Sri Lanka Cycle Tour 2020

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Sri Lanka

I had been thinking about visiting Sri Lanka for many, many years but somehow other places kept getting in the way. In 2018, my friend John and I had considered Sri Lanka but ended up cycling in Laos. For this year’s trip, we were hoping to go to South America, but with long flights and long layovers to get to Chile or Argentina, we turned our attention once more to Sri Lanka. With John living in Switzerland and me in Japan, Sri Lanka is somewhere in the middle. It is also just the right size for a short tour: 500 km from north to south and 300 kilometres from west to east. It seemed to satisfy most of our criteria for a cycle trip – good weather in our winter, varied geography, interesting culture, vegetarian food (for me), and hopefully some quiet roads. The last point is the most important; there is nothing worse than riding for long periods on roads choked with cars and trucks and buses. It was also the thing we were most worried about having endured heavy traffic on previous cycle tours, but fortunately for not too long. I spent hours poring over Google Maps and Street View trying to work out the amount of traffic on possible routes. What would Sri Lanka actually be like?

Sunday, Feb 16 – Negombo

I flew Sri Lankan Airlines which had the advantage of being relatively cheap and a direct flight. Everything else about the flight, from the one-hour wait on the runway, through the awful food, to the malfunctioning entertainment system, was best forgotten. Things perked up in Colombo International Airport where I glided effortlessly through immigration with my online ETA visa, found my bags on the conveyor belt, walked through customs, and exchanged some Japanese yen for Sri Lankan rupees. My hotel pick-up was not there, so I got a SIM card from the Airtel booth, which immediately worked, unlike in Laos and India. As I walked away from the booth, my taxi driver rushed up and guided me to his car. We arrived thirty minutes later at the charming Icebear Guest House, right on the beach in Negombo. It was the most expensive place of the whole trip, but the fantastic garden alone made it worth it.

pvtj9145Garden of Icebear Guest House

John and I hadn’t met since the Laos trip two years previously. We exchanged news over a pretty poor dinner of fish curry (a few chunks of tasteless fish in a nondescript brown sauce) and a tiny portion of rice. Surely we hadn’t arrived in a period of rice rationing. This didn’t bode well for the rest of the trip when we’d be burning several thousand calories a day. We discussed our plans for the tour as we had arrived without a clear route in mind. Although we would have liked to ride all the way north to Jaffna, it didn’t look like we would have time to also visit the south coast which we really wanted to visit. As Negombo is 20 kilometres north of Colombo, we decided to head out north along the coast and see where the road took us.

[Click here for full gear list]

Monday, Feb 17 – Negombo to Puttalam 120 km

dsc09447Setting off from the Icebear Guest House

I got up at 4 a.m. and put my bike together in my room. Breakfast was at 7:30 a.m. and was a little better than the previous evening’s fare – scrambled egg, white toast & marmalade – but similarly overpriced. I finished getting my gear together and we set off north along the coast at 10 a.m. Within minutes we had to stop to replace a nut and bolt that had worked loose on my pannier hangers – it turns out Ortlieb uses plastic nuts on these crucial fixings.

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Then we were off again along the busy A3 as far as Nainamadana from where we managed to find quieter roads that wound up the coast. It was fantastic riding on small roads that ran through an endless string of fishing villages. We passed teams of men on the beach hauling in nets, and crowds of people haggling over the haul. Alongside the road, families were selling their catch laid out on plastic sheets. The smell of fish was everywhere.

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From time to time, the line of modest houses and fishing shacks was suddenly broken by luxurious resorts and clusters of tourist restaurants with signs in English and Russian. Large, pale tourists lolloped on loungers hiding from the sun beneath parasols. It was all very incongruous.

DSC09469Deduru Oya River, Chilaw

We pedalled on and on. At Chilaw, we turned inland as our way was blocked by the Deduru Oya river estuary. We found a cheap restaurant called Madras Cafe where we had our first of many rice & curry lunch buffets. We filled up on dal and several vegetable curries before returning to the blistering mid-afternoon heat and mounting headwinds. We had little choice but to take the A3 for nearly an hour to Battaluluoya. It was busy but not too bad as everyone gave us plenty of room. After 15 kilometres of dogged riding we were able to return to small roads along the coast.

A DSC_0099Coast road north-west of Battaluluoya

The roads might have been quiet, but the riding was no longer easy. At times, the asphalt gave way to sandy tracks, and the headwind was draining us of energy. We were getting ready to call it a day, but every hotel we phoned was full or not answering. We rode on, time moved on, the road got worse, the wind picked up; we needed a hotel. We finally gave up on the coast road, which was now loose sand, and doubled back inland to look for a better road. It was turning into one of those days. The sun started to go down, so we dug our lights out of the bottom of panniers. This was turning into quite a first day.

DSC09472Wetlands cover most of the region

For the next hour, we put our heads down and time-trialled into the wind. At least it was good training. We finally reached Puttalam Lagoon and turned left towards the first resort on Google Maps. We arrived four kilometres later to discover that it was closed. We could have looked for more resorts in the area but decided to return the way we’d come and then ride another 20 km to Puttalam which would surely have plenty of hotels. It felt like a long ride in the dark on a busy road into the wind.

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At last we arrived in Puttalam but still spent 30 minutes riding around looking for a hotel. The Airtel 3G was very patchy, Google slow to load, and the first two hotels marked on the map did not exist. At last, we spotted a sign to “Rest House” and followed it to a very welcome and welcoming government run guest house. It was in a sprawling colonial-era building with spacious rooms and large covered verandas typical of South Asia. We were shown to a large, basic room with three very short beds. It was paradise. Fortunately, there was a restaurant, but we seriously over-ordered: we received enough fried rice and fried noodles for a full team of cyclists. I was too tired to eat even half of mine.

DSC09476Puttalam Rest House

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Tuesday, Feb 18 – Puttalam to Anuradhapura 78 km

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In the morning, we had fried egg and singed bread for breakfast. It was a meal we would get used to over the coming days and weeks. Our bill came to 5,500/- for the room and 6,800/- for the food and drinks. It seemed expensive but it would be typical for the trip. We learnt from the guest house that the road we had intended to take north from Puttalam though Wilpattu National Park was closed. This is the direct road to Jaffna, so we would have to make a new plan. We decided to head north-east to Anuradhapura. The only problem is there’s only one road, the A12, through Sri Lanka’s wetlands; all the smaller roads end at lakes and rivers. The good news was that the road was fairly wide with a shoulder to ride on and not too much traffic. The bad news was the wind was strong and straight into our faces. As we passed by the numerous lakes, we were almost blown backwards. It was only 79 km but we had to earn every one of them.

DSC09489My bike

A DSC_0154On the A12

We stopped for lunch at a tiny roadside place. The mother and daughter running it had little English between them but seemed delighted by our visit. They had half a dozen clay pots with various curries; we had dal and rice. We sat down at a table covered with flies, but curiously most of them dispersed as we started eating. I am not sure it boded well for the quality of the food. Even more curiously, they had no fridge, so I had a warm ginger beer. Cold curry, warm drink, hot room – it was still good to be out of the sun and not pedalling against the headwind.

DSC09498The wetlands

We arrived in Puttalam and soon found our hotel, the Milano Rest House, which is very nice. It is down a quiet, residential street, and has a shaded veranda and leafy garden with tables and chairs. We chose a spotless family room with two huge beds for just 5,000/-. Many hotels have family rooms which are a great deal for two travellers.

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As we had had a short day in the saddle, there was still plenty of time for sightseeing. We cycled to a Buddhist temple, Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya, next to Thissa Wewa “tank”, one of many reservoirs around the city. The temple is built on and around a small rock outcrop which you can climb up.

DSC09523Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya

We then rode to the adjacent Ranmasu Uyana Royal Park which was free to enter. We had it completely to ourselves, so we took pictures of the somewhat dilapidated water gardens and statues which were home to numerous small monkeys, and if you believe the “Beware of Crocodiles” signs, some rather larger creatures. We cycled through the gardens and up on to the path around the reservoir in time for a beautiful sunset. This brief sightseeing had whetted our appetites, so we decided to stay another day in Anuradhapura. It would give our burgeoning saddle sores a chance to recover.

DSC09537Elephant carvings in Ranmasu Uyana Royal Park

DSC09548Thissa Wewa

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Wednesday, Feb 19 – sightseeing around Anuradhapura

DSC09567Jethawana Museum Gardens

We spent the day cycling around the numerous World Heritage Sites of the ancient city. The sites are spread out away from the city, so we spent much of the day riding on quiet, leafy lanes and walking around beautiful ancient monuments. It is fine way to spend a day. First, we had to visit the Jethawana Museum to buy $25 combined tickets for the main sites. It was expensive but well worth it. The museum was closed for renovations, but we were surprised to learn we could ride through the tranquil grounds around Jethawanaramaya Dagoba, an impressive red-brick stupa. We pedalled along ochre dirt paths beneath spreading banyans with views of ancient ponds and stone ruins.

DSC09608Abhayagiri Dagoba

We headed north to the Twin Ponds and then around the various sites of Abhayagiri Monastery, including the huge dagoba. Apart from the dagoba, there are no particularly impressive single sites, but it is pleasant just to ride amongst the trees and ruins. We stopped at a stall for ginger tea, delicious vegetable roti, and milk drunk straight from a king coconut.

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Next we visited Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, but it was getting too hot to be out in the sun. We rode back across town to the Lakeside Hotel, recommended by Lonely Planet, but only able to serve an overpriced but undersized fish on rice. We then got pestered to pay the bill; there seems to be an inverse relation between the strength of the recommendation in LP and the quality of the experience.

DSC09624Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

After lunch, we went to another dagoba, Ruwanweli Maha Seya, where we skipped barefoot across the burning stone floor from one coir mat to the next. At all the main Buddhist sites we had to remove sandals and hats, which is not ideal in the baking sun. We finished off at Sri Maha Bodhi which is a cutting from the tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. It was touching to see people picking up bundles of leaves from the ground as mementos.

DSC09632Lotus flowers

We returned to the Milano GH to relax in the garden and drink gallons of tea while planning our next couple of days. The hotel manager recommended we visit another important Buddhist site, Tantirimalai Rajamaha Viharaya, which offered us a circuitous route on quieter roads to our next destination, Vavuniya.

[Photo Album]

Thursday, Feb 20 – Anuradhapura to Vavuniya, via Tantirimalai 88 km

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We got this day just right. Instead of following the direct route to Vavuniya, we concentrated on finding the best roads for cycling. We had a 7 a.m. breakfast and headed out through the mad rush of central Anuradhapura. The traffic quickly quietened down as we skirted Thissa Wewa reservoir and then turned off on a minor road towards Tantirimalai. We were heading north-west so the wind was for once not in our faces, and we could enjoy pootling along quiet roads through the beautiful landscape of shallow ponds covered in lilies and lotus flowers, vivid-green rice fields, and swaying palm trees.

dsc09712Exchanging contact details on the road

And the people! Are Sri Lankans the friendliest people in the world? Those who didn’t shout “Hi!” or “Good morning” would at least smile or wave. Greeting people was becoming a big part of our day. There are a lot of people along the way and we greeted almost every one of them. At times, motorcyclists pulled alongside us for a chat before pulling away. The conversation always involves, “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?”, and “How long are you in Sri Lanka?” Many people would ask, “What do you think of Sri Lanka?” It was an easy question to answer…much easier than question two, as we could rarely remember or pronounce the names of the places we were heading towards.

dsc09667Flower-carpeted wetlands

dsc09707John and his drone

Although there is no clear road to Tantirimalai on the Michelin map, the route was clearly signposted. With little traffic and a smooth asphalt surface, it was fine riding. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we cycled right through Tantirimalai before we realised we had arrived. The monastery was back in the centre of the tiny village behind a new wall that looked more like an upscale resort than an ancient monastery. We cycled in and parked our bikes by the small museum at the entrance to the main site. There is always the quandary of what to do with luggage when visiting somewhere while cycle touring. We decided to leave the panniers on the bikes, lock them together, take our bar bags, and hope for the best. Later we were told that theft is unusual in Sri Lanka as the punishments are so harsh. It is hard to know how true this is, but it feels like a really safe country.

dsc09688Reclining Buddha, Tantirimalai 

Tantirimalai is a lovely place for a short visit. Dome like rocks topped with shrines rise out of shallow ponds. There is a small, pure-white dagoba, an ancient reclining Buddha, and splendid views across the tree-covered plains below.

dsc09698Tantirimalai Dagoba

There is not much to do in the village itself, so we continued along the road in search of somewhere to eat. We soon found a basic restaurant with a covered eating area and a small shop. The whole extended family was working there – such a different life from the modern nuclear family. Judging by their constant talk and laughter, we in the West have lost at least something. We had the usual dal, vegetable curry, and rice, on a plate wrapped in a plastic bag. For some reason, many of the places we ate served food in this way; is it to save on washing up? Is it considered more hygienic?

a-dsc_0397Lunch stop

After lunch, we cycled to the main A14, turned right, passed through our first army checkpoint, and then left on to a minor road two kilometres later. Here we hit our first poor surface – a bumpy and very uncomfortable patchwork of endlessly repaired asphalt which jolted and jarred us mercilessly. Where possible, we cycled along the gravel verges which were much easier on us. At least the road was very quiet until we reached the A30 which took us the last few kilometres into Vavuniya. We tried several “hotels” marked on Google Maps, none of which existed, before choosing a hotel recommended in the guidebook called Nelly Star. It is a big place with a huge event room, a bar, and a dubious-looking pool.

a-dsc_0448Buying glue with the help of Google Translate

It was mid-afternoon, so we wandered around the busy town centre where I bought some contact adhesive (“multi-bond”) to repair the pockets which had fallen off my bar bag. Ortlieb is no longer the reliable bag maker it once was. We then ate at the Madras Indian restaurant which is close to the hotel back on the main A9. There we had pretty good Indian food including my beloved alu mattar. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had in Sri Lanka. Once more we discussed whether to ride to Jaffna, and once more we put the decision off. We would decide on the road.

dsc09694Seated Buddha, Tantirimalai

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Friday, Feb 21 –  Vavuniya to Jaffna 160 km

This was a long, long day. At 160 km, it was the furthest I had ever ridden on a touring bike, with all but 40 km into a strong headwind. Towards the end of the day, we had a few rain showers, culminating in two torrential downpours as we approached Jaffna. Much of the day was on A roads, not so busy as to be irksome, but busy enough that we had to stay alert the whole time. As much as I like cycling, I don’t want to have too many more days in the saddle like this.

