The Joganji River valley
Toyama Iki Iki Triathlon has to be one of the best races on the JTU circuit. It features a fantastic point to point leg which takes you from the Japan Sea coast south and east to Takeyama-sanroku ski resort at 600 metres above sea level. The run then continues climbing a further 100 metres up alongside a grassy piste. If it had been tough in 2015, it promised to be even tougher this year as the run had been reduced from 3 x 3.3 km circuits to 2 x 5 km circuits which climbed even higher up the ski slopes. However, there was one marked organisational improvement: the race briefing had been moved from the pungent discomfort of the fish market to the relative luxury of the Toyama Keirin Stadium.
Race briefing at Toyama Keirin Velodrome
Several TiTers were doing the race – Hoel, Youri, Jay, Mike & Rieko Trees, and ex-pro Stephen Farrell who was over from New Zealand. After lunch at the excellent Santoshi Indian restaurant, we cycled 10 km north to the keirin stadium. It was a burning hot day and the briefing was in the open-air seating around the track. The only thing to take our minds off the heat was the groups of keirin riders lazily circling the track for several minutes before building up to a blistering sprint lap. How they did this in the stifling heat inside the stadium is anyone’s guess. At least they didn’t have to suffer the hopeless, rambling, pointless briefing relayed through an inadequate loudspeaker. There were a couple of key bits of information, though. The sea temperature was an incredible 31C, so wetsuits were not compulory. And a landslide on the bike course had lead to a diversion up the main Route 6. We would have to ride alongside the traffic for a few kilometres, and cross the busy road twice.
Swim start at Iwasehama
On Sunday morning we took a taxi to the start of the race at Iwasehama. We checked in our run shoes for T2 and a finish bag for the post-race descent of the mountain back to Toyama, and then prepared for the swim. The sea was very calm, but felt every bit of its 31 degrees. Fortunately, I had taken my sleeveless wetsuit which turned out to be the perfect choice. At 8:30, the first wave set off with Stephen and Mike heading out near the front of the pack. Youri and Hoel looked to be close behind. 6 minutes later, Jay and I followed.
Jay waiting for the start……….Mike finishing the first lap
It was my first race in a sleeveless wetsuit and it felt much more comfortable than a full wetsuit. Being in the 3rd wave, there was no mad fighting for position, so I soon got into a steady rhythm. Not too fast, but with the tough bike course, and the even tougher run course ahead, I knew the race wouldn’t be decided on the swim. It was an uneventful swim which took me over 27 minutes – way too slow as usual, but at least I left the water feeling strong.
New bike stands in transition
Transition is fast and simple. You run up the beach, across a small bank of grass, in one side of transition and out the other. I had a really fast T1 and was soon on the coastal cycle path your follow for the first few kilometres. As it is narrow and winding, you are not allowed to use aero bars, although it is not clear where this section ends. You then use the sidewalk of a bridge to cross the river, and drop down on to an excellent wide, riverside path which takes you for the next 20 km up into the mountains. It seemed flat, but the gradient must increase imperceptibly, as my speed gradually dropped from 40 kph little by little to 30 and below. I kept looking at the rice terraces to reassure myself that I was climbing rather than having a terrible day on the bike.
At the end of the path, you go under a bridge, double back to the road, cross a railway line on a level crossing, and then turn left across the river bridge. There are two level crossings, and each time a madly waving JTU official maked us come to a complete stop, touch a foot on the ground, before waving us on. Up at the bridge, there were no officials showing the way, so I guessed right and headed down the street. I’d guess wrong, but luckily for me the person behind yelled at me ‘hidari’ and saved me a long detour.
Stephen Farrell climbing
From this point on, the road climbs steeply up through some woods and comes out on a plateau of rice fields. It is a beautiful spot with the road winding off towards the distant mountains. Until this point, a TT bike would have been faster, but from here on, my road bike allowed me to take the bends and short descents at full speed. Well, I thought I was going at full speed down one descent until a guy on a TT bike flew past. I must try harder in future. On the next climb, I passed the same guy, before passing both Stephen Farrell and Hoel in quick succession. Clearly I had been trying hard after all.
The final climb
The promised detour involved a descent to the beautiful Joganji River, crossing the busy Route 6, and then riding up the main road for 5 km. At the junction, several officials were screaming at me to stop, but just as I got to the road, a gap opened in the traffic and I was waved straight across. Lucky me. It is a steady climb from here up to T2 at the ski resort, and misses the agonising 10 degree slope we had had to climb the previous year.
Aerial view of the ski resort – the orange line is the run course
I entered T2 with pleasingly few bikes racked up, but disconcertingly with Youri standing around looking a bit lost. He was shoeless, having forgotten to hand in his T2 transition bag at the start of the race. I found my own running shoes and headed out on what I knew would be a brutal ascent of the ski slopes, made more brutal by the burning heat. I tipped a bottle of ice cold water over my head and started the climb. I tried to keep my legs turning over, but the slope seemed to stretch on forever. Several people were walking, but I was determined to run if it killed me. My resolve started to weaken when I spotted the race leader, 16-year-old Taiwanese superstar Chang Chia Hao, walking the last part of the climb. I walked several blissful steps before coming to some steps which were easier to run. After the climb, the course zigzags down through some trees, and then climbs an out-and-back section to the next piste. On my return, I spotted Hoel coming towards me at speed. It would take a lot to beat him to the line.
