Cyclists in the northern Japan Alps

Cycling in Nagano

2019 Alps Azumino Century Ride - Sakura Group Review

Written by Faith (Communications Manager)

Ride Nagano

The Alps Azumino Century Ride (AACR) is a wildly popular 2-part cycling event in April (Sakura Group) and May (Midori Group). Selling out in a matter of weeks if not days, the AACR offers multiple distance categories ranging from 80KM to 160KM and is acclaimed for its scenic route through the northern Japan alps in Nagano prefecture. 

While the Sakura and Midori routes are similar (though not identical), the seasonal scenery differs greatly on the course. As the names might suggest, the April ride boasts sakura in full blossom, while the May ride reflects the coming spring’s brilliant shades of green.

Alps Azumino Century Ride - Sakura course map
Riverside in Matsumoto, Nagano

This would be my second year participating in April’s Sakura group. Last year, I enjoyed balmy weather under the sun with my partner. Unfortunately, the weather provided a disappointing backdrop this year – and I rode alone.

The ride itself is well-supported with frequent aid station stops, clear signage, and challenging (but not too challenging!) course. Riding along Japan’s northern alps with snow-capped mountains and amidst fluttering blush pink sakura petals – it’s truly something you can only do in Nagano.

As always, the variety of food provided at the aid stations were spectacular. From warm rice balls with miso, a smorgasbord of handmade local pickles, and warm soba noodles at the foot of Hakuba’s ski fields, it’s one of the biggest draws of the AACR.

April 20 (Saturday)

0700 Depart home to Shinjuku
0855 Board bus from Shinjuku bus terminal (west exit) to Matsumoto bus terminal
1230 Arrive bus terminal, put bike together at Ace Inn
1330 Depart Ace Inn, arrive at Shisuien
1630 Depart Shisuien, arrive at Ace Inn

Alps Azumino Century Ride signboard

Temporary Digs

I stayed at the Ace Inn directly opposite the Matsumoto bus terminal but there are several business hotels conveniently surrounding Matsumoto station. With easy access to a major train station, lots of food options, shopping, and a riverwalk, it’s a pleasant area to wander around.

Shisuien is located about a 20 to 30-minute bike ride from Matsumoto station. On Sunday, I left most of my belongings at the hotel, taking just a small bag with a change of clothes to change into after the post-ride onsen.

After cycling back from Shisuisen, I picked up my belongings at the hotel and dismantled my bike for the bus to Shinjuku.

Vendors at cycling event

April 21 (Sunday)

0500 Depart Ace Inn, arrive at Shisuien; drop off personal items, queue for start at 0530
0530 Start (150KM Group 1)
1300 Finish ride, clean up at onsen
1420 Ride to Matsumoto bus terminal, find food and wait for bus
1520 Board bus from Matsumoto bus terminal to Shinjuku bus terminal (west exit)
~2000 Arrive Shinjuku, go home

Nagano is For (Outdoor) Lovers

View of Japan's northern alps in Nagano

When sakura blossoms are long gone in most parts of Japan, one can still enjoy the cascade of pink blossoms throughout the month of April in Nagano. It’s a beautiful part of Japan well-suited for outdoor activities year-round and midst the mountains and altitude, some might see similarities between Nagano prefecture and the state of Colorado.

From skiing to mountain biking, trail running and cycling, Nagano is a small slice of heaven for outdoor enthusiasts!

Located in the heart of Nagano prefecture, Matsumoto sits at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Easily accessible by air, rail, or road, the city is home to the famous Matsumoto-jo (Matsumoto castle).

Outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and craft-aholics alike will love Matsumoto – and Nagano, generally! Make sure to check out The Visit Matsumoto Project before you go. Compiled by local expats, Visit Matsumoto is full of useful information about access routes, sightseeing hotspots, and even local craft beers! 

Good Folks

I’m absolute garbage at reading maps and directions. From Matsumoto station, I uncertainly rode towards the event venue at Shisuien. I was about a third of the way there when a fellow cyclist offered to lead me to the promised land. I gladly accepted and arrived safely in about 25 minutes.

At Shisuien, a generous couple collecting their race packets not only offered to drive me and my bike back to the Matsumoto area where our hotels were – they also offered to shuttle me back to Shisuien with them for the 0530AM start. This not only let me sleep in a little longer, I didn’t have to cycle at 0400 and add an additional 8KM (5 miles) to the day.

Why Not?

I had brought my bike with the intention to ride the 100KM course but to be honest, I did not have a bib and was relying on the kindness of the event organizers to spare me a bib. I had completed the 150KM course already last year and I thought it might be interesting to try a different course. 

I was also uncertain whether I would be able to finish the ride, clean up, and return to Matsumoto bus terminal in time for departure at 1520. But at the last minute, I asked for a 150KM bib.  I don’t regret it as it turns out I had plenty of time to navigate myself throughout the day without rush.

AACR Sakura aid station
Aid station at Alps Azumino Century Ride
Clear blue skies in Nagano
AACR Sakura scenery

Weather

Compared to last year, it was fairly colder both in the morning and throughout the day. We started at about 7 degrees Celsius (mid-40s) in the wee hours of the morning; temperatures never rose above 20 degrees Celsius (high-60s).

Early in the morning, the skies cleared but alas, the blue skies only lasted for less than an hour. For most of the day, the sun rarely peeked out of the overcast clouds.

Unfortunately, the gloomy grey skies lent itself to lackluster photos compared to last year’s crisp, sunny backgrounds.

Gear

I wore cycling shorts, a short sleeve cycling jersey, arm sleeves, and a light windbreaker jacket. Gloves and a buff around the neck would have been a smart addition.

I was cold most of the time (uncomfortably so after pausing at the various aid stations) but I don’t think I needed full-length coverage for my legs.

Clean Up

Last year, we hopped in the car back towards Tokyo but this year, I was alone and taking the bus. I knew we would encounter traffic on the return journey, so it was crucial that I take a shower after the ride. Now, I hadn’t realized this last year, but there is an onsen within walking distance from the start/finish area. Easy.

Having finished relatively early, I shared the bath with precisely zero others and was freshened up within a matter of minutes. Feeling clean, I then biked back to Matsumoto at a leisurely pace without breaking a sweat.

2019 AACR gear
Participants at the Alps Azumino Century Ride

Downsides

Of course, not every event is perfect.

For starters, the 80KM course wound up being about 16KM short. The questionable bike check continues to be implemented despite a seeming lack of actual confirmation by the organizers.

As is common among Japanese events, there are (too) many rules, most of which are arbitrarily followed or broken. From gloves and aerobars to speed and traffic safety, the laundry list of rules (spoken or unspoken) feels excessive compared to similar events abroad.

On the other side, complaints by area residents reached an all-time high as the approximately 2,000 cyclists that descended upon the area for one day caused utter chaos to local traffic.

Cyclists waiting to start ride in Japan
Cyclist taking picture of bike

Growth in popularity is good but the organization undoubtedly begs questions regarding safety, scale, community viability, and overall sustainability.

About the Author

Born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia, Faith holds a Japanese passport, a BA from Southern Methodist University, and M.Ed from Vanderbilt University. She is the Communications Manager at Samurai Sports and spends weekdays at a desk, weekends at various races. 

In her free time, she trains regularly for her triathlon pursuits and one day hopes to qualify for Kona – although she has yet to race a full Ironman. Faith loves dogs, hates celery, and is always hungry. 

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