The first 45 km were north on the A9 which is busy but has a shoulder to ride on. At Pullyankulam, we reached a fork in the road and a decision had to be made. To the right, the B296 ran north-east towards Mullaitivu, and straight on the A9 continued north-west towards Jaffna. The road to Jaffna was busy with traffic, the scenery was unvarying, and the headwind brutal. But at the end of it lay Jaffna which somewhere along the way had become an essential place to visit. We continued north.

dsc09724The B269 to Vellankulam

At Mankulam, we stopped for a cold drink at a spartan roadside café which turned out to be run by the army. There are many such places in the north. We then passed through a checkpoint where bus passengers were lined up with their luggage waiting to be searched. We were waved through with a smile. We then turned left on the B269 which heads west to Vellankulam near the coast. For 42 km we cycled on a smooth, deserted road pushed along by the wind at over 30 km/h – a blissful break from the gruelling grind into the wind.

dsc09726Brief lunch break

The A32 which runs along the coast to Jaffna was a bit disappointing. There was more traffic than we had hoped, the headwind was even stronger, and there were no hotels. We kept looking out for a hotel, but there was nothing all the way to Jaffna. We stopped for lunch at a cluster of shops around a noisy Hindu temple just north of Vellankulam. We had a quick, joyless rice and curry and then went back out into the heat to tackle the 63 km left to ride to Jaffna. We took turns at the front, down in the drops, once more grinding into the wind. This is the toughest kind of riding. Usually, you can shift your riding position and relieve your body as the road goes up and down, or just freewheel for a few moments on the flat. Riding into a headwind on a flat road, especially loaded up with panniers, forces you to stay in exactly the same position, pushing constantly on the pedals…hour after hour after hour.

There is no shoulder on the A32, and in places the asphalt is breaking up, so we had to stay focussed the whole time. Two-and-a-half hours later we arrived at the causeway across the Jaffna Lagoon. On another day, we would have stopped to take in the spectacular vista of seabirds wading through the vast expanse of shallow water and sand flats, but we had to push hard to keep moving into the now fierce wind. Showers rolled in off the huge lagoon which forced us to wear rain jackets despite the heat.

dsc09731Causeway across Jaffna Lagoon

We reached the Jaffna Peninsula and gradually turned away from the wind. Just as it looked like we would arrive in Jaffna before dark, the heavens opened and we took shelter at a bus stand squashed together with several drenched people. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, and we managed to get all the way to Jaffna before we were forced to find shelter again from a stupendous downpour. I opened Google Maps and found the Old Park Hotel was just 350 metres away. As the rain eased a little, we made a dash for the hotel, and arrived as the rain strengthened once more. At 6000/- for a twin, it was more expensive than we had been paying, and there was something off-putting about the manager, but we didn’t want to go back out into the rain. The power went off, and we decided to stay.

The hotel itself definitely has charm. It is in an old house with a simple, beautifully furnished living and dining area. The young manager, however, was something different. He was over-attentive and obsequious in a Basil Fawlty way and shared much of his incompetence. I was shown to one room which was attached directly to the dining room. I asked to see other rooms but was told they are all the same. They aren’t. I insisted on a larger, quieter room at the back, which we were reluctantly told was available. As we started to bring in our luggage, we were told it had just sprung a leak. We reluctantly took the other room. I got ready for a shower but found it hadn’t been cleaned and the toilet showed rather unpleasant evidence of recent heavy use!

dsc09735Waiting for dinner at the Old Park Hotel  

On arrival, I had asked about dinner, and the manager told us they had a restaurant. After showering, we were told that they do indeed have a restaurant, but it was not open. Staying calm was starting to be a challenge. It was raining outside, we had ridden 160 km into the wind, and we were very hungry. After much umming and erring, they agreed to send out for food. An hour-and-a-half later, we were still waiting in the living room, which was at least a beautiful place to wait. It turned out that they had made rice and dal in the kitchen but were waiting for vegetable curry to be delivered. We asked if we could just have dal and rice. “Please wait!” We waited and waited, but finally hunger stripped away our last vestiges of patience. We demanded dal! As we ate the admittedly tasty pulses, the curry finally arrived and we could recover some of the day’s lost calories.

Several long days in the saddle had led to both of us getting saddle sores. I also had a rash and blisters on my thighs. I had never suffered this before despite all the riding I do, but it was obvious it needed treating. We decided to spend the next day in Jaffna.

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Saturday, Feb 22 – Around Jaffna Islands 55 km

dsc09857The Jaffna Islands are linked by causeways

Our troubles with the Old Park Villa continued in the morning. After ordering toast and omelette for breakfast, our obsequious host served up dal and rice. We asked for toast and omelette, but suddenly he no longer spoke English and just pointed at the dal and rice. We’d had enough. We checked out. We moved on to the nearby Sarras Guest House which is a lovely place. Looking back, the Old Park Villa was the only minor hiccup on the whole trip. And let’s face it, a dirty toilet, a late dinner, and the wrong breakfast is not exactly a major problem. But after pushing our bodies hard, we just wanted to relax and recuperate.

dsc09757Velanai Island

dsc09742Jaffna Lagoon

We had a whole day ahead of us, so we left our panniers at the Sarras GH and went in search of breakfast. We ate savoury vegetable pasty rolls and super-sweet Nescafe at nearby Dora Café, and then headed for Jaffna Fort. John did a quick tour of the fort, while I sat beneath a tree overlooking the lagoon. Next, we headed across a long causeway to Velanai Island with its mangrove lagoons and tranquil fishing villages. We visited a beach where fishermen were repairing nets, and cycled down narrow lanes to Chaaty Beach where busloads of Sri Lankan tourists were bathing, the women in their saris. After a rice and curry lunch at a scruffy place called Api Hotel in Velanai, it dawned on me that all the places called “Hotel” are actually restaurants, not guest houses. We took the almost deserted B441 to Kayts where we would catch the ferry across to the next island. Along the way, we were joined by two lads on a bicycle, one sitting on the saddle, the other on the rear rack, but both with their feet on the pedals!

a-dsc_0582Kayts to Karaitvu by fishing boat

There was a 75-minute wait for the next ferry, so John successfully persuaded some fishermen to take us across the lagoon for 1000/-. The next island, Karaitvu, was even quieter, apart from a large flock of green parakeets. We returned to the peninsula by a windswept causeway which passed over a shallow lagoon with fishing huts balanced on posts, nets strung between bamboo poles, and numerous wading birds. I saw my first flamingo.

dsc09780Velanai Island

The last 15 km to Jaffna is on the very bumpy AB15; our poor saddle sores. In Jaffna, we stumbled upon the Malayan Café which is an atmospheric, traditional place where they ladle out huge plates of dal from a stainless steel bucket. We had tea and hard, super-sweet cakes. Super-sweet was becoming a theme. Next we went to a very helpful pharmacy where John bought expensive sunblock, and I bought calamine cream whose smell took me back to my childhood. The calamine worked wonders on my sores and rashes.

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We returned to the Sarras GH to find that we had been given a free upgrade to a beautiful room with high rafters, wood floors, and a fancy marble bathroom. I went to a tiny barbershop opposite the old park for a shave, haircut (don’t laugh), and head massage. There is nothing better than the luxury of a proper shave with a cut-throat razor followed by a head pounding. A delightful luxury for 500/-.

For dinner, we cycled a couple of kilometres to the excellent Mangos Restaurant where I ate my first kotthu, a bowl of chopped up roti mixed with roasted cashews, paneer, vegetables, and spices. It was a new food for me and absolutely delicious. I risked a banana lassi which was, of course, delectable.

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Sunday, Feb 23 –  Jaffna to Mullaittivu 144.83 km

dsc09821Leaving Sarras Guest House

Another long, tough day with mostly head and swirling sidewinds, a lot of it on bumpy roads, especially around the northern Jaffna Peninsula. We hadn’t quite realised how far it was to Mullaittivu, especially as we took in the northern coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. This detour, however, was well worth it, as the coast is interesting with lots of fishing villages linked by a quiet road that runs along by the sea.

We started off at 8:00 a.m. from the Sarras GH after an insubstantial, reluctantly-provided early breakfast. We headed north-east on the AB20 and then took the B33 north to Valalai. It was straight into the teeth of the wind. The coast road was all bumpy asphalt which was hard on our behinds. I had not skimped on the Vaseline and calamine which stopped things getting any worse.

dsc09836Valvai Revady Union Beach

At Valalai, we stopped to take photos of the scenic fishing boats working on the beach. On the wall of a community centre was a plaque commemorating the great Sri Lankan swimmer, Muruguppillai Navaratnasamy, who was the first person to swim 55 km across the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and India.

img_4238The mighty Muruguppillai Navaratnasamy

We passed Sri Lanka’s northernmost place, Point Pedro, and headed south-east on the B371. It is a quiet road through lagoons and flatlands, but the sidewinds meant constant hard pedalling.  Like previous days, we found ourselves sitting hunched into the wind, churning the same cadence hour in, hour out. At Maruthankerny, we had to turn inland as the coast road stops further down at a lagoon in Chundikulam National Park. We were blown by the wind across a causeway, and then sped down the A9, drafting a tractor for part of the way. After 19 kilometres of this, we turned east on the A35 and back into the wind. The road, however, was excellent: smooth, little traffic, and pleasant countryside. The last part around Nanthi Kadai Lagoon was once more into a side-headwind, so we knuckled down and raced the last stretch at a lung-busting 27 to 28 km/h.

dsc09844North Jaffna Peninsula

By the time we reached Mullaittivu, I was completely spent. Just before the town, the road crosses the lagoon on a very scenic causeway. It felt great to spend a few minutes relaxing on the lagoon, safe in the knowledge that we had completed the day’s ride.

We had made a reservation at the Sun and Sand Hotel for 4000/- for a twin, but when we arrived, we were told a basic double would be 5,500/-. John cycled off to look at nearby Ocean Park Resort, while I haggled and haggled for a better room at a better price. I finally got the twin we had been promised, but there was no restaurant, no hope of tea, and not much to earn the title of “hotel”. However, the room was cleaned for us, and we were brought a kettle of hot water. My coffee from Japan had never tasted so good.

dsc09861Sun and Sand Hotel

The Ocean Park Resort was 11,000/-. John had originally suggested we stay, but when we went there for dinner, we were glad we hadn’t. For such an expensive hotel, the restaurant was terrible. All we managed to get was vegetable fried noodles and vegetable fried rice. It took several goes to get a pot of tea as if this was an unusual request at a resort in the home of Ceylon tea.

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Monday, Feb 24 – Mullaittivu to Uppuveli 117 km

dsc09875Leaving Mullaittivu

Another long day in the saddle, but we finally managed to escape the clutches of the headwind. Much of the day we enjoyed a cross-tailwind which allowed us to maintain around 22 km/h without the need to constantly crush the pedals. What a relief. We could just turn the pedals and enjoy the splendid scenery as it unfolded around us. It was a day to soak up the sights: wide lagoons stretching into the distance, ponds covered with flowering lily and lotus, lakes with the skeletons of long-dead trees, dry plains knotted with shrubs, and birds flying and wading all around.

The hotel did not provide breakfast, so we cycled a kilometre into Mullaittivu for sustenance at the Theensuvai Bakery. We dined on vegetable curry filled rolls and both tea and coffee at a table outside the shop while watching the town wake up.

dsc09889Perfect cycling on the B297

We set off south-south-east on the B297 which is a perfect, smooth asphalt road with almost no traffic. It was one of the best roads we cycled on in Sri Lanka. We pedalled leisurely through beautiful wetlands stopping frequently to take photos. A few kilometres before Kokkilai Lagoon Bird Sanctuary, we had to turn inland for several kilometres and enjoyed a strong push from the wind. At one lake, we came across navy recruits going through their swim training. They could barely swim but would have to manage 6 km by the end of their training.

The army and navy are everywhere in the north. You are never far from a base with its lookout towers and sentry posts. And you are never far from road checkpoints with heavily armed soldiers swinging rifles and machine guns. You even see groups of soldiers on bicycles with rifles slung over their shoulders.

