Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hakodate Redux

Friends: Neither rain, a blustery northern wind nor 48-degree temperatures stopped today's kiernan track bike racing here in Hakodate, the primary ferry port for Hokkaido that I arrived at nearly two weeks ago. Nor did the increasingly surly weather deter me from finishing off the final 56 miles of my race to arrive in time for the day's first of twelve races scheduled to start at 3:19 this afternoon.

I pulled into town over three hours early, as it was too cold to stop riding except for a couple of brief quick bites while standing in the corner of yet another convenience store that regularly dot the roads of Japan. They all have such an array of "Ready to eat" food that restaurants are a rarity along the highway.

My early arrival gave me time to search out the local dorm-style Rider House that caters to cyclists, my first such indulgence. It also gave me time to find a bike shop, as all the rain has partially seized-up my rear derailleur shifter, reducing me to just three options on my cassette. They are mid-range, so combined with my three rings up front I have nine gears to choose from, which have been just enough to get by with so far. If I were truly desperate, I'd perform the operation my self. I've taken a stab at it, but without success. I fear if I go too far, I may lose what range I do have.

Two young Japanese cyclists staying at the Rider House accompanied me in my search for a bike store. I thought I had found just the master I was looking for--a scrawny 70-year old guy with black stubs for teeth working out of his garage. But he had never seen bar-end shifters before, and unlike a third-world mechanic who will dive into anything, he was not willing to give it a try. No loss. If I can't find someone with the expertise to handle it, I'll happily save it for Joe when I get back to Chicago, so he can explain it all, enabling be to know how to deal with such a problem in the future.

Neither of the young cyclists were interested in biking two miles in the rain to the kiernan track. They were going to go to an arcade and play video games all day. Neither spoke much more English than I speak Japanese, though one had a palm-sized computer that he used to look up English words. We all went to a hamburger restaurant for lunch. The bulk of our conversation centered around the sports section of the local paper, as it was largely devoted to the baseball play-offs back in the U.S. It was no challenge finding the kiernan stadium, as it was just off a highway that ran along the coast. I could see its already-lit towering light posts from a couple blocks away. There were attendants directing traffic into the parking lot.

The racing isn't particularly for biking enthusiasts, but rather for those who like to gamble. Entry was cheap, a mere 100 yen, dropped into a turnstile. The seating is virtually entirely indoors in the vast, multi-storied, enclosed clubhouse facing the quarter-mile outdoor track. There are dozens of betting windows and television screens displaying the racers and the odds. A race went off every thirty minutes for six hours. They consisted of four paced laps around a steeply-banked quarter-mile track and then a one-lap sprint. It was about thirty seconds per lap, so two-and-a-half minutes per race.

There were nine racers in each race wearing brightly-colored jerseys and helmets. They lined up across the track with their rear wheels in a color-coded starting gate with the same nine colors in the same order for each race--white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink and purple. An identical protocol and pageantry preceded each race. Nine officials came on to the course before the riders and pedaled off on upright bikes that awaited them at the finish line to various stations on the track, including towers at all four corners, to monitor the action. A woman brandished a yellow flag and a starting gun with great flair, and someone else rang a large bell for the final lap.

The riders entered the course from a building opposite the seating area through a door labeled "Fighting Gate" accompanied by magisterial music. They each bowed before they mounted their bikes and rode through the center of the track to the starting gate. Then they bowed again before remounting their bike after it had been placed in the gate. The track, as well as the clubhouse, was a thoroughly modern facility with a high-quality surface, as there wasn't a single accident despite the non-stop rain.

There were no cheers or visible emotion from the 99% male crowd. If the weather had been nice I could have sat outside on one of the few benches that were along the walls. The outdoor seating was minimal, as it would take the spectators away from the betting windows and concessions. I did dare the rain and stood at track side for a close-up view of the action for a couple of the
races. The only other people who ventured outside were those who wished to smoke, though they stayed under cover. There was a large playground area for kids, but that too was outdoors and didn't interest anyone on this miserable day.

This is day 23 of my 45 days in Japan. Although it seems as if it has rained nearly every day, it has only been about every third day. When it does rain, it seems like its never going to stop. But oh how glorious it is when it doesn't. I've only had one case of two days in a row of rain that prevented me from drying out my gear and forcing me to erect a wet tent and put on soggy shoes on successive days. Today's rain was the coldest and worst yet. I'm glad to be heading south.

I'd be in big trouble if I hadn't invested in an extravagantly priced, top-of-the-line, Gore Tex jacket before I left. I bought it more for next year's Tour de France, which starts in England, as I plan on doing my training in Ireland and Scotland and Wales for a couple of weeks before The Race. I know how wet and chilly it will be there. But it can't be worse than northern Japan in the fall.

The Arcteryx jacket has passed all tests, keeping my head and torso incredibly dry even in day-long rains. It has nearly paid for itself already in hotels that I didn't have to stay at and extra miles I have been able to ride. I never would have spent so much on such a jacket if my friend Tomas hadn't been able to acquire it at half-price for me through his connections. I am as grateful for that as his recommendation years ago of converting to a 48-spoke hub on my rear wheel to alleviate breaking spokes.

Tomorrow I leave Hokkaido by the same ferry I arrived on, mission-accomplished, cycling over 1,200 miles on this island. I biked some 550 miles up along the east coast of Honshu Island from Tokyo's airport to get here. I will return via its west coast, trying not to be in any hurry after my big-push this past week (650 miles in seven days) to make it in time for the kiernan racing. Whatever else I see and do will be a bonus.

Now its back to the Riding House and the next door sento (bath house), as the hostel does not have a shower. The sento did not open until two, otherwise I would have taken advantage of it earlier. It will be just the second time I've had an official shower on this journey. Tonight I'll be sleeping on a futon in the Rider House. There are three or four side-by-side on the floor in three unheated rooms. This will be a truly communal sleeping experience. I'm already missing my tent.

Later, George

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