This is Japan:
Cycling Nagano's Northern Alps
2018 Alps Azumino Century Ride event review
I had spent the last four months looking at a series of photos the Alps Azumino Century Ride (AACR) event organizers had provided us for event marketing purposes and thought, “Wow, these professional photos must have been taken on a magical day – they got lucky!”
Our ride started at 0530 but we had thought our bibs starting with a “2” meant that we were part of wave 2, starting at 0550. Turns out the bibs were color-coded by wave, e.g. pink for Wave 1, blue for Wave 2, orange for the cycle train group. Unfortunately, I had not been privy to such information and I know better now that I should ask about these things ahead of time.
Turns out the Northern Alps in Nagano are just as beautiful as those spectacular photos I’d seen.
Regardless, we were able to squeeze into the last group of Wave 1. We started off on a quiet road lined with sakura of a dusty, faded pink variety. Aptly named the Sakura Group, we would see myriad sakura in diverse shades of pink throughout the ride.
The sakura blossoms were long gone in most parts of Japan but in Nagano, where temperatures tend to be cooler amidst the towering mountains, the sakura are late to bloom and can be enjoyed through the end of April.
To be sure, there were a few climbs that involved moving down into the little chain ring but they were not massive struggles. The one relentless climb was the temperature – as we went on about the day, we experienced a high of 28C (mid 80s) with very little shade. Having grown up in South East Asia, I operate well in the heat but my SO found it almost unbearably warm.
The ride is not timed and few people were out there keen to set course records or snag a QOM or KOM. This aspect made the ride a relaxed affair – you didn’t have to feel guilty for pulling over to take photos or ask someone else to snap some for you.
The Significant Other and I rented a car and left for Nagano around 11AM on Saturday morning with an ETA of 1530. Fortunately, he drives really fast (somehow, no ticket yet) so we arrived by 1430. We drove straight to packet pick-up then to our hotel.
In the morning, we drove and parked in the Shisuien parking lot before the 5AM closing time (parking available in other nearby lots – it’s the countryside).
Our ride back to Tokyo can be summarized in two words. Horrendous traffic. We were not emotionally prepared to each lose five hours of our lives on the way home and continue to receive therapy from this traumatizing experience.
Aid Stations: Amazing Feedings
The aid stations were suitably spaced apart and each boasted regional foods that didn’t weigh you down or leave you feeling uncomfortable. At many of the aid stations, local volunteers helped to serve the food and happily chatted with you about everything under the sun.
Food is a language that transcends all borders and it seems that grandmothers all around the world thrive on feedings and chatting. Despite the language barrier, it was heartwarming to have these congregations of grandmothers encouraging you to eat more of this and try a little of that.
AS 1 Azumino Park Hotaka (23.1KM)
water, bread, jam, local Azumino Japanese snacks
AS 2 Azumino Park Omachi (42.8KM)
water, rice balls with spring onion miso (negi miso),
black bean youkan jelly
AS 3 Omachi Community Center (53.3KM)
water, mochi snacks, Japanese pickles handmade by locals
AS 4 Hakuba Iwatake Ski Fields (79.4KM)
miso-based pork soup (tonjiru), black sticky rice
AS 5 Omachi Community Center (105.6KM)
water, Japanese dumplings, soup
AS 6 Azumino Shirokuzan Park Kensei Hall (130.7KM)
water, shiso jelly, ice cold apple juice
The Views: This is some of Mother Nature’s best work – snowcapped mountains, crystal clear streams, and blossoming sakura.
The Food: Whether it was the local red bean snacks, Japanese pickles handmade by the neighborhood grandma’s association, or the delightful little cups of cold soba, the variety and quality of food offered at each aid station was truly impressive.
The Weather: It was a little cold (about 9C or high 40s) in the morning but as the day progressed, we were cycling in about 28C (mid to high 80s). For some, this would be too hot but for me, it was absolute bliss.
Signage: With some exceptions, signage was plentiful and appropriately located, making the course very clear to follow.
Let's Work On It!
Entitlements: We received a sponsor towel (Bridgestone Anchor) and a small-ish finishers certificate. It was a little lackluster but for the price of the event, we can’t complain.
The Location: It’s fairly inconvenient if you aren’t getting around by personal vehicle. Hardy folks might not think much of it but depending on your point of departure, simply getting your bicycle to the Matsumoto area (nonetheless the event site, which is not near a train station) may be a challenge.
The Bike Check Ordeal: With Samurai Sports, the Mavic mechanics checked our bikes to complete the mandatory bike check for free. This was far more convenient than having to take our bikes before the event to a local bike shop and ask them to complete a bike check, as was required of other participants. After the mechanics looked over our bikes however, no one asked to see our bike check forms, making the whole ordeal seem unnecessary.
The Traffic Back to Tokyo: This isn’t really anyone’s fault but after spending five hours on the road to return home (normally 3.5 hours), you start to contemplate the meaning of life.
Your dining options are somewhat limited in this part of Japan but at Tasuku, you can have a little taste of the Italian Alps. Tasuku features an authentic Neopolitan-style brick pizza oven and everything from your classic margherita to your Japanese-style tuna and corn, as well as a fishy anchovy pizza (it was actually super tasty).
A dimly light cozy ambiance with reasonable prices, including a dinner set menu for ¥2,000 makes Tasuku a good place to carboload without feeling like you’re at Pizza Hut. It’s important to note that pastas were not available for dinner. Tasuku’s hours seem to change with the seasons so it’s best to give them a call (in Japanese). Children under 12 are not so welcome, and reservations are preferred.