising. I expect that they assisted some riders who DNF’d. Speaking of which, the DNF rate was 50% and would have been a little higher had the ride organizer not decided to add a couple of hours to the time limit. 75 riders started; 37 DNF’d. Several took advantage of that extra time.

The 4×300 format was interesting. We finished by 9pm (Hamid perhaps 8pm) on day 1, 9pm, 9:30 pm and got lots of sleep. I think that I got 5 hours sleep the first night, almost the same the second night and 3 hours the final night. The 4×300 format means that you need to leave yourself adequate time to crank out another 300 km that last day without running up against the midnight deadline.

A 2400 km ride started a few days before our 1200 km and finished on the same day, same location.  That ride traced the coastline of Hokkaido.  Their weather would have been somewhat different, as we hit some rain that was localized in the mountains

I rode by myself the first day, as usual, the lanterne rouge for a long time. Hamid and I started the second day together and were sometimes separated and he finished just ahead of me. I opted to stop for 15 minutes about 30 km out as I was getting shaky, needed to warm up, figured that I’d have an accident otherwise. Hamid pressed on and had a silly sideways no speed fall, cracking his handlebars at the right shifter. He did another 600k on that cracked handlebar, but that’s another story …. The third day was togetherness in our miserableness all day long. The forth day was glorious and we finished together, many riders behind us.

We saw whales, yes whales, along the coast on the fourth day. One pair was likely a cow and calf and a loner not long after, all close to shore. That was unique!

I’d like to say that I had fun, as always, on this ride. Randonesia isn’t quite there yet. Give me another month or two to blend the entire experience in Japan together and I’ll probably say that it was fun, a good ride. Vinny from Seattle from loved it. He’s used to rain. I don’t have as much personal insulation. Rain only bothers me in as much as I’m on the verge of being cold and I was in that state far too long on this ride.

The terrain was good, the ride was well organized, the volunteers were helpful, the food was excellent, the format was interesting … and we had a little rain :). Let’s leave it at that.

Sandy and I flew to Tokyo the day after, as did Hamid and Shab.  We spent some time together exploring; some time apart.  They headed back to the US two days before us.  As I type this, we’re on the flight to from Tokyo to Toronto, leaving at 5:40 pm and arriving about an hour before we left, on the same day.  That must be quantum physics at work :).

The Tokyo experiences?  Hot as hell.  35-37C the entire time.  In spite of that we saw a lot, learned how to use the subway system (not as easy as you might think) and departed Japan hoping to come back … perhaps not riding … perhaps not in the heat of the summer.

To put this in perspective, Hokkaido is about the latitude of Toronto; Tokyo around Atlanta, give or take.  Several typhoons were affecting the weather; who knows what it might be like in Hokkaido or Tokyo in a normal year.  What is a normal year anyway?  That seems to be changing!

One more thing – Tokyo has two syllables.  Toke Yoh.  Not Toke Ee Oh.  See, I learned something :).


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