Mino Fukube Hill Climb: Report

This morning I took part in my first cycling race. I’ve done a couple of triathlons before, but was apprehensive about a cycling-only race. After all, I’m not a cyclist, I’m a runner with a bike!

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The forecast wasn’t good and, sure enough, it was pouring with rain when I arrived at the foot of Mt. Fukube in Mino City, Gifu prefecture. I expected the race to be called off, but was surprised to see people already kitted out in flashy cycling gear and warming up on turbos and rollers under what little shelter there was at the event site.

Mt. Fukube is 1,162m high, and this race would have us climb from 220m to 870m over 7.6km on a winding road through the forests that cover Mt. Fukube and it’s neighboring peaks. Apparently it’s the joint-third steepest hill climb in Japan.

I signed up for the race a few months ago when I was cycling regularly and a little more enthusiastic than I have been feeling lately. In fact, today was only my third time on a bike since my last triathlon in July! Fortunately, those two other rides were practice runs on this very course so I knew what to expect and what I was capable of.

I checked in yesterday and had my bike looked over by a mechanic. He tightened a few screws and gave me the all clear to take part. Had the race been cancelled due to bad whether and had my entry fee not been returned, I was grateful for the bike check anyway. I am useless when it comes to bike (and car) maintenance.

The event hall looked like it might have once been a school, and farther down the road are colorful gates to an empty lot where once there was a kindergarten. Real examples of Japan’s dwindling population, especially in remote areas such as this. The small village where these schools once were are looking old and run down, but people still came out in the cold, wet conditions to cheer us on. I made a point of thanking everybody who encouraged me up that mountain.

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The car park was a muddy mess and simply getting my bike and gear out of the car to somewhere dry was quite an effort in itself. Then there was the customary, pre-race trip to the toilet. There was probably only one woman in the whole race so I stepped out of the long line for the men’s loo and hopped into the women’s lavatory. Just as I was stepping into a cubicle there was a gasp by the only woman in the race who had come into the loo moments after me! I embarrassingly excused myself and rejoined the long line for the men’s.

At 8 o’clock we were asked to move to the start line, some three or four kilometers up the road. This short ride was enough to get me soaked through, and then we waited, shivering at the start line for twenty minutes. It’s amazing how just two weeks ago we were basked in sunshine and temperatures over 30°C, and now this. Had it been a running race, we’d all be bouncing up and down, jogging on the spot to keep warm. For cyclists holding bikes and wearing clip-on shoes, we just stood there, anxiously waiting for the starting gun.

“Pssssssssssss!” went one guy’s front tire minutes before the start. The poor chap got a puncture simply standing next to his bike! Hats off to the staff that sprinted off to find and bring a replacement wheel for him.

I was in Class D, a group of 18 men from 35 to 39 years of age, all, no doubt, given permission by our wives to be here. Judging by their bikes and kit, it was clear they took their cycling quite seriously. I was the only one without Lycra, and the only one with my number stuck to my front and back, marathon-style, instead of my sides, cycling-style. What a newbie!

When the gun went off for my group at 8:36, I was the slowest clipping my feet into the pedals and within one minute, my whole group had disappeared out of sight. One minute later and the gun sounded again for Class E. Another minute later and I was passed by a dozen riders. This was not the start I was hoping for, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.

From my last practice run up Mt. Fukube, I knew the hardest part was the first, long climb up to the first switchback. Just as I did in practice, I stayed in the lowest gear up to that point. It wasn’t long before I spotted a couple of people in the distance that had underestimated just how steep this hill is. I chuckled an evil chuckle under my breath and passed them, still in the lowest gear.

Some of these cyclists are phenomenal. I’m not usually one to eye up other men, but these guys have legs like horses! Huge calves and quads, turning the crank like they were stirring a cup of tea. I was overtaken by dozens of these cycling powerhouses.

Once past that first switchback, I shifted up a gear and pushed on. Now moving at a whopping 10km/hr, I was able to hold off the two gents I’d overtaken and pass a couple more from other classes. I actually felt good, like I was getting stronger while everyone else was fading. This is a feeling I’ve always wanted in my running races, but never achieved. Today, having set off so slowly at the start, I was positively flying at the end.

The highlight of my race came when I chased down and overtook one more cyclist right at the finish, beating him by a nose! He must have been gutted. I bet he never saw me coming. He slowed up just before the finish line and I zipped past him, snatching 15th place in my group by a single second!

The next half an hour or more was spent freezing in the rain and wind at the top of the mountain. Fortunately I had my new Goretex rain gear sent up so was able to dry off and put that on, still cold, but at least I was dry. Others stood around, physically shaking in their Lycra shorts.

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Eventually we were allowed to cycle back down the hill, a grueling journey that tested one’s forearm and grip strength to its limit as I squeezed and held the brakes tight on the steep 10km descent back to the event hall. To be honest, that was harder than the ride up!

I was pleased with the effort I put in today, and I think the staff and event organizers did a fantastic job in terrible conditions. I have to admit, though, that the race hasn’t inspired me to enter other cycling events. In fact, now I don’t have any races, of any kind, on my calendar for the first time in three years. I have come to the realization over my last few races that I am average at best in these sports and as such, don’t really need to take part in official, timed events that cost money and may well take place in the rain or when I’m injured, months after registering for them. I like having the freedom to run, or cycle, wherever I want, whenever I want.

This doesn’t mean I won’t take part in events. I’ve made friends and joined groups on Facebook that host small, local events, which are free from the rigid rules and regulations of official events. For example, I’m joining a dozen others in a 30km run/walk from Nagoya to Kakamigahara, a trail run during the colorful “autumn leaves” season with the Risu Trail Running club, and may even dress up as Santa for a 10K “Santa Run” in the streets of central Nagoya this Christmas.

There’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I haven’t completely ruled out doing another big trail running race next year, possibly a re-run of Utsukushigahara… to see if I can finish it this time! 😉

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(That’s me in 15th.)

Update: I was 88th out of 108 overall.

If you like, you can find me on Twitter at @nick_ramsay. I'd love to hear from you!