Sado-ga-shima (day 2)

sado2On Sunday Morning I set off early from the Ohsado hotel on a wave of polite smiles from fellow guests and bows from the staff. It’s always a treat to start with a downhill and I cruised down the long descent into the port of Aikawa with the sun shining and the blue sea sparkling on my left – a moment of pure pleasure.

After a chat with my friendly hotel doorman in the centre of Aikawa I headed north through town looking for the road inland to the Osado Skyline route. The town centre gave way to an older area of small houses where I began to hear pulsating sounds echoing round the streets, then found my way blocked by a huge troup of drummers in colourful dress. They were going from house to house (at 8am on a Sunday!) acting out a ritual that involved a large figure of death dancing outside each door in turn while a small girl stood calmy holding up a talisman in front of the door to keep him at bay.

The drummers were very impressive. The main drum was huge, mounted on a cart and attacked by two men at a time, wielding oversized beaters and only able to sustain the rhythm for a short time before another pair slipped in to take their place without losing a beat. A large crowd of drummers and hangers-on stood about and the atmosphere combined serious ritual and a bit of a lark in a most satisfying way.

I followed them along the road for 15 minutes until we came to my turning and, as I pedaled up the steep hill out of town, I could hear the drumming echoing below me. What better way to start an epic bicycle ride? My only regret was that they didn’t include me in the ritual. As I hauled my way up the mountain and my heart started to thud palpably with the effort I would have appreciated knowing that my death had been put firmly on the back burner for one day at least.

Andrew Ritchie is a Londoner and he designed the Brompton to be an ideal bike for people who live in London and similar places. My Brompton is the low geared version which is just about OK in a hilly city like Sheffield where I live. However neither London or Sheffield have any mountains in them and the main feature of a mountain is that it keeps going up.

Florian Schlumpf, on the other hand, lives in Switzerland. Like Andrew Ritchie he is a brilliant engineer and designer, unlike Ritchie he has a close and regular acquaintance with mountains. That’s why any Bromptoneer considering a ride over the Osado Skyline or any other serious mountain road should pay Florian Schlumpf 369 Euros for one of his ingenious Mountain Drives.

The Mountain Drive is a very compact, lightweight and beautifully engineered reduction gear (a planetary gear arrangement if you are interested in such things) that fits to the cranks of your bike and gives you another six gears below than the six you already have. Just bash your heel against a little button on the pedal crank and you gain an instant 253% improvement in your mechanical advantage. With that sort of help you can pedal effortlessly (if rather slowly) up the north face of the Eiger if you need to.

I don’t have a Schlumpf Mountain Drive. I’ve just ordered one but when I went to Sado-ga-shima I just had the 6 gears Andrew Ritchie gave me. (update 2009, I’ve had one for several years and it’s as good as I hoped it would be)

At first it went well. My legs, toughened up by a trip to the Hebrides earlier in the summer, creaked a bit but managed to keep the wheels turning steadily as I passed the Sado gold mine, where earlier generations of criminals had been condemned to work their lives out in brutal chain gangs and busloads of tourists were now being shepherded into line for the conducted tour.

I don’t think the hill became any steeper but my legs definitely became more tired and after twenty minutes I stopped for a rest. The view was spectacular with beautiful, wooded hillsides sweeping down to the blue sea. Every time I stopped I could pretend that I was just taking a look at the fabulous view and enjoying the warm day.

Hairpin bends on steep hills might have been calculated to take the heart out of a cyclist. If you are on the inside of the bend the slope becomes ferociously steep and if you expend an extra grunt to get round you are likely to have no strength left for the less steep, but still taxing, slope beyond. Stop for a break at that point and your fuzzy brain tells you that you have only 20 metres before the next hairpin and do you really want to do it again, so you walk up to the bend, and the next, and the next.

