Photos: Masashi Ichifuru (rider) | Film: Ryota Kenmochi | Words: Vincent Flanagan
The first Rapha Gentlemen’s Race in Japan took place on a steaming-hot day. The typical Japanese weather at this time of year is uncomfortably humid and heavy, the air so thick that sweat never evaporates from gleaming skin no matter how fast you ride. Not so in the deep mountains that lie on the Nagano-Yamanashi border and where, thanks to the high elevation and dense foliage, it remains cool compared to lowland areas. It was here that the Gentlemen’s Race – an unsanctioned, unsupported and unmarshalled event – unfolded.
Invitations had been sent out to select individuals well in advance, including a very specific set of instructions: each team must have five riders; study the course map closely; and perhaps most importantly of all, bring two-dozen bottles of their own regional beer. Thirteen teams arrived to tackle the tough terrain of the Koshin area, home to great climbs, even better descents and a region that shows rural Japan at its finest.
With no cars, few traffic lights, and a distinct lack of convenience stores and vending machines, this is a Japan mostly unknown, even to many residents of the country. In addition to the climate, the remoteness and altitude offered another distinct advantage for road riders; an incredible network of quiet roads on which to create an extremely challenging and memorable course.
The first teams set off at 6am under clear skies. The 140-kilometre, out-and-back route would take them over six mountain passes and include close to 4,000 metres of climbing. It would also take in the highest unpaved road in Japan, Odarumi Tohge, a 10-kilometre climb up to 2,371m.
Before long, however, clouds began to gather overhead. Despite letting forth heavy showers, it did little to dampen the spirits of the riders. More than 10 hours later, the first teams began to return to the finish. What had transpired since their departure, was a journey that taught the riders much about the meaning of teamwork, camaraderie, cooperation and perseverance.
Notable mentions must go to the following: Team Cyclowired, which included the sole female rider, Tomoko Yasuda; Team Monokusa, whose number included Shino, a messenger world champion; and Team Ritte, an all-American outfit. While a few teams finished literally a couple of minutes inside the time limit of sunset, only one rider retired – and that was due to a mechanical.
The day concluded with a very lively barbeque with the aforementioned regional beers, now nicely chilled, laid out for everyone to sample. With weary legs, the riders gladly shared their tales from the day. Awards were presented and big cheers were heard on announcement that plans were already being put together for another RGR Japan, some time next spring in the Kansai area.
Many thanks to Motoji Kinumoto, Daisuke Yano and the rest of the Rapha Japan team for presenting a truly memorable event.