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We then cut back on small roads and one stretch of dirt track to the lagoon. I doubled back to have my photo taken by John, turned too sharply, and fell. I cut my elbow which was a nuisance. I should have learnt by now that a fully-loaded touring bike doesn’t like sharp turns.

b-dsc_0039Learning the hard way that loaded bikes are unstable

We picked up the B60 back to the coast at Pulmoddai which is the best place in the area for lunch. We had the usual rice and fiery vegetable curries. I tried twice to order tea without sugar, but only managed to get a cup slightly less sickly sweet than usual.

dsc09915Drying rice on the road

The last stretch along the B424 is pleasant. You rarely see the sea, but the lagoons are always scenic. At Salpayaru we watched gannets diving into the river estuary for fish and took lots of photographs and drone footage. We also met pilgrims visiting Bahiya Pabbatha Monastery which is curiously located next to the Prison Department Holiday Resort. At Nilaveli, we came across our first fellow cycle tourists, a couple from France taking a break at the resort.

dsc09945Salpayaru Fishing Village

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We sped up for the last few kilometres, eager to get to our hotel, the Coconut Beach Lodge, which was right on the beach. It is a splendid place with helpful staff, beautiful gardens, and a restaurant overlooking the sea. The twin room was tiny, but it was a bargain at 5,000/-. We had a splash in the crashing surf before a tasty meal of devilled fish and rice. We spent the rest of the evening deciding where to ride the next day. Our first choice was Sigiriya with its rock citadel, but there didn’t seem to be any routes which avoided the main roads. In the end, we decided to try the A9 which runs directly south-west to Sigiriya. The big attraction was that we would at last have a tailwind. If it was too busy, we would change plans and ride to Polonnaruwa on back roads.

b-dsc_0106Coconut Beach Lodge

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Tuesday, Feb 25 – Uppuveli to Sigiriya 106 km

We had planned to stay a day in Uppuveli but the beach is only okay, and the sea was too rough for swimming. We would spend a day sightseeing around Sigiriya instead. With the tailwind and a short day ahead, we gave ourselves the luxury of a late start. John went for a dip in the crashing surf, we had breakfast overlooking the sea, and were on the road by 9:40. We soon joined the A6 and were surprised by how little traffic there was. We kept waiting for convoys of trucks and buses to thunder past, but it never happened. Soon we were in pleasant countryside. At Kantale, we climbed a little out of the town to a huge reservoir, and suddenly we were presented with fine views across forested plains dotted with distant rock outcrops. The road around the reservoir is almost deserted as heavy vehicle have to take a lower road.

dsc09974Rescued tortoise

At the end of the reservoir, I spotted a large tortoise with a dramatically patterned shell walking down the road. I rescued it and put it on the grass slope below the reservoir. After much hesitation, it plodded off to safety.

We had a brief stop at a bakery – we were starting to crave these little oases of carbs and caffeine – where we had a slice of absolutely delicious chewy, slightly malty coconut cake and the usual sickly-sweet Nescafe from a machine.

b-dsc_0120Best cake in Sri Lanka

The countryside continued to improve. We had expected a heads-down slog on a noisy main road, but instead we were enjoying a pleasant ride. For lunch, we stopped at the usual roadside food place, but this one had a self-service buffet. We heaped rice, dal, pumpkin curry, and dried fish on to our plates.

The scenery got even better as we passed close to Somawathiya National Park. Just before Habarana, there is beautiful afforested grassland – patches of trees amidst tall grasses and shrubs. John rode on ahead while I slowed down to savour the natural beauty. I stopped for a call of nature and walked off the road into a grassy clearing. My heart stopped. 30 metres away a young elephant was munching away at the grass. I watched mesmerised as it slowly walked towards me oblivious of my presence. When it was within 15 metres, it suddenly fixed its eyes on me, grunted, and rush towards me. I have never got on my bike so quickly.

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dsc09990Moments before I fled

I rode on full of the experience. John was waiting a few kilometres up the road. As I told him what had happened, I realised I was shaking. Later we came across a “three-wheeler” (tuk-tuk) and a jeep waiting by the road. There was a huge elephant walking fast towards us. We turned around, retreated a safe distance and waited for it to go back into the forest.

At Habarana, we took out money from an ATM, got some rehydration salts from a pharmacy, and turned off on to the A11 for a couple of kilometres. It was crowded with traffic. Fortunately, we soon turned right on to the B294 which is a lovely quiet lane that winds through the forest beneath a canopy of leaves all the way to Sigiriya. We stopped often for photos, and John took some more drone footage. At last we reached the great rock outcrop overlooking the village of Sigiriya. It was quite a sight in the late afternoon light.

DSC00010Sigiriya Rock

In the village, we passed two huge working elephants being washed in the creek. We soon found our hotel, the Sigiri Lion Lodge which is rightly recommended by our guidebooks. It is a splendid place. It has leafy grounds, quiet, super-clean rooms, and very cheerful, helpful owners. This was a place to spend two nights. Dinner was at nearby Nirwana Restaurant. The food was tasty, non-spicy, filling, and cheap – just 300/- for a satisfying veg kotthu.

CCRG0991The delightful Sigiri Lion Lodge 

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Wednesday, Feb 26 – Sightseeing around Sigiriya

dsc00088Sigiriya Water gardens

The Sigiri Lion Lodge owners continued to make our stay perfect. We had an excellent Western-Sri Lankan fusion breakfast and then were driven to the nearby citadel in the hotel’s own three-wheeler. We arrived at 7 a.m. to beat the crowds, but there was already a line of people climbing the rock. It is a great place to spend two or three hours. We climbed steps cut into the rocks, and then metal staircases bolted onto the vertical rockface. Overweight tourists were being pushed up by lean tour guides twice their age. There are many things wrong in the world. At the top, there is a ruined palace which offers sweeping views across the misty plains to distant outcrops and peaks.

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dsc00050Palace ruins on top of Sigiriya Rock

We walked back to the hotel and booked a three-wheeler which would take us 30 minutes to Dambulla and back for just 1500/-. It is a magnificent place. There is a series of caves cut into the rocks with statues, reclining Buddhas, and ceiling paintings. It is wonderful.

b-dsc_0365Dambulla Caves

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We returned to Sigiriya for a late lunch at the Wiyegiri Restaurant where I had an assortment of 6 veg curries, including beetroot curry, for just 500/-. It was the tastiest meal of the whole trip. They do cooking courses which alone make me want to return to Sigiriya one day.

pcxw4246Fantastic vegetable curry at Wiyegiri Restaurant 

[Photo Album]

Thursday, Feb 27 – Sigiriya to Mahiyanganaya 114 km

dsc00192Empty roads

After talking with the owner of the guest house, we decided against the direct A9 to Kandy which would be very busy. Instead, we planned to do a dogleg via Mahiyanganaya which would allow us to ride the following day up the famous 18 hairpins on the A26 to Kandy. Today, we would ride from Sigiriya on the B615 and B274, via Gonawela, Bakamuna, Elahara, Laggala, Rattota, Matale, and Wattegama. It was a great ride on slightly undulating back roads ending at a luxurious place to stay, the Adaviya Resort hotel.

dsc00162 Kandalama reservoir

We set off from Sigiriya early: breakfast at 6:15 and off just after 7:00. This meant we could enjoy cooler, misty weather for the first hour. Most of the day we cycled through lush rice paddies with steep mountains off to the west. There was little traffic. We started off towards Kimbissa and around the west side of the scenic Kandalama reservoir and then left at the B561. It was asphalt for 3 km and dirt for a kilometer or so to the B561. At Bakamuna, we stopped for coffee and roti and then went on to Hettiploa via the B615, B312, and B274. There we had an inedibly salty curry which meant I skipped lunch. We had planned to continue on the B274 to Mahiyanganaya but somehow missed the turn off and ended up crossing the Mahaweli Ganga, a broad river that runs north and east all the way up to Trincomalee.

dsc00177Rare dirt road

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It had been all good, scenic riding on smooth roads with a tailwind. We cycled around Mahiyanganaya for a while looking for a hotel and ended up at the unexpectedly luxurious Adaviya Resort Hotel which offered us a large twin for the surprising price of 6,800/-. Dinner was not so successful. They assured us they had a restaurant, but in the end the only thing we were served was vegetable fried rice which was neither very vegetable nor very fried – a large plate of rice with a few raw vegetables thrown in. We moved on to the 988 Restaurant which was rather better. I had devilled fish which is a tasty dish of fried fish chunks and veg.

dsc00199Mahaweli Ganga

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Friday, Feb 28 – Mahiyanganaya to Kandy 75 km

b-dsc_0460Adaviya Resort Hotel

We breakfasted on half an omelette and a few meager slices of untoasted toast with fluorescent jam and set off at 7:15 for the climb to Kandy. The first half is grand: we wound up through swaying rice fields and steep forests towards the Knuckles Mountains with stunning vistas of spiky mountains at every turn.

dsc00239Knuckles Mountains

A highlight of the day was meeting two cyclists on modified steel sit-up-and-beg bikes with rod-pull brakes. We met the first at the bottom of the hairpins and the second halfway up. Despite their lack of English, and our complete absence of Sinhala, we learnt that they are brothers. The older, Sumti, sported a fine beard and legs muscled like a pro. When I asked him his job, he answered “cyclist”.

dsc00225Sumti

The bike, and the fact that he was riding it up these steep climbs, was inspiring. It had the original steel frame but repainted in red with Cannondale decals. The rod-pull brakes and chromed handlebars were original, but completely wrapped in bar tape. Somehow, they had found or made allow wheels with the groove for rod-pull brakes. The hubs were alloy, but the tyres were regular thick, local ones. The cottered steel cranks had been replaced with a modern BB and alloy cranks. It was set up as singlespeed. There were touches of the modern, such as Sumti’s Sidi road shoes a Fizik Arione saddle set low on the huge frame. I’d never seen anything like it. After lots of photos, Sumti disappeared up the steep ascent, his slight frame pushing the heavy bike at great speed.

dsc00229Sumti climbing the A26 towards Daha Ata Wanguwa

We followed more sedately and soon reached the 875-metre pass at Daha Ata Wanguwa. From there to Kandy, the road got progressively busier. The last few kilometres into the city were bonkers. We had one bit of relief at the amusingly named Onara Food Court, where we had a delicious buffet which included fine brinjal and potato curries.

dsc00249Onara Food Court

Riding into Kandy was rather hellacious. The city is plagued by exhaust-spewing, ear-shattering traffic. We slowly ground our way up the steep, winding road towards the lake, and then descended to find the former beauty of the lake transformed by heaving traffic. We finished with a steep climb up to the Hotel Sharon where we had phoned for a room. It is a nice place, but the room was tiny and right next to an extension they were having built. It was very noisy, so we made our apologies and went in search of somewhere quieter. A few doors down we found the delightful Expeditor guest house run by a lovely woman. We got two rooms for just 3250/- each, our negotiating powers strengthened by cancellations brought on by the coronavirus. The rooms were small, but the balconies all round offered fine views of Kandy, and there was a pleasant lounge.

ishu0773View from Expeditor guest house

dsc00266Kandy Lake

In the afternoon, we walked around the lake to the accompaniment of roaring engines and loud horns. The far side of the lake has no road, so that part was very pleasant. We ate excellent South Indian food at Sri Krishna Dosai where Sri Lankans and tourists filled up on big portions of low-priced cuisine. Later, we sat on the second floor of the guesthouse planning the next day’s ride, while below us the sound of chanting rose up from a Buddhist ceremony held in honour of the owner’s husband. Our plan was much the same as usual. Head off in the direction of our next destination, look for quiet roads to ride on, and see what happens.

dsc00296Kandy Lake

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Saturday, Feb 29 – Kandy to Nuwara Eliya 112 km

dsc00301Tea above Kandy on the Hantana Road

What a day. 9.5 hours to ride 112 km with 2,500 metres of elevation. We started at 7:30 a.m. and finished at 7:40 p.m. That would be hard work on a road bike, but on a heavy touring bike with fat tyres on bumpy roads, it was an epic. Along the way we cycled along some of the most beautiful roads I have ever ridden, and towards the end had to climb some of the steepest.

We started with egg and toast at the Expeditor and then headed expeditiously out. We rolled down to the lake, which was already packed with traffic, but soon left the main road to climb steeply up a winding road that brought us to our first tea plantations. It was a tough start to the day, but at the top of the hill we could rest at a tea stand set amongst the trees and tea bushes. Tea and cycling: the perfect combination. We descended a way before starting to climb very gently on a fantastic road which contoured for miles and miles through beautiful old tea estates. The road was smooth, the slope gentle, the traffic light, and the scenery stupendous. It is one of the world’s great cycle rides.

dsc00327Climbing through tea plantations

This is what I like best about cycle touring: not knowing what you are going to find each day, going where the road takes you, the random chance of taking a right turn or a left turn, coming across a beautiful place. There is plenty of discomfort along the way, but that moment of setting eyes on a magnificent view, meeting a fascinating stranger, or simply rolling effortlessly through serene countryside is what draws me to this. I sometimes wonder why so few other people have yet to discover the joy of cycle touring.

dsc_0743The beautiful road from Hantana to Galaha

Our plan, if you could call it that, was to get to Nuwara Eliya, or somewhere close, without using the busy A5. We would first head for Galaha, then follow the B364 to Rikillagaskada. the B413 to Ragala, and the B332 towards Nuwara Eliya. Hopefully, there would be a guest house somewhere along the way. Our fine, quiet road took us all the way to Galaha, but after that the B364 was both busier and much bumpier. It continued like this all the way to Rikillagaskada, but still it was great riding. At Hewaheta we had a decent lunch in the usual curry restaurant, and then found relief on the B413 which was quieter and much smoother. We stayed on the 413 for hours, riding through villages, tea estates and forests, past waterfalls and mountain views far and wide. The climbs started to get steeper, but not too bad. From time to time I checked the altitude on my watch and wondered when we would gain the height we needed to reach Nuwara Eliya at 1850 metres.

