With the weather getting milder and the mornings getting a bit lighter, it was time to get back into early morning rides and the bigger hills this weekend. Until two weeks ago there was still quite a lot of snow and ice on the higher passes, which isn’t necessarily too bad when it’s light, but certainly not any fun in the dark. As such I’ve tended to go out in the afternoon but that gives me two hours max out the house.
Spring was definitely in the air at the end of last week, though, so I dragged myself out of bed at 4.30 on Sunday morning with the aim of being on the road by 5.00 and back at 8 for breakfast. The weather forecast had been for cloud, but it was clear and 3°c when I finally got out the door at quarter past five, so I was expecting it to be a bit fresh on the descents.
It was still pitch black as I made way along Route 238 to Route 237, which would take me up to the Mt Kubote climb. Once onto Route 237 it’s a steady 14-kilometre climb up to 253 metres, although a headwind made it heavier going .
I got to the junction with Route 32, and the main climb of the day, just as it was starting to get light – prefect timing. From this side, it’s a Cat 3 climb (5.2km @ 6%) up to the Jirobo Pass on the shoulder of Mt Kubote.
The first 1.8 kilometres are an older, one and a half lane road, but the upper part is a superb two-lane highway of cuttings and bridges that was only finished in 2008 at a cost of 4,700,000,000 yen (£33.5 million). The road is apparently a big favourite with motorcyclists and there is a lot of rubber on some of the bends but I’ve ever come across any traffic whatsoever. The climb has number markers on each bend to help you gauge your (lack of) progress. Climbing from this side, there are 28 bends, from the Buzen side, there are 17.
Once you’re on the new section, the mountain is on the right and there are some great views out over the valley to your left, especially this time of year when most of the grass has died back. The last time I climbed from this side was in July and at the same time of day it was about 25°c and 90% humidity – needless to say, it was easier in the cold.
The top of the Jirobo Pass is a bit of a disappointment in that there’s not much of a view and there’s a bridge (carrying a footpath) over the top of it, so I never really feel like I’ve completed the climb unless I go up that, too.
The last couple of times I’ve been up here, they have been work on a new forest road just next to the pass and I think it had been due for completion at the end of February. The notice there this time has this section due to be finished next week, and it looks like it will eventually join up, via Mt Kunimi, with the section I came across last week – should be a great road when it’s finished.
Similar to the way up from Chikujo, the top part of the road down to Buzen is quite new, but it’s much narrower most of the the way down. Generally I prefer climbing the Buzen side and going down the Chikujo side just because you can really let go on the top part of the descent. As you get down to bend 4 on the Buzen side you get to the first of the 500 stone monks which are scattered over Mt Kubote. On Sunday I had the added bonus of a spectacular sunrise over the ridge of the valley, but you can’t really spend too long admiring the view as you’ve got to be ready to take evasive action from suicidal / homicidal deer. Two kilometres down from the pass there’s a junction marked by a gaggle of stone monks and a number of small water falls and springs.
From there it’s another two mainly straight kilometres down to the valley. On Sunday I came across five groups of deer on that section alone, but fortunately they headed back up into the trees rather than zigzag across the road. The valley at the bottom of the climb is a designated cultural landscape, and its beautifully maintained stone walls are a refreshing change from the concrete that covers much of the rest of the Japanese countryside.
For cyclists its a paradise; it’s 8 traffic light-free kilometres down the valley at -3% or there is a 29 kilometre long forest road that climbs up and over one side of the valley, and two forest roads leading off over the other side. If you see a car on any of these roads you’ve been unlucky. There’s also an older road leading back up to the junction and on Sunday I decided to revisit that climb.
The climb (1.2km @12%) goes up through a small citrus orchard and then it’s into the forest and a section of switchbacks with each corner watched over by stone monks, before a long straight with a sharp drop-off on the left up to the junction. The road is narrow all the way and once into the forest there’s a lot of debris on the road. It’s a proper grind but satisfying when you get to the top. I was glad I was going straight back down rather than back up to the pass, and made sure I didn’t make the same mistake as last time when I almost lost it on one of the corners.
This was helped by not being able to clip in with my left shoe, leaving me ready to stick a leg out if necessary. I’d never had trouble clipping in before and thought it was down to new shoes. Alas, it was down to me not re-tightening the the bolts after their maiden ride last week, so the left cleat was stuck in the pedal. Luckily they were SPD shoes and one-sided pedals so I could still ride relatively normally, although I did find my foot slipping off the outside of the pedal a few times.
My original plan had been to go back via one of the forest roads, but being a bit tight on time and not fancying doing too much more climbing only half clipped-in, I took the longer but flatter route back. So it was a fast (for me) wind-assisted descent down the valley and then onto the Keichiku Agri Line.
From Route 32 back to the house there are something like 19 valleys to cross. The Agri Line climbs over some of the ridges and tunnels through others. With most of the ridges about 80 -100 metres it’s not exactly flat but the climbs are mostly only about 1km long. I decided to skip the last couple of climbs and opted instead for the main road which runs between the valleys and the coast. I’ve always avoided that road in the past but it was still before 8 on a Sunday morning so the traffic wasn’t heavy and the traffic light gods were with me, so it was a welcome change. Now I’ve just got to try and get that cleat out of the pedal!