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Rapha Prestige Kamikatsu

04 June 2016

The mountains of Japan’s Shikoku region are profound, the hum of tires on asphalt highlights their silence. We climbed the third mountain, minds focused, acutely aware of the moss-covered ground beneath our wheels. The damp tunnel awaiting us at the top of the climb seemed to suck us in, initially losing our balance as we entered the darkness, then blinded by the bright sunlight on the other side.

A crowd came into focus, in the centre a man frantically making a cross with his arms, then the words “you’re out of time!” Our first Rapha Prestige was over.

Kamikatsu is a relatively unexplored area of Japan, so I had no doubt this Prestige would be an epic way to experience the essence of this small island where I grew up. From the outset, the valley swallowed us with its deep green forests, occasionally punctuated by falling cherry blossom – the vertical mountain surfaces and waterfalls added to the image with the hillside pathways created by pilgrims unique to Shikoku.

Wading through,
And wading through,
Yet green mountains still.

A haiku poem by the mendicant monk Taneda Santouka came to me as I turned the pedals, had he walked the same path on his Shikoku pilgrimage during his final years? The mountains obscured much of the daylight, the smell of the moist forest and the cool air was overpowering, a vivid memory of my childhood. Every village we passed was a welcome relief from this oppressive nature.

As we came to the second mountain the long climb and winding roads seemed endless. Any hopes of the gradient relenting were futile, as little by little the distance between the riders in our team began to increase, then everything stopped. One of our teammates crank arms came off just before the summit, exhausted, laughter was all we had.

Things became more serious as we began climbing Japan’s longest gravel road. Tsurugi-San Super Rindo is an unpleasant reminder of what it must have been like at the Tour de France 100 years ago. At this altitude there was nothing to obscure the sunlight as we rode under a clear blue sky which did nothing to ease the brutality of this rough gravel climb, punishing our legs and our bikes – at every corner there were riders with flat tires. Fortunately we only got one, but this would become a fatal blow. As three of our team continued ahead while we made the repair, one of the women crashed on the gravel, the injuries were not severe but the shock of the impact ended her day. The remaining four of us were left with a decision – we decided to continue.

At this point our bidons were already empty and we were fast becoming dehydrated. Eventually we found a quaint tearoom that kindly gave us water from a huge kettle, an unexpected encounter with local hospitality provided a brief boost. By the third mountain we were already reaching our limit, behind me I could see my teammates holding back tears, at our current speed we would barely make it to the next check point. We increased our pace in vein as the entrance of Yaeji Tunnel came into view, it was all over.

Only 7 of the 35 teams completed the 150km parcours with close to 4000m of climbing in what must be the toughest Japan Prestige to date. Rather than rediscovering Shikoku it punished me, but I found a new respect for the roads the pilgrims walked, the mountains and the sky they observed haven’t changed. Someday, our team should return to find what we lost there.

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