NLJK8173The gorgeous scenery took the sting out of the climb

We got the answer at Walapane where the road suddenly ramped up to a shocking 20% for a few hundred metres. At the top of the slope a sign suggested that there is a hotel back down in the town, but we weren’t going back down that slope to discover if it was true. We hadn’t seen a hotel all day; it looked like we had a long ride ahead of us. We had. We slowly ground our way up through one tea plantation after another – these were less attractive than the ones earlier in the day, or perhaps we were just tired. Gradually, night fell as did a blanket of mist. Tea pickers carried heavy sacks in from the fields to be weighed, buses roared past, Hindu temples blared music, we pedalled on.

dsc00331On the final climb to Kandapola

Near the top, the mist got thicker and the traffic heavier. Each truck or bus would shock us with their horn and dazzle us with their full beams; we just had to focus on riding steadily and safely. Finally, we reached the top at Kandapola, a chaos of noise and fumes and lights. There was still 12 kilometres to go to Nuwara Eliya, but fortunately it was mostly flat or slightly downhill the whole way. We had to be careful, especially of the buses which seem to be driven my insane sociopaths, but finally we made it to the beautiful Trevene Hotel, a reward for the hard day behind us. It is a fantastic colonial house set back from a quiet side street in pleasant gardens. We splashed out on excellent single rooms for 5000/- each, and then walked over to their adjacent upmarket hotel for an upmarket buffet of Western food. It was our first taste of such food on our trip. The cauliflower cheese alone made up for the last hour up that climb.

dsc00347Lounge in the Trevene Hotel

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Sunday, March 1 – Nuwara Eliya to Passara 77 km

dsc00349Lake Gregory, Nuwara Eliya

Today was supposed to be a nice easy ride to Ella which came highly recommended in the guidebook. That should have raised a warning flag. We allowed ourselves the luxury of a slow start – a massive breakfast back in the buffet hall followed by leisurely packing. After photographs in the gardens outside the Trevene, we cycled down to the lake, avoiding the centre of Nuwara Eliya altogether. Next to Lake Gregory, there is a somewhat incongruous sight – a racecourse with horses and riders getting ready for training. The lake itself is a pretty place with parks around it and boats waiting for customers. From there we started a long 24-kilometre descent on the A5 to Wellimada. Being Sunday, the traffic was light which made the ride down beneath the cliffs of the Horton Plains quite pleasant.

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From Wellimada, we took the B44 which was a little busier than we had expected. There were guest houses all along this road dotted amongst the tea plantations. We stopped at one sales place where we hoped to learn about fine teas and buy some to take home. Instead, very ordinary-looking tea was being sold for very extraordinary prices. There was no tasting. I decided to stick to my usual Earl Grey and Assam from the Co-op.

dsc00355Bandarawela

Bandarawela is a big chaotic town. Fortunately, the main A16 is downhill here so we could roll fast through the chaos and quickly reach the turn off for Ella 8 km below. We arrived in Ella expecting an oasis of mountain beauty, but in reality it is a typical travellers’ hangout lined with cafes and restaurants packed with young backpackers in search of exactly the same unique experience as every other backpacker in Sri Lanka. We had a big lunch, including 3 banana pancakes each, and headed out.

b-dsc_0890Great riding on the B113

We had a choice here of riding south towards the coast on the A23 or east around the mountains on the B113. We had not yet had our fill of the mountains, so we continued east towards Passara. We soon left behind the string of tourist facilities promising meditation and massage and Ayurvedic healing and were once more climbing up a quiet, bumpy lane into tea country. After a morning of easy rolling, and a huge lunch, it was hard to be climbing again. We climbed and climbed several hundred metres to 1429m, but the road was empty and the views beautiful. We then had 12 km downhill to Passara where we decided to look for a place to stay. Google Maps threw up Morris Bungalow which turned out to be a great discovery. It is a former colonial residence now owned and well-maintained by the proprietors of a tea transportation firm. The sprawling stone bungalow is set in manicured lawns with vistas of surrounding mountains. The owners are a husband and wife who first appeared reserved but gradually seemed to warm to us. We were shown to rooms over a garage used by the trucks, but on inquiry found that we could also stay in the house. We chose a wonderful room with massive bay windows, creaking wooden floors, and a bathroom unchanged since colonial times. The bath was a huge cast iron tub set on ornate feet with massive chrome taps.

uoly9554Morris Bungalow

Seeing as the owners ran a tea transport business, I asked about the possibility of buying some tea. They came back with half a kilo of tea in a plain plastic bag from a Gonakelle Estate. It was a twentieth of the price of the tea we’d seen at the posh vendor. Dinner was cooked for us by their domestic help who seemed to manage the whole place for them. It was served in a grand wood-panelled room with old pictures of the family on the walls. We sat at a long dining table with space for another dozen people. The owners did not eat with us; instead, they stood by the table observing us and constantly checking that everything was to our liking. It was!

dsc00383Morris Bungalow elegance

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Monday, March 2 – Passara to Kirinda 116 km

c-dsc_0032Long descent on A22

We started the day with a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of idiyappam or string hoppers which are nothing if not filling. After much photographing and exchanging of contact details, we set off along the A5 towards the B35 which would take us all the way to the south coast. The descent of the mountain offers fine riding on smooth, gently downhill roads. We swept around one wide curve after another on the almost traffic-free A5 and then the even quieter A22. At Badalkumbura we turned right on to the B35 which runs directly south to the coast. We were aiming for Kirinda which we hoped would be a quieter resort than the more touristy ones further west.

c-dsc_0058Monitor Lizard

The first part of the B35 to Buttala is an excellent, quiet road, although there are a lot of short, sharp ascents over the last of the foothills. At Buttala, we crossed over the A4 and from then on there is very little traffic at all. After 15 kilometres or so, we entered Ruhuna (Yala) National Park which is simply beautiful. There are no buildings and hardly any cars – just raw nature which we were given the privilege of riding through. On one straight section of the road, we spotted a huge elephant standing across the road. We rolled to a stop a hundred metres away and waited for it to move. And waited and waited. A couple of cars slowly manouevred around it, but we weren’t sure if that would be too wise on a bicycle. In the end, it sedately strolled off into the forest. Another unforgettable experience.

rleu4193B35 through Ruhuna National Park

Just before Kataragama, near the “Elephant Gate” entrance to the national park, we stopped for our regular veggie curry lunch buffet, but this time it was just too hot for me. I was reaching my Sri Lankan curry tolerance threshold. From here to Tissamaharama, the road is lined with hotels, guest houses, and “rooms” serving the Ruhuna NP tourist trade. However, there were few tourists around, which we later learned was due to Covid-19. We had been blissfully insulated from this on our ride, but once we reached the tourist south coast, it became clear that most of the hotels were nearly empty of guests.

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The last stretch to Kirinda is very pleasant. At Tissamaharama, we cycled past a lovely stupa in a vividly green rice field, and then alongside Yoda Lake with flags fluttering on bamboo poles stuck in the lake. It was great riding through this beautiful tropical landscape.

dsc00435Tissamaharama stupa

Kirinda town was very quiet. We stayed at the first place we arrived at, the aptly-named Kirinda Beach Front Hotel. We were the only guests so we could have a double room each, with breakfast, for just 6,000/-. It is a simple place with a big walled lawn and a gate on to the beach. The beach itself was a bit of a disappointment – some dilapidated huts, a few stalls selling plastic beach tat, and a big sound system blaring out Sri Lankan pop music onto the almost deserted beach. Still, the garden was a pleasant place to relax in the cool sea breeze. Later we had delicious grilled fish for dinner.

obet3398Kirinda Beach Front Hotel

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Tuesday, March 3 – Kirinda to Polhena, near Matara 118 km

We decided to aim for Polhena as John’s Routier guidebook strongly recommended the Sunil Guest House. To get there, we would have to ride much of the way on the main A2 coast road, so we expected a hot slog along a busy road. In places it was rather busy, but it was never a slog as we had a side-tailwind. We also had a couple of hours of wonderful riding through a small national park which we hadn’t even noticed on the map.

dsc00471Bundala Lewaya

At 7:30 a.m. our peaceful breakfast was interrupted by someone starting up a petrol strimmer in the garden. The nice young lad who was running the hotel seemed genuinely surprised that we might not want to eat breakfast to the accompaniment of a strimmer. We set off on a backroad heading west out of Kirinda, navigating with the help of Google, hoping to find a shortcut to the A2. There were no roads marked on our maps, but the road we took was smooth, car-free, and lovely. Soon we came to a sign telling us we were in the Bundala National Park, and there we noticed an inviting dirt track heading off to the left. It took us into a beautiful world of lagoons and forests and grasslands and birds everywhere. We spent a couple of hours slowly riding through the park, stopping often to take in the scenery. I saw a flamingo in one lagoon and a pure-white egret standing on the black back of a bathing water buffalo. There were langurs grazing on flowers, monitor lizards rushing across the road, and flowers everywhere.

dsc00477Flamingo

dsc00481Bundala Lewaya

dsc00493Grazing langurs

All too soon, we came to the boundary of the park where we joined the A2. It was not too busy, but soon it turned into a dual carriageway, and then a three-lane highway with a wide shoulder. We passed a huge international conference centre, the massive entrance to a port, and a sign pointing to an international airport. There were grand snaking interchanges and sprawling industrial estates, but more cows and buffaloes on the road than vehicles. On one arching overpass, there were only three vehicles on the road: John, me, and an old chap slowly pedalling his old steel bicycle. It turns out that we were passing through Hambantota, which is the birthplace of former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He had ordered massive infrastructure projects in his hometown omitting to consider the problem that he was born in the middle of nowhere.

After Hambantota, the road shrinks once more to a regular road with the usual erratic three-wheelers, crazy bus drivers, and crowded villages. Outside the towns it was not too bad, and trees gave us protection from both the sun and the sidewind.

dsc00517View across to Cactus Lounge restaurant

Just west of Tangalla, we stopped at the Cactus Lounge restaurant, where there is no lounge, no cacti, but fortunately a restaurant with a fine view of the beach. I had a quick dip and then enjoyed a pleasantly bland vegetable fried rice. After lunch, we cycled the last 30 kilometres to our hotel, passing through Matara with its busy town centre and awful traffic. Along the way, we met two Polish cycle tourists pink with the sun and the exertion of riding into the wind. As we approached our hotel, the traffic miraculously disappeared and we rode the last part on narrow lanes twisting through houses surrounded by tropical plants.

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Sunil Rest Guest House deserves its recommendation. Sunil and his wife are charming and their place very tranquil. Rooms were only 2,000/-, so we had one each, but food was rather expensive. We had time for a swim before sunset so walked two minutes to the beach. There were quite a few foreign tourists and just as many Sri Lankans on the beach and in the water. Waves were crashing outside the reef, but inside the water was calm. It was not very clear, which meant I had quite a shock when I almost bumped into a large sea turtle. It seemed even more surprised than me as it sped off into the murk.

dsc00533Polhena Beach

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Wednesday, March 4 – Polhena to Galle 48 km

Over dinner the previous evening, we had started to formulate a new plan for our last days in Sri Lanka. Instead of finishing in Galle, spending a day sightseeing there, and then taking the train to Colombo, we thought it would be more satisfying to complete a whole loop of the country. We would only spend an afternoon in Galle, and then would have two days to cycle on backroads to Negombo where our bike boxes were being stored. The short ride to Galle also meant we could go for another swim. The sea was clearer, and I found some coral further along the beach. It was a good way to start the day.

dsc00539Polhena coast road

We set off along the pretty beach road for a couple of kilometres, but soon we were back on the A2 competing with the now heavy traffic. At Weligame, we admitted defeat and headed inland towards Dikkumbura. Within minutes, we were riding through an idyllic rural backwater. In one village, we stopped at a small bakery for our usual sweet bread and yoghurt drink. We had our regular conversation about the upcoming Sri Lanka – England test match with the wonderfully friendly staff. Once more Google guided us along one tiny road after another all the way to Galle where the craziness abruptly resumed. We entered the north gate of the fort and the traffic disappeared, being replaced by large numbers of tourists grazing around the shops and cafes and gelateria. In its way, it seemed just as incongruous to us as Hambantota had the previous day.

ulek9821Mrs Wijenayake’s Beach Haven Guest House

We stayed at Mrs Wijenayake’s Beach Haven Guest House which is a lovely place. We chose the best twin room with four-poster beds and a modern bathroom for just 5,000/-. The guesthouse is in a beautiful old house with elegant tables and chairs on the first-floor veranda and there is a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

dsc00556Galle Old Town

Galle is all about the Dutch fort and the colonial buildings within the walls. It must have been a wonderful place to visit before it was transformed into a trap for tourists who seem to have nothing better to do than eat gallons of ice cream while buying artefacts that they will forget about when they get back home. I was glad to be leaving early in the morning.

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I walked in the heat of the afternoon to the new town where there was a row of pharmacies. I asked at every one of them for surgical masks for the flight home, but they were sold out. I compensated for this with an excellent trim, shave, and massage at a barbershop called Salon Milton curiously located inside the Young Men’s Buddhist Association.

dsc00558Salon Milton

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Thursday, March 5 – Galle to Remuna 110 km

After a fortnight of eggs and white sliced bread, we enjoyed a fine breakfast spread at Mrs Wijenayake’s: omelette, toast, crispy hoppers, real jam, a plate of fresh fruit, and pancakes with coconut and jaggery. Fuelled by this feast, we headed out through Galle’s rush hour on our first cycle lane which runs alongside the A2. Sadly, it is used as a car park for trucks and as a rat run for rickshaws and motorbikes, but at least the idea is there. We soon left the A2 and climbed north on a residential street which passed through Wakwella, Ganegama, and under the motorway at Agaliya. We then followed the Gin Ganga river eastwards for several kilometres before turning north on a tiny lane which led us up and over a shockingly steep hill to Mataka. It was a fine ride on empty roads though a lush, tropical landscape.

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At Pitgala, we picked up the B158 which took us NNE to Neboda where suddenly the road widened and the traffic became heavy for a few kilometres. There were a lot of dumper trucks trundling back and forth between construction sites, but every single one of them slowed down and gave us metres of space.

