As the highest of Japan’s three Holy Mountains, Mt Fuji is a national icon, a tourist drawcard and a breathtaking example of evolution that ranks it amongst the earth’s finest natural features. Anyone who stands before it cannot help but be awed by its sheer physical dominance. A road cyclist might think ‘I wonder if I can ride up that?’.
The short answer is yes, you can. Every year since 2004, the road up to the fifth station (2,355m elevation) opens to cyclists. However, that’s as far as the sealed road goes; the summit is another 1,421 meters higher. This Sunday, 18 March, registration opens for the 9th edition of Mt Fuji Hillclimb, which takes place on Sunday, 2 June. The 5,500 available places always sell out quickly.
I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in this amazing event for the last three years, and I intend to be lining up again this June. The first time was definitely the most enjoyable; mostly due to the unique atmosphere and surroundings that makes Mt Fuji Hillclimb unlike any other mass-participation ride I’ve done. An account of my 2009 experience (below) was published in RIDE Cycling Review. If anyone would like more personalized information about this race, please contact me.
Sunday, 07 June, 04:30 hours. Only basic physiological necessities, like pissing, should interrupt sleep at this time. Through anchored eyelids, I clutch blindly at the seductively-smothering duvet for the clothes laid out only four hours prior. A duel between mind and body was anticipated. I am knee-deep into winter bib-tights before my feet brush the carpet. My sleep-starved brain screams betrayal.
Purposefully attired, luggage in hand, I pull open the first of several doors standing between me and Fuji-san. My travels to Japan began several days earlier, but the journey begins now. I reach the lobby to discover zombies inhabiting the bodies of my friends. Silently, chastened, we spill out into the frigid morning air and move cumbersomely towards the Toyota sherpa that will provide both temporary warmth and ascension towards our ambitions. Ad summum.
Emerging from the evergreen trees bordering our hotel, an unexpected expanse of blue greets us. Mount Fuji soars. Majestically independent and unrivalled, its baren skin of scarred earth and snow stretched by a peak that seems to yearn indefinitely skywards. For the past five years, at the transition of spring and tsuyu, – the rainy season – thousands of pilgrims, lured by the heady fusion of physical accomplishment and spiritual well-being, spectacularly collide in an eclectic milieu under the all-seeing gaze of a sacred deity.
Friday, 05 June, 05:30 hours. Two days into my week-long Japanese excursion, a pattern is already developing; I clip-clop groggily across the hotel lobby’s marble veneer. Sumi-san greets me enthusiastically. The air is still and slightly humid. An audible giggle can be heard from behind the check-in counter. To the fresh-faced female hotel employees, we must look like we’re off to join a dancing troupé. Okay, I expect this reaction in parts of Japan. Cycle sport is not pervasive as it is in Europe. Baseball and football is the mainstream. Backs turned, right foot clipped in, we push off and roll.
Sumi-san’s head swivels upwards, smoke-lensed Oakley eyewear failing to cloak apprehension. Calmly, naively, I repeated last night’s weather forecast. Fine, 26 degrees. The benign-looking clouds would soon retreat, our arms acquainted with the warmth of the loving sun. Nature lulls us into believing that something familiar must be similar. Not so.
The first small whisps of moisture fall softly on my wrist, moments before arriving in front of RGT Enterprises, home of Assos in Japan. David Marx, RGT’s proprietor, wastes no time in quashing my optimism for a dry ride. Within minutes, a wash of rain ensues. Tea is offered. For the next two hours, we wait for evidence of improvement. It never comes.
Saturday, 06 June, 08:30 hours. A gray pall hangs ominously and completely over the makeshift polyurethane-coated village built upon a sprawling car park. We are situated 1,035m above sea level, at the great mountain’s feet. Having only sighted Fuji through media, I can sense an intangible presence behind the thick veil; mysterious, pulsating, beckoning.
Just as airport terminals prevent simple passage to passport control by the deliberate herding of “pax” through maze-like duty-free sections, so it is for would-be mountain conquerers. Registration is won after negotiating the sprawl of exhibiting bicycle companies. Theirs is part of a separate and, in many ways, more elusive quest. They have set up camp in search of the mighty yen; lately rumoured as a species endangered of extinction.
Sunday, 07 June, 06:15 hours. Winter clothing should have been stashed into your numbered race bag and passed in by this time. From here, it would be whisked ahead to the finish line. If it starts raining, a torrid descent awaits. Twenty four wet, gusty, freezing, miserable, kilometres. I hedged the blue skies would remain for at least the time it took to ascend, suck in some frigid air at the top, and blow back down again.
Soon enough, the call to assemble. The first group to begin is the athlete’s class. These gazelles will launch up Fuji in less than one hour and fifteen minutes. The fairer sex are next. I’m in the third group, as a function of my age, not my talent.
Surveying the huddle of 5,480 bobbing helmets around me, a bigger picture strikes. At this time and place, the earth-saving concept of “critical mass” seems plausible. We are surrounded by some of nature’s finest gifts grasping man-made machines designed to silently, efficiently and harmlessly explore. I feel virtuous.
I came to Fuji with a clear objective. It is discarded within minutes of the starting gun. My ride-casually-and-stop-to-take-nice-photos-for-the-magazine manifesto is ruined by a competitive streak I foolishly believed could be subdued. On a beautiful day. On Japan’s most sacred mountain. Surrounded by other cyclists with ambition in their eyes.
Five minutes into the climb, an innocuous-looking gate marks the commencement of the timed section. And the abandonment of pursuing RIDE’s legacy in photographic excellence. Although unrelentlessly uphill, the average gradient of five percent and quality road surface makes the north face of Fuji-san a relatively easy prospect for all. Overwhelmingly, the largest category of riders is 35-44 year-old males.
Weaving around the first of several tutu-wearing female riders, I am overtaken by a flutter of red fabric brandishing a plastic pitch fork. Channeling all the leaping extravagence of Didi Senft, our waifish spectator jumps, bounds and runs alongside our newly-formed group before coming to a halt in anticipation of a new audience.
Tracking sanguinely upwards, towering pines flanking the road, the heralded white dome would appear intermittently, before sinking below the treeline as the road tacked from left to right. The first of two refreshment stations is placed 10.5km after the start line, with over 600m climbing aft. A centepidal paceline of riders disappears behind a crest several hundred metres ahead. After a brief chase, I connect with the group of fifteen. I continue in this way – aim for group ahead, chase, recover, aim, chase, recover – for the next 6km.
Passing the second station at 17.2km, I do some quick maths and create two new goals; finish in less than 1.10 and average above 20km/h. The steepest sections are still ahead, at around 2,000m altitude, though even these peak below eight percent. I continue to focus on distant riders until the road flattens out at 3km to go and the sound of an upshifting front derailleur communicates the universal language for “sprint”.
Without doubt, this is the most enthralling moment of the day, even with the descent to come. Smiles replace grimaces, we whoop and laugh into the wind, leading out and swapping off, revelling in the joy of riding as the lakes shimmer far below. All too soon, we are cheered across the line and ushered into the pretty finishing village at 2,305m.
One by one, my comrades cross the line. We linger as long as the freezing winds permit, before allowing gravity to provide the impetus. Bookended by motorbike pacers, we descend in a measured manner. Soon enough, gaps opened and riders plummet like larva to the base. Awaiting us, a steaming bowl of udon noodle soup, warm summer air and the long trip home, replete with contentment.