A bridge (and a saddle) too far
Starting the day lugging your bike about in a bag isn’t fun. Even less fun after the Japan Rail Shikoku staff the previous night had given me grief about my saddle sticking out of my bike bag – as per the bike bag instructions. In order to take your bike on a train in Japan, you must dismantle it to some degree and put it in a bike bag. But apparently the rules vary across Japan. Japan Rail elsewhere didn’t have an issue, just in Shikoku.
So what exactly is wrong with having the saddle uncovered? It’s not like it’s going to poke an eye out or something – I’m so short that my saddle on my XS (as in size) bike practically sits flush with the front wheel when it’s strapped to the bike’s body. Whatever. I fixed their apple cart by tying a sports jacket the same colour as my bag over the saddle for the 30 seconds it took to walk through the ticket gates and voilà, no one said a word. Not even when my bike was standing upright on its rear tyre, frame jammed into the back of my seat on the train. Glad to see that the attendant on the train was far nicer, coming by as we approached Imabari to make sure we didn’t sleep through our stop. None of us were exactly functional at 5.30 in the morning after the previous day’s 80km ride.
Having spent the night in Matsuyama after completing the Shimanami Kaido in one day, we caught the first limited express train back to Imabari to ensure we got an early start to our ride home. Make no mistake, there would be no time to gawk at the scenery. We were riding for time – in essence doing an 80km ‘time trial’. The last train back to Mie would leave Onomichi super early at 4pm, so our wheels were already spinning furiously along the ‘blue line’ route towards said destination by 7.30am. Again we were greeted by a perfect sunny day but the cyclist’s bane, the wind, was out to gatecrash our ride. It announced its presence when we arrived back at ‘the bridge’, aka the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge.
Over 4000m long, this behemoth stretching from Oshima Island to mainland Shikoku is actually three consecutive suspension bridges. Even the ride upwards to get onto it is daunting. But what sets this bridge apart from the others on the ride is that it really isn’t nice to ride across. Crossing open water, the wind gets a far better shot at you and with a safety rail no taller than a handrail for pedestrians (the safety rail on the bike ramp up to it is higher), when you’re as lightweight as me your mind latches onto the prospect of being blown over said rail, which turns your journey across the bridge into a ‘head down ride and get it over with’ affair instead of taking your time to enjoy the view.
Best to have an ice cream to recuperate afterwards at the food shop and gift shop under the bridge on the Oshima Island side. Be sure to order the local specialty, mikan (mandarin orange) soft serve ice cream. You’ll find discount coupons in your bridge toll ticket book. Maybe buy two ice creams because they have to power you over quite a long section of hills at the start of your ride when going from Imabari to Onomichi. Oshima Island is full of them.
I’d never before ridden 80km in one day before my first day on the Shimanami Kaido, let alone gone in for a second day of equal punishment the next day, so I was really feeling it riding up those hills on Day 2. To be honest, it took about two hours ride the lethargy out of my legs and feel like I was settling into some sort of rhythm – something that’s even harder when you keep stopping to take photos. With the wind picking up and hurting our speed, at times it felt like I’d have more luck swimming through the whirlpools which the Seto Inland Sea is famous for. If you ride past at the right time, you can see these remarkable eddies from your saddle. Thanks to strong tides and the narrow channels between the islands, whirlpools form in many places and you’ll see little tourist boats zipping out towards them. In some sections the ocean looks more like a shallow white-water river as it swirls and fights itself. Fascinatingly bizarre, especially for someone from a land of wide open oceans.
We caught up with the old pals the pro riders as we reached the halfway point, the Tatara Bridge. I was so glad to have our portable wind break back. But yet again fate again tore us apart too soon, for their race was to end on the island closest to Onomichi, Mukaishima, not in the city itself. With a forlorn wave and a smile our little adoptive peloton of about 10 riders which had covered about 1/3 of the journey together was broken as the pros abandoned the ‘blue line’ once more. After enjoying the company of fellow cycling enthusiasts for so much of the journey, it was with more than a touch of sadness that we didn’t end our adventure with them.
But there was one rewarding aspect to ending our journey in Onomichi – the food. The demands of the stomach feature surprisingly prominently on cycling journeys. On our round trip, we’d stopped far more often due to hunger than exhaustion. You get hungry all the time and that hunger takes some serious food to slake. After 173km in the saddle, this writer who can’t normally finish a bowl of ramen managed to polish off a sizable bowl of tasty Onomichi ramen, a serving of rice and a tonkatsu fillet (crumbed pork fillet), and still feel like there was room left for more. Good thing there was a long train ride home perfect for snacking.
For more details on riding the Shimanami Kaido, see Shimanami Kaido – The Essentials.