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The last few kilometres to our hotel, the Lotus View, took us along another idyllic country lane lined by traditional farms. The lotus pond itself is a serene place where a few anglers were dangling lines into the reeds and flowers. In contrast, the hotel is a big, modern place used for wedding receptions. As we arrived, a wedding group was spilling out into the car park for photographs. I scuttled into my room for a shower. The rooms were splendid – clean and modern and with large balconies overlooking the lake. All this luxury for just 3,000/- per room. Even better, there was a rooftop restaurant with a cool breeze and decent enough food.

dsc00580View of Remuna Lake from Lotus View Hotel

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

Friday, March 6 – Remuna to Negombo 96 km

Our last day of riding did not quite live up to the rest of the tour. The roads were busier than usual, and the scenery not quite so wonderful, but it was still a great way to finish: we had completed a loop of the island. At times, the traffic was too heavy for us, and around Gampaha it was uncomfortably so, but for the most part it was pretty good riding considering we were passing so close to the capital.

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We left the hotel at 8 o’clock after a return to half-cooked eggs and half-toasted bread for breakfast. Our route took us through Horana, Millewa, Padukka, Kapugoda, Wellweriya, Gampaha, Dewalpola, Dunagana, and finally Negombo. At Gampaha, we found ourselves right in the city centre and had to ride along heaving roads to escape its clutches. The day was at its hottest and at one point we just had to stop and retreat into a shop for cold drinks and a brief respite from the traffic. Later, we were once more riding on a busy stretch through rice fields when a sparkling new café bakery miraculously appeared at the side of the road. Simple things can become exquisite pleasure when you are cycle touring.

img_4333Hamilton Canal, Negombo

The last stretch into Negombo took us through coconut plantations and an area of beautiful big houses set in large, well-maintained gardens. We rode into Negombo and up to our hotel. We had completed our loop in just 14 days of riding. Along the way, we had enjoyed a rich mix of cultures, ancient history, warm hospitality, quiet roads, gorgeous scenery, fine weather, and not a single problem. It is hard to imagine a better place for a short cycle tour.

csti8315Finished!

[Photo Album]    [Garmin Data]

img_43301698 km + 55 km around Jaffna Islandsmap-of-route-full[Our Route]

 

gear listClick here for full gear list

 

 

Minami-Kanto Calfman 2020

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A small piece of reclaimed land just off the industrial heartlands of Kawasaki is an unlikely setting for a rather excellent mid-winter duathlon held each year by the JTU. The event takes place in Higashi-Ogashima Park, a tiny patch of green in a jungle of warehouses and chemical plants connected to the mainland by a network of motorway flyovers and undersea tunnels. The race consists of 5.4k run – 30k bike – 5.4k run, but in fact the distances are more like 5.1k-29k-5.7k. The run is 2 laps of the park, and the bike is up and down past the warehouses 6 times. It is always cold, always windy, but usually held under clear blue skies. This year was no different. There was an icy wind from the north which prevented the sun from warming the air to much above 5 or 6oC.

img_9393Pre-race stretch

It is a race to drive to. I met Olivier and Quint in the windswept car park, and Youri later joined me to shelter from the cold. A few other TiTers were there, including Yoann and Jordi. After registration, I got kitted up and made use of the 30-minute bike course preview to test whether I would be warm enough. Choosing what to wear in this kind of race is tricky. It starts off with a run which gets you warm and sweaty, and then you must ride for 50 minutes in an icy wind. Here is my bike kit list from top to bottom:

  • Aero helmet
  • Thin cycling beanie
  • Thin base layer
  • Insulated rash guard (for surfing)
  • Thin full-finger cycling gloves
  • Short-sleeve TiT tri suit
  • Thin compression tights
  • Thin socks
  • Tri shoes
  • Neoprene toe covers (Mont Bell)

My rational is that you need to keep your head, hands, and feet warm, but you also need to wear tight, aero clothes. The last thing you need is a jacket flapping in the wind. Thin, grippy gloves are important to control the bike and also to take off your helmet and change shoes in transition. A lot of people seem to wear nothing apart from a tri suit and arm warmers, but I would just freeze.

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Olivier and I started in Wave 1 at 10:03, while Youri, Quint, Yoann, and Jordi started in Wave 2 at 11:00. I put on my timing chip, handed my coat to Youri, and within moments was heading out on the run. It’s a great course. You head west on a fine gravel path, cross some grass, and then meander around the park before climbing up to the sea wall. There you run on a plastic boardwalk with the sea to the left and the wind at your back. Next, you loop past the finish area, along by an artificial beach, around a breakwater, and back to the start. It is a bit like Miyazaki but without the palm trees. And with aeroplanes taking off from nearby Haneda.

img_4199Quint on the boardwalk

After the adrenaline rush of the first few hundred metres, the reality of my lack of run training started to become apparent. My breathing was strained, and my legs were heavy, so I eased off to a nearly comfortable pace. At the end of the first lap, I glanced back to see my new age group rival, Ishikawa-san, hot on my heels. I would have to rely on the bike leg to pull away.

img_9395-1Exiting T1

In transition, I squeezed my new aero helmet down over my ears, pulled my bike out of the rack, and was soon being pushed by a tail wind to the first turn. The main part of the bike has a diagonal tailwind out and a diagonal headwind on the way back, all made turbulent by the line of warehouses upwind and the gaps between them. Curiously, I found the downwind section harder than the upwind as I seemed to be able to pace myself better into the swirling headwind. I knew it would be a slow pace as I was continually fighting the wind, but at least no one passed me. At one stage, I heard Youri shout 16 seconds, which I guessed meant Olivier was just ahead of me.

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I had spent a lot of time choosing my new helmet. Most manufacturers seem to forget that triathletes need to put race stickers on their helmet. The Smith Podium TT is one of the few helmets with front vents placed either side of where you stick your race number. It was great on this cold day, but it remains to be seen whether I will overheat in triathlons. I also realise that I need to practise lifting my head more when on the aerobars; I spent much of the time looking at the road just ahead, with the stub tail pointing in the air.

It can be a bumpy, uncomfortable ride in places, as the road surface is fractured and dimpled by heavy trucks. My tyre pressures rear and front were 95 and 90 PSI for 25C Grand Prix 5000s; next year I will drop the pressure a few PSI and see how that feels. Apart from the bumps and the gusting winds, it is a great chance to practise full-gas riding in race conditions. The triathlon season starts in just over two months, so this is a great opportunity to practice TT riding, transitions, and new gear.

img_4195Youri coming in to T2

Olivier was still in T2 when I arrived, but he was soon pulling inexorably away from me in the run. I had managed to stick to a comfortable pace in Run 1, but Run 2 was anything but comfortable. My lack of run training really started to show as my legs got heavier and my calves more wooden. I stopped looking at my Garmin when it told me my pace had fallen below 4 min/km; it was just a case of holding on till the end.

img_4197Youri in full flight

After the finish, I went over to the bike course to watch Youri come in to T1 and actually step right on the dismount line. The next rider stepped over the line and then walked back to recross the line. The JTU official was lenient and let them both go. The lesson is: always have both feet on the ground one metre before the dismount line. I then ran over to the run course to watch Youri flying across the gravel shouting, “No ankle band”. I looked down and sure enough he had forgotten to pick up his ankle band before the start. His fantastic time of 1:28 would not count. I drank coffee and ate fruit as first Quint and then Yoann came running past. Yoann was moving impressively fast.

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After the race, Youri and I went in search of lunch in the Kawasaki industrial wilderness. We found a new place called The Warehouse on a gentrified slither of seafront with new apartments all around. Inside there is a restaurant, a café, a bike shop with top end TT bikes hanging from the ceiling, and cycle rental. I had an unexpectedly good grilled vegetable Genovese.

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After lunch, I returned to the race for the medal ceremony. I was surprised to see that I had not only won my age group, but the 50-59 age group too. My time was slow, especially Run 2 which was 90 seconds slower than last year, but it is hardly surprising given my lack of training. More interesting was my pacing this year compared to last. Last year, I went out even slower than this year but this allowed me to have a very strong R2. It is always disappointing to have slower times, but at least I know what I must do before the real start of the season.

R1 B R2 Total

2020

3:54 34:6 4:01

1:32:57

2019 3:57 35:0 3:47

1:32:12

Results

Garmin data

img_4204A man taking his pet pig for a walk in a push-chair

 

Fuji Hakone Izu Cycling

After a week of cold and wet weather, a fine day was forecast, so Anna and I headed to Odawara for a ride in the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. The plan was to do a complete loop of the mountains on quiet roads. We met at Odawara station where Anna parked her car and I left my rinko bag in a locker. We would have to get back to Odawara before dark.

We set off past Odawara Castle and soon picked up unmarked Route 740 which runs parallel to the main coast road. Here is the turn-off on Google Maps, and here is an image of where you take the road up to the right. It is difficult to see on maps, but the old road winds all the way to Yugawara via Manazuru. Riding slowly on an empty road with fantastic views of Sagami Bay was a great way to start the day.

p1300054Odawara-Yugawara old road

At Yugawara, we cycled along the beach where surfers were riding waves under the toll road. It is hard to know what goes through the minds of planners who build a road on concrete pillars sunk into the whole length of a beautiful beach. We soon left behind this sorry sight, as we took Route 75 westwards and upwards through Yugawara Onsen. I am familiar with this road as it is host to the annual Yugawara Orange Marathon, a misnamed 10 km held after the end of the orange season. At least it is in Yugawara. As we climbed up the 75, past steaming spas, I was glad not to be putting my poor body through that 5 km descent this March.

p1300061The long climb up Route 75

At Seiranso Ryokan, the road forks, with the main road continuing on to the Yugawara Parkway, while the old 75 cuts back to the right and winds its way to the ridgeline high above. I cycled this road a year ago after the Orange Marathon, but on that Sunday the ride was spoilt a little by motorcyclists racing up and down the hairpin bends. Today, we had the road to ourselves. We gradually climbed, side by side, with only the very occasional car breaking the silence. At Tsubakidai, there is a car park and toilet and a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. It was so clear we could see across to Chiba in the east, and Niijima to the south.

p1300058Oshima and distant Niijima viewed from Tsubakidai

From there, the air started to get cooler, and snow was piled on the roadside. We climbed without a stop to the ridge where Daikanzan Observation Deck offers amazing views across Lake Ashinoko with its backdrop of Fuji-san in full winter dress. We didn’t hang around as it was chilly. A roadside thermometer read 4C as we descended to Ashinoko on a road running with snowmelt.

p1300062Daikanzan Observation Deck, cloud-shrouded Fuji-san

p1300065The classic selfie shot, unspoilt by a selfie

At the lake, we picked up Route 1 for a short way through Moto Hakone, and then turned off on to Shrine Street which follows the north shore. Despite the cold, there were many tourists snapping shivering selfies by the lake. We continued to Hakone-en cable car station where the regular road ends, but a cycling road continues along the lake. It was covered in leaves and twigs but it’s a really nice 3 or 4 kilometre ride all the way to the north end of the lake. There we rejoined Route 75 and started to search for a place to eat.

p1300068Cycle path around Ashinoko

Just as I was starting to regret having eschewed the tourist restaurants by the lake, we came across a splendid little soba place called Horiyoshi. It is run by two smiling elderly gentlemen who showed us to a table with a smouldering irori fire, and then threw another couple of logs on the wood stove. It was a great place to first warm up and then fill up on their delicious moritoro udon. Outside the restaurant, we noticed a TV in the food display window showing PM Abe addressing the Diet. A curious way to promote a healthy diet.

After lunch, we joined Route 138 north-west towards Gotemba and its famous Fuji views and outlet malls. We had originally hoped to take the old Route 736 up to the pass, but time forced us to use the one-kilometre tunnel through the mountain. It wouldn’t be much fun on a weekend, but we raced through with barely another vehicle in sight to emerge at a much snowier north side of the mountain. Mt Fuji was now free of clouds and dominated the whole scene.

Just below Fujihakkei Hot Spring, we turned off right, and then took a tiny road to the left of a golf course. We emerged in Gotemba, went under the Tomei Expressway, and then turned right at tiny Yamano Shrine. We followed the Ayuzawa river on yet another quiet, picturesque road until Route 78 which would take us back to Odawara. Only it wouldn’t. As we cycled up a short hill to the 78, a traffic guard flagged us down. The road was closed. It was blocked by landslides caused by Typhoon 19. I knew that the Hakone mountain railway had been closed since the typhoon, which had dropped a metre of rain on the area in 24 hours, but I had no idea that it had affected this key road – well, key to us getting back to Odawara. The guard suggested we cycle back the way we had come, but the idea of riding up the roads we had just freewheeled down was too much to take. Instead we got out our phones and let Google Maps do the work.

mark2Never happier than on a bike

We decided to ride east as far as Yamakita and then south to Odawara on the 726. The only problem was Route 246. To get to Yamakita, we would have to take at least a part of this notoriously busy truck route. Fortunately, we managed to avoid most of it by taking a minor road which follows the Gotemba train line. However, just before Yaga, we had to brave the trucks thundering within inches of us for a couple of kilometres. At Yaga, we picked up the old road – Route 76 – which freed us from the threat of sleep-starved truckers. We soon found ourselves on a deserted road which runs through the forests on the east slopes of the Hakone mountain range, linking up farms and villages that dot the hillside. Below us was the broad expanse of the Sakawa River valley with its towns and factories, and in the distance the snow-capped Tanzawa mountains illuminated by the last of the winter sunlight. It was a hard way to finish the ride, as the road is constantly up and down, but it felt good to complete the loop in the way we had done all day – by riding on beautiful, quiet roads. It had been a day of perfect cycling.

route-mapGarmin data for the route here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yakushima

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I planned to start the new decade with a new challenge: my first 100 km ultra-marathon. However, things didn’t go quite to plan. My niggling, chronic ankle injury had flared up again in November and I hadn’t been able to run more than a few kilometres for the last two months. My flights were paid for and my accommodation booked, so I decided I would travel to Yakushima with Sarah who, despite bruising a rib while skiing a week earlier, was definitely going to start the race. My challenge was to do the sensible thing and not race. I packed my hiking boots, a map and waterproofs, and hoped I would go for walks in the forests and mountains of Yakushima, rather than risk serious injury trying to run around the island.