So between pedalling and walking and stopping to admire the view while breathing heavily, I toiled up the mountain. In compensation, the views became increasingly splendid. Gradually the whole of the central plain and both coastlines became visible, with spectactular valleys and hills in the foreground. The day was hot and blue with the sea fading away into a blue haze on the horizon. For further entertainment I was periodically passed by smartly dressed tourists in shiny cars or roaring air-conditioned buses, enjoying the 30 minute jaunt up the hill, smiling and waving at me as I put on my nonchalent-athlete-admiring-the-view pose while wondering whether my heart-rate would ever drop back to normal.

Finally I rounded a bend and there was the top, with a large sign saying “942m”. It took a while for this to sink in and my brain to grab back enough of the blood supply to work out that this was more than 3000ft. I had cycled (sort of) from sea level to 3000ft on a Sunday morning on a shopping bike.

In Britain the highest road is around 2000ft. So I had gone half again as high as I could at home, all the way from sea level, and there was a noodle bar at the top. If a cyclist wants a single reason to go to Japan the fact that such spectacular climbs (and descents to match) are routine should do the job. In case you wondered, the highest “motorable” road in the world is the Khardung-La pass in the Himalayas at a ridiculous 18,380 ft. However that is another world entirely and there isn’t a noodle bar.

Of course, I now expected a thrilling descent down a swooping mountain road to compensate me for the morning’s work. If I had turned round and headed back to Aikawa that’s exactly what I would have had but I needed to keep on towards the central plain and Ryotsu by evening. The next section of the road was constructed only for maintenance vehicles serving the military radar station on the nearby peak. It was very steep indeed and, to give the maintenance trucks a grip, the surface was a kind of corrugated concrete, approximately like cobbles.

The small wheels and rubber bung suspension of the Brompton are perfectly adequate for your everyday tarmac but they really did not suit this. And the Brompton brakes don’t have the serious stopping power of modern cantilever or vee brakes so I ended up vibrating down the brutal surface at dead slow with my arms buzzing, gripping front and rear brakes alternately to avoid overheating them and stopping from time to time to let the wheel rims cool down. (small wheels have less metal to share the heat).

A gulley running alongside the road was covered with flat concrete slabs and it was sometimes possible to follow that for a smoother ride but the whole experience was uncomfortable and stressful.

About half way down I came to the Air Force base responsible for operating the radar and things improved. The base was in a tight little valley that might provide enough room for a small gyrocopter to land but the front gate was adorned, as airforce bases usually are, with an old jet fighter plane. I suppose that once your multi-million dollar investment has passed its sell-by date it is just so much scrap metal so you might as well exploit its iconographic potential and give the schoolkids a thrill.

The Airfix scale model factory in Hull (UK) has a full scale model of a WW2 Spitfire mounted at a rakish angle in front of the works. I think I am right in saying this was the first 1/72 scale model kit the company produced, It was the first model I made as a boy in the 1950’s and you can still buy the exact same kit today. Every time I see it I always get a buzz but sadly my son was not impressed when I gave him one for Christmas a few years ago. He really wanted Luke Skywalker’s pod racer.

After that the ride became much more of a treat. I whizzed down narrow wooded valleys with snatched views of streams and lakes as I shot past through cool shade punctuated by dappled sunlight. The road leveled out but maintained enough downward momentum for me to keep up an effortless high speed until reaching the main road and sea level.

I had plenty of time so I struck out across country, knowing that couldn’t get lost with the sun and two mountain ranges to orient me. The farms and villages were tranquil and beautifully cared for, the land punctuated by small rises and clumps of trees, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. I stopped for a while to enjoy the total peace, very few people or vehicles and something well-crafted to look at and admire whichever way you turn. Eventually I turned away and cycled slowly and aching along the side of the lake into Ryotsu and the Sado Seaside hotel for a hot bath, a beer and a meal that was not so elegantly presented as the previous night in the Ohsado but just as interesting and welcome.

go to the first blog in this series | next…Tokyo

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