Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle

I'm heading out on an epic 500-kilometre bike trip tomorrow. Up and down mountains twice as high as the ones in Vancouver. On roads that resemble coiled intestines. For five days straight. Solo. On a bike I haven't ridden in two years.

Peter Mansbridge is the spur. He's the reason I'm doing this in the first place. Night after night, all he talks about is how the Canadian economy is spiraling deeper into depression. He has me convinced I will be facing months of uncertainty and instability upon my return home next year.

So, rather than dragging my unemployed ass around in search of jobs that don't exist, I've been toying with the idea of cycling across Canada instead. Why look for work when there is no work to be had? I will hop on my bike and literally ride out the recession.

Besides, cycling across Canada is something I've always wanted to do. I've just never had the time. A year from now, when my stint at Kyoto University is up, I'll be unemployed for the first time in my life. I will have nothing but time. This might be the best chance I get.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Let's get back to the bona fide bike trip that's happening two days from now.

I figured I should take a test ride in Japan before committing myself to cycling from Vancouver to St. John's. I've done lots of riding in the past but have never toured longer than three days. I need to find out if I actually like cycling long distances for days on end. There's no point locking myself into a two-month ride if it's just going to be a suffer-fest.

(Although, I have to admit that suffering is half the fun. It's what makes the experience that much more rewarding. The easy stuff fades into the background. But the tough stuff -- those times when you pushed yourself beyond your limits or were left broken and sobbing on your way up a steep mountain pass in driving wind and freezing rain -- that's the stuff that forces you to come face-to-face with your deepest, darkest self. What happens when you hit the pain barrier? What do you do? Push through or back down? The trick with long-distance cycling, and endurance sports in general, is learning how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you can do that, you can tolerate all kinds of misery.)

But I digress . . . I wanted to bike across Canada but not without testing the waters in Japan first. The only hitch was that I didn't have enough money to buy a proper touring bike. What to do? What to do? I was mulling this over when it hit me: Wait a minute! I already have a bike in Japan!

When I left Sakawa two years ago, I lent my mountain bike to my friend Sachi. As far as I knew, she still had it. What if I went back to Sakawa, picked up my bike and rode it back to Kyoto? The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. There was no reason I couldn't do this. Cycling from Sakawa to Kyoto wouldn't require any skill. Just stamina.

I could take the train to Sakawa and then ride my bike all the way across Shikoku. And then when I hit the easternmost point of the island, I could take the ferry to southwestern Honshu and ride up to Kyoto from there.

The more I researched it, the more doable it seemed. The total distance between Sakawa and Kyoto is about 500 kilometres. I figured I could comfortably do it in five days. Golden Week -- a string of four national holidays all occurring around the same time -- was right around the corner. I'd have to skip two days of school to make the trip work, but the timing was perfect.

Sachi gave me the okay to borrow my bike. She even took it to the local bike shop to get it checked out and tuned up. I started buying maps, plotting out a route and booking hostels. This is the route I eventually decided on:

It looks straightforward. But don't let my crude maps fool you. Most of the mountain roads through rural Shikoku resemble coiled intestines. I'll be riding Routes 439 & 438 for three days straight. I suspect I'll be pushing my bike up a lot of these hills. If it gets really bad, I can always throw my bike off a cliff and hop on a bus back to Kyoto.

My limited budget dictated a bare-bones trip. But I decided against camping mainly because I didn't want to spend money to buy stuff I already have (unfortunately, all of my outdoor gear is sitting in a storage locker in Vancouver). I wanted to spend as little money as possible but there were certain things I couldn't scrimp on. A pump, a patch kit, some basic tools, painkillers, gloves, padded bike shorts. (Especially padded bike shorts.)

There were other things I decided I could live without. Leg warmers, arm warmers, an odometer, panniers, bottle cages, booties, clipless pedals, bike shoes.

Yes, this means I will be doing the whole trip in running shoes while wearing a backpack. It's not ideal. But it could be worse. The guys who rode the first Tour de France raced their single-speed bikes on dirt roads without a single stitch of spandex, gortex or coolmax on their backs.

I may not have any fancy equipment but at least I have gears and quick-dry fabrics. Besides, this is just a rehearsal. A prelude to the real thing. If all goes well, it will galvanize my plan to ride across Canada. Or not.

I'm heading out to Sakawa tomorrow and I'll start riding on Thursday. I hope to arrive in Kyoto five days later on Monday night. Adventure awaits . . .

Day 1

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