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In the end, everything worked out perfectly. I went for my walk while Sarah made the race around the circumference of the island seem like a walk in the park. She set off before dawn in cold rain and arrived back at the starting point, ten hours later, with rain still falling and a fierce headwind tormenting the runners. She was the first female across the line. Harrison, who was the other Namban runner taking part, shivered through the whole race in shorts and a t-shirt but still won the men’s race. As his t-shirt proclaimed: Death before DNF.

p1120125Harrison and Sarah at the start

While Sarah and Harrison dug deep, I climbed high into the middle of the island through the World Heritage forests that cover Yakushima. After waving the runners off, I drove up to the start of the hike at Yakusugi Land, ate my breakfast in the dark, and then at 7 a.m. entered the gloomy world of the temperate virgin rainforest and its 3,000-year-old sugi (Japanese cedar). It is quite simply one of the most magnificent places on the planet. It is a tumble of rhododendron, sarusuberi (Lagerstroemia), oak, pines, and the astonishing ancient cedars that rise up and spread over everything. The oldest cedars are host to numerous mosses, ferns, and other epiphytes, some large trees themselves.

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For the first half hour of my walk, I stumbled in the near dark of the forest dawn. After a few hundred metres of well-made path, I plunged into the jungle on a tiny trail marked by barely visible pink ribbons. For the next three hours, I followed the ribbons up steep, rocky slopes, through moss-draped azalea thickets, and across the countless rivers that flow down the slopes. Yakushima is one of the wettest places in the world. On the coast, annual rainfall is 4000 mm – nearly three times that of Tokyo – while in the mountains it is 10,000 mm. All this water means that the trees and rocks of the forest are blanketed in moss and ferns, and streams join rivers to thunder down boulder-strewn gorges.

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I had planned to climb Mt. Kuromi-dake and return to the car, but I arrived at nearby Hananoego marsh at midday and decided I had enough time to walk-run to the highest point on the island, Mt. Miyanoura-dake, at 1936 metres. Running in hiking boots is not ideal at the best of times, but on such a wet, steep, tortuous path, it was almost impossible. Instead, I walked and scrambled as fast as possible as the day started to turn pleasingly into a mini adventure. Above 1700 metres, the forest gave way to an exposed rocky ridgeline with only dwarf bamboo for protection from the gale force winds and horizontal rain. I had dressed for speed rather than mountaineering, so I had to keep moving as fast as possible to stave off the numbing cold. It felt great to be on the top of a proper mountain for the first time in years.

p1120170Mt. Miyanouchi-dake

As usual in these conditions, the only thing to tell you that you have reached the top is a signboard. I duly took photos for just a few minutes, but this was long enough for my body to cool and my hands to go numb. I retraced my steps to Hananoego, where my hands finally came back to life, and then headed south-east down the mountain to the head of the road. From there, I jogged-walked along the deserted road back to the car. Just before I reached the car, the sun appeared for a moment to illuminate the whole range of mountains. It had been a big disappointment to pull out of the race, so I knew I had to do something special to make up for it. This day was something special. Every cloud has silver rainfall.

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Photo Gallery

Japanese cedar – the two best places to see the giant sugi are Shirotani Unsui Gorge and Yakusugi Land. They both have short loops through the forests on well-made paths, and you can extend your walk further on hiking trails. I walked through Shirotani on the first day and I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of its forest. They are both high up in the mountains, so you need to drive or take a bus.

Car rental – we used Yakushima Rent-A-Car NAVI which is a local firm run by women. It has great personal service, low prices, and they speak English

Accommodation – we stayed in Minshuku Yakushimaya, not to be confused with Minshuku Yakushima (which we tried to check in to!). Yakushimaya has an annex with three newish, rather spartan, wooden-interior rooms. There is a kettle and fridge, but not a single cup or other implement. There is a bath, but no wardrobe, shelves or chair. But there is a covered veranda with a hammock and great views of the sea. The owners might want to visit charm school.

Coffee – There are a surprisingly large number of coffee shops on the island. We went to Kiina, which was very pleasant. Their food offerings consisted strangely of two choices of fish-and-cheese toasted sandwiches; I didn’t know they were a thing. We also went to the promisingly named Issou Roastery, which promised a lot but delivered very little apart from an icy welcome.

Restaurants – The first night we ate at Shiosai, which served moderately tasty fish dinners from a massive kitchen. The last night we had a magnificent vegan feast at Hiyoriya, run from a house near the airport. We were served a full set menu of countless small dishes by the charming owner. It has to be one of the best vegan meals I have tasted.

Sightseeing – We visited tiny Shidoko Banyan Garden next to Kiina coffee shop. It has 500-year-old bunyan trees and free ponkan oranges. We also visited Yahazudake Shrine which is in a sea cave on the small peninsula north of Isso. It’s a nice spot.

p1130213Yahazudake Shrine

Mt. Fuji International Marathon

fuji marathon 1

I’d entered the Mt. Fuji Marathon at the suggestion of a colleague who likes to do one marathon a year. It was bad timing for me, coming just after the end of the triathlon and season. I would have little time for training, but I thought I would manage somehow. My colleague subsequently dropped out due to a knee injury, but since another colleague, Matt, had also entered, I was happy to go ahead with the race. I also thought it would be good preparation for my first properly long-distance race, the Yakushima 100k ultra marathon on January 12th. My original plan was to add 10k or so to the end of the race to get a feel for ultra distance. This changed when I entered the Go-Go 55k run which took place two weeks before the Fuji race. I now wanted to see how my legs would respond to doing a marathon just two weeks after running 55 km. Well, at least I know the answer now.

Matt was staying in an Airbnb just 2 km from the race start, but I decided to drive up on the morning of the race. As I drove over the hills from Gotemba with the rain lashing down onto the windscreen, I thought about what I would wear for the race. It was unseasonably warm, but the rain would make things difficult. It was still raining when I arrived at the Airbnb, and then cycled to the start to pick up my race number. I had signed up on the English entry site, but this meant my race number and timing chip would not be sent to my home. So I took my bike in the car which made it easy to get my race bag, return to the Airbnb, and then walk with Matt back to the start by Lake Kawaguchi.

img_9942Lake Kawaguchi before the race

It turns out that Mt. Fuji really is an international marathon. Of the 13,000 entrants, probably a quarter are from overseas. Amazingly, there were over 1,000 from Thailand and a slightly lower number from Hong Kong. It seemed that the idea of running by Mt. Fuji was a big draw for these people, most of whom seemed to be using the pre-race time to take photos of the lake and its surrounding maples. Many of the HK people were wearing Stand with Hong Kong shirts, while others were wearing shirts supporting mainland China. This was a new thing for me – marathon as protest.

img_9943Queues everywhere at the start area

The start was the usual chaos of too many people crammed into too small a space. There were long, long lines for the completely inadequate number of toilets, and it was a struggle to squeeze through the crowds trying to get to the bag drop tents. Amazingly, I found one single, empty toilet amongst the organisers’ tents which I could use before the start. I then lined up in Block B while Matt lined up in Block C. As we all stood jammed together, 15 minutes from the start, rain started to fall. I was glad of the rubbish bag I was using for a cape, but at least it was warm rain.

In retrospect, I wish I had just waited for Matt and run with him – one of the many plans I had had, but not followed. Instead, as the gun went off, I shuffled along for the first, narrow kilometre and then opened up to a 4:10 pace. Logically, I would not be able to keep this pace on training of just one 30 km jog and nothing else over 10 km for the last several months. But logical racing has never been my strength.

coursemap_fullmarathon

I felt uncomfortable right from the start. Usually, the first few kilometres of a marathon I am swept along by the event itself, uplifted by the idea of running shoulder to shoulder with so many fellow runners. Instead, it felt hard right from the start. I waited for the heady rush of dopamine and the pain-dulling effect of endorphins, but it didn’t happen. It just stayed tough. I settled my pace down to 4:16 or so which is 3-hour pace, but it felt much harder than it should. It ought to feel easy to run at this pace for the first 20 km, but instead it felt like I usually feel in the second half of the race. At 15 km I felt a blister form on the outside of my left foot which wasn’t a good sign so early on. My right ankle was also starting to hurt, but that was a familiar pain.

Image result for 富士山マラソン2019Descending to Lake Kawaguchi

At least the scenery was splendid, when I could take a moment away from the serious business of running to enjoy it. The rain had stopped shortly after the start, and the surrounding hills were peeking out from cloaking clouds. The first few kilometres of the race take you up a slope away from Lake Kawaguchi, and then the road descends to the lake and follows the north shore around to Lake Saiko. The maples are magnificent at this time of year, and despite the grey sky and damp weather, it was really beautiful in places. At one point, we took a detour from the main lake road and followed a cycle path covered in deep red maple leaves and bright yellow gingkos.

img_4022Lake Kawaguchi in the early morning rain

At 22 km, we left Lake Kawaguchi and climbed for a couple of kilometres to Lake Saiko. Just before this, the 3-hour pacemakers and a small group of attendant runners passed me, and I knew that this was going to be a tough day. At the foot of the climb, I was given a boost by two groups of enthusiastic drummers, and I even managed to enjoy the climb as the change of slope relieved the pains forming in my legs. As we reached Lake Saiko, though, I had to admit that my knee was starting to hurt – something that has never happened before. I tried to will the pain away, and even managed to keep with a faster group of three runners to the far side of the lake, but at a small rise they pulled away. The pain was becoming a concern.

Image result for 富士山マラソン2019

The rest of the race was a slow struggle with the weight in my legs, the pain in my knee, and the feeling that I should try harder to find a mental trick to rise above these corporeal discomforts. Gradually, my kilometre splits descended towards 5 minutes and beyond and I wondered how on earth I had run Shonan Marathon at a 4:11 pace just a year earlier. If there had been an easier way to get to the finish, like jumping on a bus, I would have taken it. Instead, I struggled on with my knee pain becoming gradually more and more ominous.

img_4027All this to get a bottle of lemony water

After a seemingly interminable last few kilometres, I jogged over the line with people sprinting past me on both sides. I received my medal and a toxic-looking cream-filled bread thing, but there was no water for a couple of hundred metres. Actually, what I really wanted was sports drink, but the only place to get it insisted on me taking a photo with said drink and posting it to social media. I lay down with my head on the base of one of their promotional flags and fought off waves of faintness and nausea. If this was preparation for a 100 km ultra-marathon, I think I need a new hobby.

 

Fun video showing the international flavour of the race

A few minutes later Matt breezed in looking as fresh as a daisy and delighted with a huge new personal best of 3:24 – nearly 30 minutes off his previous PB last year. I really did wish I had adopted the sensible plan of running with him. By then, my ankle was in proper pain and I could barely walk. We did manage to find a restaurant called “Peace” which had a vegan menu, but all it meant was their bowl of noodles was short of ingredients and lacking any discernible flavours. As we walked back to the Airbnb to pick up the car, streams of runners were desperately trying to make the 6-hour cut off time as the crowd were shouting “hurry, hurry” and “5 minutes more”. At exactly 3 p.m., there was an explosion of fireworks and the race was finished.

img_4030Trying to make the cut-off

As with all races, there are good things and not so good things about Mt. Fuji Marathon. Starting with the not so good, the finish area was rather disappointing. There was none of the usual selection of sports drinks and cut fruit which you are so desperate for; we just received a bottle of water and an unripe banana. The food stalls around the finish area were dreadful – just the usual oily, meaty festival junk. Why people would want to spend months getting into the peak of health and fitness and then eat a hotdog is beyond me. There were also no massage areas which was disappointing. Finally, there was little support along much of the race, which is not surprising given the location. However, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. The location is stunning. Both the lakes looked beautiful with cloud-covered mountains all around. The autumn colours were at their peak, and the sun even managed to shine on them for a few minutes. The weather ended up perfect with no wind at all, and the temperature around Lake Saiko was 13C. I wore shorts, a thin, short-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and my Namban vest which was just right. The course itself is not fast due to the many short slopes, and the one long one, but much of it is flat around the lakes. And even the race t-shirt is rather stylish. Would I do the race again? Absolutely…but not two weeks after an ultra.

Fuji garminGarmin data here

Image result for 富士山マラソン2019Race t-shirt

 

Rice Cakes

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Rice cakes are a staple of pro cycle racing, but I don’t see them much in triathlon in Japan. This is curious, as they are a tasty energy food which is easy to eat and easy to digest. What’s more, the best rice to make them with is Japanese sticky rice. Race food should always be familiar to you, and there is nothing more familiar here than white rice.

To make them is simplicity itself. For a batch of 10 small rice cakes, you need the following ingredients:

1 cup of rice, 50g coconut milk, 35g honey, 15g chopped raisins, 1 tsp vanilla extract, a sprinkling of salt.

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Put all the ingredients in a rice cooker and add water to a tiny bit above the one cup line.

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Stir the ingredients and put the pot in the rice cooker.

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Press the start button and cook the rice!

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When it is done, press the mixture into a tin lined with greaseproof paper (a small loaf tin works for this small batch) and place in the fridge over night.

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Take out of the tin, cut the rice cake into squares, wrap in foil, paper, or clingfilm, and there you have it. Natural energy food.

There are lots of variations on this. Hannah Grant makes hers with apple juice, cinnamon, and dried apples, while others use ingredients such as cream cheese and vinegar.

