Words: Mari Yano | Photography: Kazuhiro Watanabe | Date:
Film by: Daisuke Kitayama
When I was a kid, cycling was for boys. It was always the boys who arrived at the park on bicycles to play football. It was always the boys who turned the journey home into a cycle race. And it was always the boys who talked about this or that component, and how it made their bikes go faster.The Rapha Women’s Prestige Yatsugatake would, as the name suggests, be different – there would be no boys this time.
The route would certainly be challenging, taking riders over one of the highest passes in Japan, the 2,100m Mugikusa Pass. It also included a total of 2,400m of climbing in a relatively short distance of 110km. Add to that several sections of gravel, and I began to wonder just how many women would show up to such an event? We Japanese women are tough, for sure, but with no fancy café stops and what promised to be difficult riding conditions (it had rained all the previous night, with more rain forecast), how many women would show up? Plenty, as it turned out.
Now, I get nervous easily and with the rain continuing as promised, my memories of the last Rapha event I entered began to prey on my mind. It had been a Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, held last April and our team of women riders did not finish. We were devastated. What if something went wrong this time? What if I climbed too slowly? Or descended too slowly? The start of the ride did little to calm nerves. Almost at once, we were in the deep mists of the Yatsugatake mountains, with visibility no more than 50 metres. I could see squirrels and deer (actually, I could only hear them and I felt as if they were watching us). One hour into the ride and the rain showed no signs of stopping.
The forest road looping around the Yatsugatake range is bright green, rich in moss and scattered with colourful mushrooms. Leaves covered the road, amplifying the sound of raindrops – no stereo system in the world could top this natural surround-sound system. Climbing slowly but surely, and shielded from the wind by the forest, I could hear everything. I was riding with two strong team-mates, Chiharuko and Aya, and the endless conversation and laughter made the gruelling conditions and arduous climbing pass quickly. But my fear of not finishing the ride brought a certain loneliness. I’m used to riding away from the city and seeking peaceful mountain roads but on this occasion, in such miserable conditions and deep, dark forests, all I wished for was a sign of civilisation.
It finally arrived at the 37km mark, at the top of the Mugikusa Pass, the biggest climb of the day. It was only the first Prestige checkpoint but it was civilsation enough. And though we had completed only a third of the route, the Mugikusa Pass gave me a huge sense of relief, as well as confidence for the rest of the day. I knew that, this time, I would be able to finish. The rest of the route was relatively flat, compared with the 2,100m pass, that is, but then I’d forgotten about the descent.
A 20km descent to be precise, which was not only extremely wet but took far more of a toll than the previous two hours of climbing. Every corner was stressful, as thick fog filled the air and wet leaves covered the road. I hate going too fast but this time brakes were the biggest enemy. There was so much tension in my hands and shoulders that I had to stop from time to time to relieve them. I never imagined a descent could be so demanding and so energy-sapping. Such was my fear of slipping that I wasn’t enjoy being on a bicycle. We continued to descend for 1,000 metres until, thankfully, the road levelled out.
The south side of the Yatsugatake is wide open, nothing but bright sun and golden rice fields ready for harvest. The temperature now was comfortable, even hot. I looked back up to where I had come from and wished there was a way to tell everybody still descending of the heavenly conditions that awaited them lower down.
There was no more major climbing but this side of the mountain still had its own obstacles in store for us – its scattering of gravel roads. It was something I looked forward to. Fine gravel roads are difficult to find in these parts but Rapha’s route provided the luxury – yes, the luxury – of not having to find them yourself. And though more difficult than I expected, it was definitely fun. My muscles weren’t clenching, and I wasn’t afraid of slipping.
In fact, we’d even named our team ‘The Rockhopperz!’ The name was taken from the rock-hopping penguins, which are one of my favourite animals, and we certainly hopped rocks on the Women’s Prestige Yatsugatake. Finishing a section of gravel road gives you a great feeling, for it seems that the most smooth pavement you’ve ever ridden is always waiting.