Day 4: Hakuba — Yubiso
Date: Wednesday, 20 May 2015, depart 7am.
Major Climbs: Shirasawa Domon (1086m), Sugadaira Kogen (1325m), Torri Pass (1374m), Daido Pass (797m), Road 270 Pass (1022m)
A hard day on the bike.
The night before we spoke with Adam from Blue Monkey Lodge about the challenges that lay ahead. He would be riding and guiding us back to his lodge in Yubiso. We had already ridden 400km in the previous 3 days and were nervous with how we would go with the 185km of Day 4. Will we make it to Yubiso before sundown? Will anyone crack on this mountainous day? How will we go on Day 6’s 277km ride into Tokyo if we can’t make it through Day 4 in one piece? These were questions creeping into the back of some of our minds. For the first time in the trip we had to really get focused for the day ahead. Up until now it had all been fun and games.
We woke up early this morning and gathered in front of B&B Santana. Getting ourselves ready in the golden sunlight we were ready to go by 7am. Following Adam's wheel through the crisp mountain air, we rode for less than 3km before we hit our first short but steep climb of the day. The group split almost straight away. Only a few of the guys could follow the wheel of Adam through the lower sections, as he and Albert effortlessly pulled away up the road disappearing into the forest. The rest of us struggled over the steep sections, 14% gradients at some points, finding a pace we could handle. We stopped at the top of the climb and turned around to a view of the snow capped mountains of Hakuba behind us. It was an awesome sight.
After regrouping at the top we passed through a short mountain tunnel before riding down the other side of the mountain. It was a long, fast and technical descent. Adam led the way through narrow roads and sharp corners. The group strung out in a long line as we whizzed down the side of the mountain, passing small villages and rice fields for the next 30km. At the bottom of the valley we reached the city of Nagano, which we had to pass through to get to our next set of mountains to climb. There was no other way around the city except straight through but the traffic was not as bad as we had expected and we reached the other side of the city faster than anticipated. We briefly stopped at a 7-11 in Suzaka to refuel before taking on the biggest climb of the trip.
By the time we set off from the 7-11 convenience store it was late morning and the weather was now sunny and getting quite hot. The road immediately started to rise as we rode through the outskirts of Nagano, making our way towards the mountains. We rode a steady 6km incline through town roads before we would even reach the road that would take us up the Sugadaira Climb. Officially a 12km to pass over the top from the bottom, it was more like 18km of uphill from when we started at the bottom at the 7-11 in Suzaka. We reached the foot of the mountain and the group began to separate again. We rode up in small bunches of 2s and 3s and at times on our own. The wide road snaked its way up into the distance with large sweeping hairpins cropping up from time to time. Being a main road we encountered cars and trucks from time to time but the road was so wide it did not cause an issues with the traffic easily able to pass by as we slowly battled our way up the road. We reached the top approximately 45 minutes later and in desperate need to rehydrate. It was really hot.
After filling up our water bottles and taking in some energy bars we started the 10km descent before tackling the next climb of the day, the Torri Pass. Similar in difficulty to the Sugadaira climb but much shorter in length at 5km. The previous 12km climb did not completely drain us but the Torri Pass had us digging deeper to get to the top. We stopped in the shade of the trees at the top of the mountain. It was a short but welcomed reprieve from the sun as we regrouped before the straight descent down the otherside.
Having covered 100km we stopped for lunch at a 7-11 in Ozasa, half way down the continuous downhill roads we had been following. We had become accustomed to long 1 to 1.5 hour lunches in restaurants on the previous 3 days and a 7-11 pit stop was not our preferred option. With not many places available to eat in the area and not having the luxury of stopping for an hour for lunch today we made do with what the 7-11 had to offer. Having said this, the convenience stores in Japan are stocked with some pretty good food. Sushi, rice balls, udon, and other hot Japanese food are all available. It even tastes pretty good and was definitely a lot more appetizing in comparison to the hot dogs and meat pies you can find at convenience stores back home in Australia. We sat in the shade outside the 7-11 and filled up on various sushi or other rice based dishes.
Before too long we were back on the bike, cruising downhill through various towns, passing through loads of mountain tunnels and over large bridges above the valley below. Halfway through a 2.5km tunnel, the longest one we would ride through on the trip, Bob punctured. It was quite possibly the worst place to get a flat tyre and was a stark comparison to where Ben puncture outside the Olympic stadium on Day 1. The pollution and noise in the tunnel was horrible and we were glad to get of there as soon as possible. There was a noticeable change in the terrain as we got closer to Blue Monkey Lodge in Yubiso. The mountains weren’t quite as big and spectacular but instead became much more short and steep. The mountains now felt like the were tightly compressed together with little to no flat space around us. After a 40km undulating descent we reached the town of Nakanojo and a large Shrine. It was situated just outside the town and in the middle of the woods. We walked around the shrine in the cooling shade of the tall trees for a while, taking photos and just enjoying a bit of time off the bike and out of the heat.
Leaving the shrine we began ascending once more. It was tough going and we were feeling tired. The group stayed more or less together over the next couple short climbs before we would reach Lake Akaya. We stopped once more taking in the view of the lake and marveling at the Koinibori, Carp Streamers which crossed from where we were standing to the other side of the lake. The carp-shaped wind socks are traditionally flown Japan to celebrate Tango no Sekku, the 5th lunar moon of the calendar. It is now an event designated as a National holiday, Children’s Day. We left the lake still with another 20km to go before we would reach Blue Monkey Lodge.
We would end the day powering over the final climb and descent. Finishing strongly as a group we pace lined through Minakami as the wind from the oncoming storm began to hit us. Over the previous hour, sinister storm clouds in the distance were growing ever closer. As it started to rain we arrived at Blue Monkey Lodge, where we would stay for the next 2 nights. It was a very hard day on the bike and we were very happy to see the lodge in Yubuso, a mountain town situated on the edge of a rocky river.