Go-Go Run

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The KIWL Go-Go run is a charity event organised by Knights in White Lycra in aid of the NPO YouMeWe which helps children in care homes around Japan. I entered the 55 (go-go) kilometre run which would be my first experience of an ultra-marathon. I was attracted to the idea of doing an informal run without the usual stress of competition, while finding out what it felt like to run 55 km. More important, I could make a tiny contribution to such a worthwhile charity.

The organisation of the run is everything that a race usually isn’t. The start time was flexible, a rough finish time was suggested, and in between you simply ran along the left bank of the Arakawa River. The were also some great touches. We were given a Kuroneko depot address just under a kilometre from the end of the race where I could send a bag full of warm clothes and post-run food. We were also given the contact details of other runners doing the 55k route. And we were given organisers’ email addresses so we could send a message that we were about to start the run. On top of this, we received a PDF full of excellent ultra advice.

Two fellow 55k-ers, David and Marina, arranged to meet at Kanegafuchi at 7:30 a.m. and run at a pace to arrive at the finish at 2 p.m. It sounded like a good plan for my first ultra, so I arrived at the station in time to meet them both. We then took a picture, set our Garmins, and ran down to the Arakawa River. It was a perfect morning. There was not a breath of wind, nor a wisp of cloud, and the sun was already starting to warm the air gently.

David had a plan to run at around 6 min/km pace until his heart rate went above 130, and then walk for a few moments until it had lowered, before running again. This meant about 2 km running followed by 50 metres of walking. Our pace was somewhat slower than 6 mins – about 6:15 – but we continued like this for 25 km as it was so comfortable. The main break from the rhythm of running was to look for drinkable water. Many of the drinking taps and fountains had been damaged by the typhoon, and the others produced tainted water. In the end we found one that tasted strongly of chlorine and filled up on that.

As this was my first ultra, I was a little unsure about what to carry with me and what to eat along the way. The evening before, I had made my usual date-nut-oat energy bars, and for the first time I tried to make rice cakes. These have now become the staple for pro-cycle teams, so I started with a recipe from Nigel Mitchell’s book “Fuelling the Cycling Revolution”, and then modified it with the help of some YouTuber videos. I will post my recipe on my next blog. To these foods I added whole-dried chewy bananas, some gels, and half a bagel sandwich. I knew it would be too much, but I wanted to try everything. In the end, I ate 7 small rice cakes, about 3/4 of what I had made, one gel, two of the bananas, and that was about all I needed. The rice cakes were excellent. Familiar, digestible, tasty, and easy to eat – all the reasons they have become so popular. As for the energy bars, I had no desire to even try one. I don’t think nuts work for me during exercise.

Apart from the uneaten food, I also carried unworn clothing. I had a very light running jacket which I had at least worn on the train, but I also carried an unnecessary insulated vest – 250 grams of surplus baggage. Although I didn’t use any of them, I was happy to carry the following: a little strapping tape, Protect J1 skin cream, voltaren anti-inflammatory liquid, plasters, needle and alcohol (for blisters), lip salve, and toilet paper. I also had a spare battery for my phone. My bag was full, but it didn’t bother me at all, and it was good to carry what I would need on a longer run.

Around 25 km, Marina started to get some knee pain and eased off a little. David and I continued at just over 6 min pace but dropped the walk sections. We were in the zone. We chatted the whole way, talking about all the things that runners talk about, and soaked up the sun and the gradually improving scenery. It is an extraordinary thing to set off from beneath Tokyo Skytree in the heart of the world’s biggest city, and simply run your way out into the countryside. Along the way we saw the damage left by the flooding of a few weeks ago: mud-covered golf courses, upturned goal posts, destroyed shelters, uprooted trees. At first there were many cyclists on the path, but gradually we found ourselves alone apart from the occasional dog walker or runner. At 36 km we came to Checkpoint 1 where a group of students cheered our arrival and presented us with water, onigiri and salt tablets. It was good to stop for a few minutes, but my legs were very stiff when we started off again.

img-3940Refuelling at Checkpoint 1

Before long, we passed the 43 km point and I had a small celebration at running further than I had ever done. We met Roger, who was doing the 23 km run, and his enthusiasm spurred us on. We now had just 12 km to go, but it seemed a long way on heavy legs. I started to contemplate what it would feel like to run 100 km in Yakushima next January. I also spent a lot of time thinking about my ankle problem which had almost made me choose the 23 km course. The ankle did become decidedly uncomfortable at times, but never quite reached the point of pain. Meanwhile, other pains appeared and then eased off in different parts of my body. My left thigh tightened and then my right, but everything was put in context by David who cheerfully talked of how he treats the various pains of long-distance running as old friends. Another thing which took my mind off the discomfort was the fact that David was just starting out on 7 days 7 marathons in aid of the YouMeWe charity. He would be running all the way from Tokyo to Fukushima. As I write this, he is recovering from his second day of running. I am full of admiration.

At 50 kilometres, we reached Checkpoint 2 where we were received with equal warmth and enthusiasm. Two kilometres later, we were met by cyclist volunteers who guided us across a bridge and all the way to the finish in Aina Water Park. We started spotting runners doing the other distances and even summoned the energy to increase our pace till the finish.

david-mark-1David and I at the finish

In keeping with the rest of the event, the finish was fun and relaxed. We lounged around in the sun and then cheered Roger and Marina and others as they finished. We had an informal finish ceremony and then headed off to the nearby children’s home that was being supported by the race. There we received a wonderful welcome and learnt about the work that YouMeWe is doing. The home was presented with four notebook computers as part of a programme to help the children develop computer literacy. The runners were in turn presented with framed certificates and thank you cards. It was very moving. At the end, a ten-year-old boy made a speech in English. It was a charming way to finish a splendid event.

route

Garmin data

 

National Triathlon Championships 2019, Miyazaki

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I went into the 2nd Japanese National Triathlon Championships in Miyazaki without any serious belief that I could win my age group. Shuji Sawada had won every age group race he had entered for the last two years. He had been getting stronger with every race culminating in 5th overall at Murukami in September. Meanwhile, I had chosen mostly smaller, hilly races in 2019 hoping for easier wins in my last year in the 54-59 age group. It was sort of a rest year.

PA260046The ITU World Cup races are held on Saturday

My swim has been getting better over the year, thanks in great part to the fine coaching of Hideo Nakagome at Shonan Bellmare. My cycling had also been enjoying a bit of a revival after a few years of slow decline. At Hiwasa, I had got close to my times of a few years ago, and at Tokunoshima, I managed a cracking bike leg in dreadful weather. But my running had slowed a lot since my 2018 season of personal bests, and this year I have started to feel that my running might finally be entering the inevitable phase of decline.

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Men’s elite race

As usual, I spent a lot of time mentally preparing for the race which was made easier by my familiarity with the course. I thought my way through each part of the course, mentally swimming at my best, riding at my fastest, and then…it all broke down in the run. I couldn’t get my mind past the idea that Sawada is too fast in the run: he would inevitably overhaul me however quickly I managed the bike leg. I almost gave up any hope of improving on my second place in 2018, but a little part of me is eternally positive and optimistic. You never really know what you are capable of.

IMG_3921We get to use the elite transition area

Race morning: cool, clear weather, a stiff offshore breeze, and massive waves crashing into the mouth of the artificial bay where we would soon be swimming. Yet another swim cancellation looked likely, but in the end it was announced that the course would be shortened to 700 metres, with the worst waves by the distant breakwater avoided. We would still have to swim across a sandbar near the beach over which waves were crashing. Even 700 metres would be a challenge. Judging by the big smiles on most faces, it was a popular decision, but after all my swim training, I was disappointed.

PA260042Waves breaking over sandbars in the bay

After the usual opening speeches, we were ready to race. The first wave was for the national championships, with the later waves for the regular age group race. I stood halfway back at the far left with Phil English just ahead of me. The klaxon sounded, the waves miraculously eased for a few moments, and I was soon swimming much too fast out to the first yellow buoy in the distance. Already the lead swimmers, with Phil inevitably amongst them, seemed far away. Soon I was on my own.

02Phil near the front of the pack

I had decided to swim left as I remembered the offshore current from three years ago. True enough, the pack ahead of me got pulled to the right while I cut straight to the turn. I arrived at the buoy as the last person of a small pack was turning to the next buoy, and I managed to stay on his feet for a while. We turned that buoy and then headed back to the beach. It was impossible to see the next buoy amongst the waves, but there was no missing the waves crashing onto the sandbar. Before I knew it, I was on the bar and had to get up and run-wade for several metres until it was deep enough to swim. I sighted on the final buoy and plunged back in.

11Running into T1

The last fifty metres into the beach I rode a couple of waves and then hit the beach, dizzy from the ride. I felt certain I’d had a good swim. As I ran into transition, I tried to work out whether Sawada’s bike was there, but my brain only had enough capacity to pull off my wetsuit, put on my helmet and run out of transition as quickly as possible. Somewhere in the rush I had missed Sawada and wouldn’t see him again until the run.

25Most of the bike course is on a flat motorway

My bike leg couldn’t really have gone any better. Unlike 2018, the road ahead of me was clear thanks to my good swim. The faster swimmers were well ahead, but in my part of the race there was almost no one. I overtook a few people and then gradually, gradually overhauled race number 23. Just then I spotted Phil coming the other way, well ahead of me and near the front of the race. I managed to maintain a slightly wind-assisted 42 km/h until the first turnaround, but there was 23 right behind. All that effort and he was still there. We were now into the wind and I let him go ahead. I dropped back 20 metres but tried to use him as a pace setter. We reached the next turnaround in the same positions. I then overtook him again and buried myself until the next turnaround. Inevitably 23 was still there.At that moment, the familiar compact figure of the mighty Takahashi-san churning a big gear pulled up alongside me. He smiled broadly and pulled away. Number 23 tucked in behind him, held a fair ten metres, and got enough of a pull to hold on to Takahashi. They disappeared into the distance. A few kilometres before the end of the first lap, I quickly passed two slow moving riders who were taking turns to draft each other. At the end of the lap, there they were drafting right behind me. I pushed down even harder, got back on to the motorway, and looked behind. They were both there in my draft. I shouted out that I had their numbers and would report them for drafting. It was enough for them to drop back from my slipstream, and soon they were far behind.

22Phil enters a turnaround

From here on, the road was fairly clear. At each turn I tried to spot Sawada but couldn’t. At one point, I saw a huge pack of young riders drafting almost wheel to wheel. I was so glad to be well away from them. In 2018, I had overtaken a large pack of drafters and spent half the race trying to shake them out of my slipstream. This time I could focus on getting as aero as possible, sinking into my shoulders, keeping everything tucked in. Even into the headwind I was holding 39 km/h; this could be my first ever sub-hour 40 km time trial (although it would need the JTU to separately time the transitions to ever record such a time).

IMG_3904The run goes right along the beach

My mind shifted ahead to the run. How would my legs be after all this effort? I ate half a gel and ran my mind through transition. Before I knew it, I was off the motorway and heading for the dismount line. I ran into T2 and scanned for bikes; the area for my age group was empty. Now the real pain was about to begin. I struggled for a few moments and then was running out past the finish chute and on to the course. After 200 metres I glanced down at my Garmin and eased off a bit: my pace was too high at 3:35. 200 metres later it was at 3:40, and at the end of the first kilometre, 3:42. At this point, the course doubles back on itself, up a very slight incline, and back again the same way, describing a wiggly W. I spotted Sawada coming the other way and gauged I was a minute ahead. He would need 6 seconds a kilometre over me.

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Triathlon only really gets hard in the run. The swim has its challenges, but basically your body is supported by the water and your wetsuit floating thereon. If you tire, you slow down and catch your breath. The bike is the same. You can ease off the pedals for a while and the bikes still keeps moving fast. The run, however, is something completely different. Every step is a fight against gravity and the pounding push and pull on every muscle and tendon and ligament in the lower half of your body. Your whole body weight is accelerating into the road and then that acceleration is reversed by your legs. Over and over again, 180 times a minute. Slowing doesn’t really ease the pain. I tend to keep going as fast as possible to shorten the time to the finish and the chance to end the suffering. This is real endurance sport – the ability to find something deep inside which allows you to get close to your true limit. As luck would have it, this was to be a day when I could find that something. On the second lap, at the W-bends, Sawada was a fraction further back. I later learned that he had suffered some twinges of cramp as he searched for that same deep endurance. The next lap he was a bit closer again, but by then I had started to feel that I would hold on. By the final lap, the gap was unbridgeable, so I just closed off my mind to everything and ran my way to the finish.

32Phil finishes, Komano collapses

It had been one of those rare races in which every moment had gone well. Looking back, I cannot think of a way that I could have gone faster. In the swim, I was at my limit and left the water feeling woozy. I had averaged 1:31 per 100m despite the wild water. T1 was quick – it turned out later that I had overtaken Sawada somewhere in transition. Neither of us saw the other which is decidedly odd. Where on earth had our paths crossed in that narrow space? My average pace on the bike was 38.2 km/h which includes running up from the beach to T1 and both transitions. Removing transitions, that is pretty close to the elusive one-hour bike split. I think I could go faster, but I am not sure I would stay conscious in the process. On the run, I really was at my physical and mental limit, although my pace of 3:50 was a little slower than in 2018. Towards the end, I had started to feel lightheaded but battered the feeling away. Once over the finish line, I made it as far as the grass and let gravity take over.