Climbing the ski piste
The second lap felt easier than the first. I knew how high I had to climb, so this time I kept running to the top. I passed Rieko Trees who seemed to be enjoying the run, and then a little later we were blessed with heaven-sent rain which soon turned into a deluge. At the mid-lap turnaround, I saw Hoel had narrowed the gap between us, so I tried to step up the pace a little. As I neared the finish, I glanced once over my shoulder, but somehow missed Hoel doing a high-speed ninja act. As I started to raise my arms for the finishing tape, he leapt through the air and crossed the line two seconds ahead of me. I seem to remember he added a samurai war cry at the same time. A few minutes later, Youri miraculously ran past us in a bright green pair of running shoes. It turned out that he had persuaded the guy from the Sports Assist stall to give him a pair of shoes on credit! So despite adding an impromptu S1 to T2, he still managed to finish in 33rd place. Jay followed him in 55th place.
Heavy rain cooled the run course
As the rain continued to fall, we took shelter in the ski resort, enjoying salmon sushi and noodles, while waiting for the medals ceremony. Rieko had the best result of all of us, coming in an impressive 2nd overall in the women’s race. I managed to win the 50-59 AG, which won me some small bottles of sake and lots of packages of sugar. It seems like a recipe for something. As with last year, we cycled back down the mountain to Toyama, but unlike last year, we were in no hurry as Hoel, Jay, and I were staying for a second night so we could ride over the Alps on Monday.
Rieko Trees takes second place behind Taiwanese pro, Chang Ting Ting
Post-race sightseeing in Toyama
Monday – Toyama to Matsumoto via Abo Pass
Route 158 entering the Alps
On Monday, Hoel, Jay and I cycled to Matsumoto on Routes 41, 471, and 158. It is a 145 km ride over the Alps, with a steady climb up to the 1790m Abo Pass (安房峠). We started off trying to ride south out of Toyama along the Jinzu River path, but after several dead ends, we gave up and opted for Route 69. Soon the traffic thinned and we were riding in fields with the river down below.
Rowing on the Jinzu River
At Sasazu, we joined the busier Route 41, which passes several hydro-electric projects on the Jinzu. At one reservoir, single oarsmen rowed their boats beneath steep valley sides. The water looked inviting as the sun burnt and the temperature steadily rose. One roadside sign displayed 36C. We doused ourselves with water at a temple, but up ahead black clouds were collecting over the mountains.
Hot and high – heading into the Alps
At Kamioka, we left Route 41 and headed south-east on the much quieter Route 471. A sign warned of 12 degree slopes ahead, and soon we were all struggling in first gear, wishing for the clouds to block the sun. Despite the heat, it was a great ride up the valley – few cars, grand mountains, occasional shade from trees.Just before Hirayu Spa, we reached the entrance to the Abo-toge toll road, just as it started to rain. We sheltered by a toilet block for a while, but it was clear the rain was here to stay. We rode down into Hirayu, and then picked up Route 158 again. From the map it looks to be the main road to Matsumoto, but it is in fact a small, battered mountain road that winds up through deep forest. As the rain intensified, the forest became darker and darker, and we were left with nothing to do but push on the pedals. Jay had lead the way for the last hour, but near the top, as the rains poured down, I found myself approaching the pass on my own.
Abo-toge in fine weather
At the top, the rain turned into a biblical downpour – it was hard to see the way ahead, hard to even think with water lashing down from the sky, turning the road into a muddy torrent. We had talked earlier of how many tunnels there were on the 158, so thinking them just ahead, I tried to pick a line down between the torrents and debris, but soon my brakes were struggling to slow the bike, and my body was struggling to keep warm. The day had turned into a bit of an adventure. 5 km down, I spotted an onsen sign by the road, with a small roof over the sign. I sheltered from the rain and hoped that Hoel and Jay would soon emerge from the deluge. First Hoel appeared, his lips a worrying shade of blue, and then Jay rolled towards us, shaking all over like a shocked and very cold ghost. Jay pointed up to the ryokan and just managed to get out the words “I’m going up here”.
After the rain – the view from Nakanoyu Onsen
We entered Nakanoyu Onsen reception area and dripped all over the lobby as staff rushed around looking for a solution to three very wet and cold problems standing in their ryokan. Towels were brought, tickets paid for, and soon we were soaking in absolute luxury. If you want to really experience the joy of a rotemburo, you need to ride across an alpine pass in a cataclysmic storm.
Nakanoyu Onsen on a better day
Looking much happier after the onsen
We left the ryokan warmed and ready to ride fast down to Matsumoto, helped by the rain easing off. Unfortunately, 3 km below the ryokan, Route 24 from Kamikochi joins the 158 before plunging through a series of dark, bumpy and very narrow tunnels. With only two rear lights between us, we felt vulnerable in the tunnels as streams of buses thundered past us. For the next 20 km, our alpine bike ride turned into a miserable battle against cars, buses and roaring trucks. At one point we stopped for 30 minutes as the rains returned and we lost the will to battle the buses.
As we approached Matsumoto, the rain stopped, the air warmed, and the traffic ground to a halt in a long jam leading into the city. We quickly passed all those who had thundered past us earlier, and arrived at the station in time for the 6:40 express to Shinjuku. Only the 6:40 wasn’t there. The 5 o’clock express was still standing at the platform stranded by our mountain rains. It seemed an appropriate end to a rather eventful day.
Toyama to Matsumoto