An invitation from our Japanese dealer Tokyo Wheels to tackle the most difficult climb in Japan is an invite that couldn’t be refused. Being “gifted” by genetics with a fast biorhythm and a very low Body Mass Index, climbing is the part of cycling I like most. I was quick to reply: challenge accepted!
Mount Fuji - Azami Line
Mount Fuji is the highest peak in Japan. Introduced into the Tour of Japan in 2008 as an individual time trial, the Azami Line is one of the ways to summit this beast. It isn't the longest, or even highest route to take up Fuji, but it is by far the steepest. After watching the pros tackle the climb, us amateurs needed to organize a race with each other on the same roads; similar to the sportives of the spring classics.
Calm Before the Storm
June 23rd 2019, a Sunday morning. The yearly “Mount Fuji – Azami Line Race” is about to take place, and I'm going to be a part of it. The alarm was set at 3.30am to leave the hotel at 4.00am. With little more than a bike and a small bag of cycling clothes I was ready to be picked up by Masaki, our Japanese friend from Tokyo Wheels bike shop. In front of the 7-eleven I was picked up for an 1.5h drive to the foot of Mount Fuji.
When arriving at the bottom of Mount Fuji around 6.30am, the carpark was filled with about 300 riders with one thing in common: they were all looking very fit and slim. Most of them were riding on the rollers to prepare for the start, and it felt very similar like going to a cyclocross event in Belgium. After pinning our race numbers, Masaki started his warm-up on the rollers and I was warming up on the only flat stretch of road I could find before the starting line.
Nowhere to go but up
8.00 am: the riders were called to the starting grid by category and age group. With about 5 minutes in between, each category had its official start of the race. At the start, the riders took off for the 10.6km race. In less than an hour, you gain 1100m of elevation at about 9.9% average gradient. For climb-craving riders like myself, this is cycling Nirvana. The Azami climb takes suffering to a whole other dimension. On some parts of the climb when the gradient rises to 20% or more, it doesn’t really feel like cycling any more.
A Zen Experience on the Bike
The first stretch of the climb is about 3km in a straight line without any corners, steadily rising at 7% to 12% gradient. Most of the riders immediately shift to the largest cog and won’t change gears untill the race is over. At km 5 of the climb, it gets even steeper. Riders are riding in zig-zag over the road, wishing they had an easier gear. The most beautiful part of this whole event is that everybody was suffering in silence. You could almost hear a pin drop during the whole race; nobody was talking, cleaning their nose and there was no noise of chainsuck or other mechanicals. The absence of spectators made it almost feel like a true zen experience on the bike; it’s only a struggle between you and the road.
Reaching the Summit
The closer you reach the summit of the climb at 1880m elevation above sea level, the foggier the weather becomes and the temperature drops (for us, to 8°). Only when you cross the finish line, do you realize you're part of a race as the finish line and spectators at the top greet you. One hour of suffering in silence on a mythical mountain like Mount Fuji was the perfect closing ride for our week in Japan.