IMG_3924Phil, me, and honorary TiTer, Tommy

IMG_4530Me, Jack, Mario

Later in the recovery tent, I talked to a very disappointed Sawada-san who seemed rather discombobulated by the whole thing. We were soon joined by others in our age group eager to know the result. No one could quite believe that Sawada had finally been beaten. Misu-san couldn’t hide his delight. So Sawada-san was human after. And that is the thing in sport. We let our thoughts defeat us. Next, Phil joined us bringing with him the incredible news that he had come third overall. He too had had a perfect race and had finally found his cycling legs. Next year, he is sure to start winning races. And I will be in the 60-64 age group; what an idea.

Results

My Garmin data

JTU photo gallery

 

 

 

 

Upright in Osaka

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I was returning for my second attempt at the Osaka Castle Triathlon with some ghosts to bury. Last time in 2017, I had left rather a lot of skin on a wet, gravelly, and very slippery corner. This led to me missing the Asian Championships the following weekend, and to riding even more cautiously than ever on wet roads. This year, the forecast was once more for rain, but unlike last time I wouldn’t take my road bike for “safety”. Instead I boldly took my TT bike with deep section wheels, as well as the old tri-suit I had been wearing, complete with sewn-up holes from the crash. As the weekend approached, so did a typhoon, along with promises of strong winds and heavy rain. I was beginning to regret my boldness.

On Saturday morning, Sarah and I met up at Shin Osaka station and persuaded a helpful taxi driver to squeeze our two bikes into his car, while an unhelpful taxi usher kept trying to usher us to the taxi-van stop. Ten minutes later, we were at Noku Hotel where the staff treated us like honoured guests, aware that boss Keren would be arriving soon. Among the perks we received was the immense luxury of a 10 a.m. check in on Saturday, and an 8 p.m. check out on Sunday. After Keren, we walked just down the road to the rather good Sunrise Indian restaurant. Sarah and I had exactly the same lunch, but mine was 200 yen more expensive as I don’t qualify for the “lady’s set”.

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Since the inaugural race in 2017, Osaka Castle Triathlon has grown into a large event with both elite and age group races. The elites race in the ASTC Sprint Triathlon Asian Cup, and the age groupers have a choice of both standard and sprint distance. All the races take place in and around the castle park. The big draw is to swim up and down the castle moat, which despite its murky appearance is surprisingly pleasant to swim in. The bike course has been much improved since the carnage of two years ago when embattled medics patched up lines of wounded cyclists with Vaseline and clingfilm. Gone are most of the narrow, winding paths through the park woods; instead, most of the bike course goes up and down a dead straight road just outside the park. The run course is much the same: it curves around the castle perimeter before climbing up through a gate into the keep, and then back to the start; four times.

course map

There was an English race briefing which managed to tell us almost nothing useful about the race. The top technical official skipped through a PowerPoint in Japanese while an interpreter who knew nothing about triathlon struggled to translate random details into English. Meanwhile, a second official, who spoke excellent English, kept stepping in to explain the most puzzling parts. We all wondered why he didn’t just do the briefing as he clearly knew more about the race than anyone else in the room. The most entertaining part was when the interpreter showed us a cartoon of a woman vomiting blood and told us we must retire if we started to “produce bloody spectum”. It seemed like sound advice.

We spent the rest of the afternoon cycling 10 km for a cup of overpriced coffee in a café full of remarkably similar-looking youths taking unique selfies. We later went in search of somewhere for dinner and discovered the excellent and very reasonably-priced Osteria Mira. For once, there was no rush with dinner as our race was to start at 11:30 a.m. the next morning. That evening, we learnt that Ironman Gurye had been cancelled due to the same typhoon that was expected to bring rain and winds to Osaka.

The next morning, I met Keren outside the hotel where we sniffed the air and gauged the chances of rain. It was a bit windy but there were patches of blue poking out from the clouds. It looked promising. We had a leisurely breakfast and then cycled the 2 or 3 kilometres to the race. None of us looked in prime race condition. All I had managed to bring back from two weeks at altitude in India was a nagging cold caught on the plane home. My endlessly nagging ankle had continued to limit both my training and my patience. Keren’s training had involved running the Marathon du Médoc where each aid station serves copious quantities of local wines; Sarah had spent a sleepless week of high-pressure work in Seoul. What we all needed was a refreshing dip in a castle moat.

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It was only just after 9 a.m., but already the elite men had finished their sprint race, and there were large crowds of spectators waiting for the elite women. We racked up our bikes in the extremely long and rather narrow transition and waited for our time to arrive. Despite all the time we had, we ended up having to rush to the race start. I got to the end of the pontoon and slipped into the pea-green water for the 5-minute warm-up sensibly scheduled just before the race start.

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We lined up treading water beneath the pontoon, mentally counting down to the start. I pressed the button on my Garmin, the klaxon blared, and we were off. After three or four mad strokes I looked up to see someone already 15 metres ahead. How on earth did he get there? Was Mark Spitz in our wave? He’d be about the right age. Another person went off in chase of Mark Spitz, while I struggled to keep up with a group of three or four people just behind. Before the first turn buoy, I pulled away and kept third place until we got out of the water at the end of the first lap. On the second lap I finally caught up with the second-place person, but each time I tried to pass him he veered into my side and pushed me towards the wall. I let him zigzag his way ahead to the finishing ramp.

Mark Osaka wetsuit 2Fighting with my wetsuit

At T1, I struggled to peel my wetsuit over my elbows and wrists, but the long transition gave me plenty of time to wrestle with the neoprene. I was soon on my bike weaving through the slower people who’d started an hour earlier in waves one and two. The course is simple: you basically ride up and down, up and down a dual carriageway, making four 180-degree turns, before riding into the park, around a roundabout, and back out to the dual carriageway; six times. Apart from the twenty-four 180-degree turns, there are several sharp bends and narrow bottlenecks in the park, but there was surprisingly little bunching or blocking. Despite hitting 42 km/h at times, I had no near misses. For me all the stops and starts were very hard work – I just don’t have the explosive power to ride out of corners. I much prefer to get up to speed and hold it for an hour or two. But the sun kept peeking out, the roads were dry, and I finished the bike safely.

Mark leaving transition

I arrived at T2 with no other bikes in my section. I pulled on my running shoes and hit the lap button on my watch…twice. I keep doing this. I tried pushing buttons at random but all I could find was a display telling me I had done a total of 32 km. That didn’t make sense. Had I missed a lap of the bike course? And how many laps was the run course? Was it definitely four? As usual, my brain had shut down all extraneous functions to focus on persuading my legs that they desperately needed a rest. I needed my watch to be working as my brain wasn’t. It didn’t help that I seemed to be the first person from my wave on the run course. I ran up into the castle keep, around the 180 turn, and then back down again. I was relieved to see another person from my wave with the number 1326, but then immediately realised he was close behind and running well. Was he in my age group? I was 1363, so he might well be.

The next lap I saw 1326 again and he was definitely closer. The trouble was I just couldn’t discover my running legs. I felt dull and sluggish – where was the drive to push myself to the next pain zone? On the third lap I spotted Keren who was clearly struggling. He looked like he was hoping the aid station would miraculously start serving wine. He shouted out that I was in second place, and I replied, “That’s good enough”. Oh dear. I tried to increase my pace but my legs just weren’t listening. On the fourth lap I saw Sarah who was showing everyone how to run properly, but it didn’t help me, as 1326 shot past as I approached the finish. In a different race, I would have dug deep, but instead I relied on the hope that he was in a different age group. I crossed the finish line, shook hands with him, and asked his age: 54. It was not the most honourable way to come “first” in a race. I had been saved by a rare sub-25-minute swim and a speedy ride on a slow bike course.

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p9220023Keren and Sarah approaching the finish

I rushed to get my camera and take photos of Keren and Sarah running in. Keren came first with a pained look on his face, running as if he had just done a marathon barefoot across broken wine bottles. Sarah came flying in next looking like she had a plane to catch (which she did…back to Seoul on Monday). I tried to keep up with her to the finish line, but she was in such a hurry that I gave up and walked. We soon forgot all the pain of the race thanks to some cold beers, warm but sadly tasteless veggie burgers, and amazing free oil massages. As my legs were being pummelled, rain starting to pound on the tent roof. The heavens really opened just in time for the start of the medal ceremony. It turned out that both Sarah and I had won our age groups, so we went up to collect our medals in front of a huddle of people hiding beneath umbrellas. I think we were all happy to trade a dry race for a wet medal ceremony.

I tend to avoid flat, circuit-type races, such as Yokohama and Takamatsu, but I enjoyed this one. Swimming in the moat is obviously a unique experience, especially with a line of spectators cheering you on. The new bike course is well thought-out and safe, and the run is pleasant enough. There is a small expo and several other events going on. It sounds like it is going to get even bigger next year when they will move it to May and put it on the elite World Cup circuit. The best part of all is having Keren wangle a late check out from the hotel. It felt like true luxury being able to go back to shower and pack in comfort. Even the return journey is not too bad as the Shinkansen starts in Osaka meaning non-reserved cars were half entry. With my luxury bento and rock-solid ice cream, I could start thinking ahead to my next race in Fukuyama. Three weeks to get my legs to ignore my brain again.

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Train Hot, Race Cool

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Bewl Water is a large reservoir 75 km south-east of London in the High Weald of Kent. It is a beautiful place set in rolling hills with mixed forest and meadows. The triathlon there is much like the other races I have done in Britain – well-organised but very relaxed. Everything is quite different to Japan. Registration is on the morning of the race, transition is always open, and the briefing takes place five minutes before the start. Basically, you must take responsibility for your own safety and that of others, and if you don’t know anything, ask. The biggest difference for me is that the roads are not closed for traffic, so you need to ride much more cautiously.

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There were two races, a sprint and a standard distance. The sprint distance was due to start at 7 a.m., and my race, the standard, would set off a quarter of an hour later.  Transition was set up in a grass field up above the reservoir. This meant a 650-metre run up a steep hill from the swim to T1. Part of this was on gravel which meant a lot of people had set up extra running shoes by the water. As with all the races I have done in the UK, you choose your own transition spot – it’s first come, first served. I was early so I could choose a prime spot near the bike exit and entrance. There was also bags of room – another big difference to Japan, where transition is invariably crammed into a too-small space.

bewl-waterThe swim start

Before the briefing, it was announced that the water was 21.3oC which meant we could wear wetsuits (over 22oC and wetsuits would not have been allowed). That was good news for me. We enjoyed the briefest of briefings, and then the sprint race was off with a minimum of fuss. One minute everyone was chatting and laughing by the water, the next they were stretched out across the lake. Next it was our turn. We swam out to a pontoon, lined up for the start, and almost instantly we were off. And almost instantly there were 20 people ahead of me racing to the first buoy. The course was a 750-metre square with no exit from the water between laps. Despite the perfect conditions – there was not a breath of wind or a ripple on the water – I never quite got into the swim. I felt the lower buoyancy of the fresh water, and also my lack of recent hard training. Despite this, I did manage to overhaul many of the people ahead of me who had clearly gone out too fast. Halfway round the first lap, I reached the feet of one person swimming at about my pace, but I never could quite draft him. He would swerve off one way or the other, speed up, and then slow down. I gave up and swam the second lap alone.

The end of lap 2 came at last and I set off up the hill to T1. I had plenty of time to mentally plan my transition, and even pressed the right buttons on my Garmin. It felt good to get on my bike and start the gentle climb away from the reservoir. The course is two undulating loops of the lake, with a few short, steep climbs. Most of it is on quiet, narrow lanes which are beautiful but plagued with bumps and grooves and potholes. I was glad to be on my road bike with clip-on TT bars; it was perfect for me on this course. I am just not brave enough to ride a TT bike on winding, bumpy roads. Others are clearly braver. Just before the end of the first lap, a guy in full TT set up – rear disc wheel, high socks, long-sleeve skinsuit – passed me at speed. I kept up with him for a while, and even overtook him on a hill, but it was a lost cause. I wondered how he would be running in all this cycle gear (I later found out that he wouldn’t – he was part of a relay team).

WealdOast house in the Kent Weald

Being on open roads, there were a few scary moments on the bike. In one village, a 4×4 overtook me very closely and then stopped right in front. The UK seems to have more than its fair share of enraged drivers who feel cyclists should not be on the roads, and it is their job to remove them. I had to stop completely, keep calm, and then carry on. The last mile of the course is even worse as it’s on the busy A21 with cars flying past at 60 mph. Not my favourite part of the day.

gowm1945My mother cheering me out of T2

As I freewheeled into T2, I heard the familiar sound of my mother and sister cheering. They had driven over from Shoreham in time to watch the bike leg. Unfortunately, the course didn’t allow that, so they had to make do with yelling at me on each of the four laps of the run. And how I needed it. The course was surprisingly tough. You ran 800 metres downhill to the foot of the reservoir wall, 400 metres up to the far side of the dam, back along the top of the dam wall, and then a final 400 metres back up to the start. Four times with a total 130 metres of climbing. At the end of the first lap, I spotted one guy ahead of me running at speed. I finished the first lap and my sister shouted that I was in third. Surely it was a mistake. There must have been lots of people ahead. On my way back down to the foot of the reservoir I saw a couple of young and fast runners clearly intent on catching me, so there went any hope of an easy run. I dug in and at the end of the second lap, they were still the same distance behind me.  By the end of the third, they were far behind, and I overtook the guy ahead. Running in the hills and heat and humidity of Hayama had prepared me well for the milder conditions of southern England.

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At last the finish came. I hugged my mother and walked over the finish line to be told I had come second. They were sort of right. I was actually second male, but third overall as the speedy Kate Mactear of Bristol Sports Science had beaten me by 2 minutes. She is a former European age group champion and I guess a potential future elite. The winner of the male race was the marvellously named Harrison Rolls-King. He was 12 minutes faster than me, but given the fact that he is 40 years younger and has a physique even more impressive than his name, I was happy with the result.

Results here

Garmin data here