Shimanami Kaido Part I – Friends with Bikes
All 1500 of them to be precise. Less than 30 minutes into our ride along the Shimanami Kaido, a ride that promised the quiet serenity of rural seaside Japan, a pack of serious Lycra-clad riders whooshed past by us like we’d been a bunch of grannies struggling to bike up a hill. Slightly bemused, but not surprised at their presence given the popularity of this cycling route, we moseyed on. But within 10 minutes, that lone pack of pro riders quickly became a veritable tsunami of cyclists charging along the route as we were inadvertently sucked into a heady crush of helmets, flesh-hugging Lycra and carbon framed road bikes competing in the inaugural Grand Tour Seto, a two-day enthusiast cycling race across the islands on the Shimanami Kaido.
The Shimanami Kaido, literally ‘line of islands sea route’, is a road route that links two of Japan’s main islands, Honshu and Shikoku, via a series of bridges between islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Opened in 1999, the route from Onomichi (on Honshu) and Imabari (on Kyushu) is considered one of the best cycling routes in Japan. I can’t disagree with that. But, the route is not, as the tour guides make out, a leisurely ride if you ride it in one day. It’s 77km one-way, crosses six bridges with lengthy climbs up to each one and it can get really windy. For more nuts and bolts information about riding the Shimanami Kaido, see Shimanami Kaido: The essentials.
The Grand Tour Seto racers caught up with us just before we crossed the Innoshima Bridge, from Mukaishima Island to Innoshima Island. The racing pack stormed the bridge, dragging us into their fold as they continued their furious passage on Innoshima, island number two. Our inadvertently adopted peloton threaded its way along the coast, through little fishing ports past almost tropical seaside scenery, complete with palm trees and golden beaches. Buoyed by scent of citrus blossoms wafting from a myriad of citrus groves, the excitement that comes from riding in a pack was contagious. Our ears buzzed with the sounds of smooth racing tyres humming on the road, gears being changed and chains zipping around the gear cogs, interspersed with spectating locals cheering the riders on.
In our bewilderment at gaining so many riding companions, it was quite some time before we realised that we’d ventured off the official route, which is marked by a blue line painted along the side of the road. But in the midst of the riding pack, trying to stop on the side of the road to check our map wasn’t a smart idea unless we wanted to chance getting run over by the endless stream of riders who had taken over the road. So trusting that the racers should, at least in theory, be headed in the same general direction as us, we decided to act like we belonged and tag along.
The race atmosphere was a brilliant boost for an inexperienced rider like myself setting out on my longest ride yet. It was easy to get caught up in the thrill of it all, gazing at the postcard perfect scenery, pushing oneself to match the semi-pros for speed and style. But just as quickly, we were ripped back to reality. Think what happens frequently in the Tour de France when cyclists ride in a tightly packed bunch through narrow streets and you’ll catch my drift. In our case, disaster almost stuck on a flat, nondescript section of straight road. The cyclist not three meters in front of me was suddenly catapulted out of his saddle, flung head-first over his handle bars by his rear tyre as it launched off the road and over his front wheel. Still strapped to his bike via his cycling shoes, he crashed into the ground, his bike landing on top of him and my front tyre practically grazing his ear as I desperately swerved hard right to avoid crashing into him. I still can’t fathom how I didn’t join him plastered on the road, either by hitting him or another rider on my right as I swerved so drastically without warning. The experience left my heart thundering quite erratically for the next few kilometres. Thankfully, the cyclist wasn’t badly hurt.
Approaching the half way point, we’d made good time thanks to our racing pals. But our affair with pro biking was not to last. Lunch beckoned as we rode into Tatara Shimanami Park, a rest area on Inokuchi Island beside the Tatara Bridge. We pit stopped there for so long (burgers and French fries require proper savouring, you know), that most of the pack left us in their wake and we were left to ride the second half of our journey with just the stragglers.
Coming up: Whirlpools, hill climbs, mikan ice cream and ‘the bridge’ in Shimanami Kaido Part II – A bridge (and a saddle) too far. Stay tuned.