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From issue 9 • Words and images by Heidi Swift

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Biwa. In the photos, the beach at Lake Biwa looks serene. A long stretch of deep sand marked by timid waves from Japan’s largest freshwater lake. Methodically placed palm trees stand at attention. They are precise and sort of fantastical, a little like this place.

In the photos, there is a rainbow. Everything is frozen and silent and we see a beach, palm trees and little silhouettes. The silhouettes could be anything—bathers, surfers, runners, children. It doesn’t matter, because our first impression is the same: beautiful … calming.

The silhouettes turn out to be a long line of racers folded over cyclocross bicycles or running along beside them. The sand is too deep to deliver true pain faces—instead the expressions frozen into images depict a kind of quiet dying, spirits battered into lung-searing submission.

At the front, the Japanese national cyclocross champion glides away like floating. In the back, carnage. Men over handlebars or tripping out of their pedals as the group comes to a grinding halt all at once. This is a UCI International Cyclocross race in the small town of Yasu. Those who can’t ride sand will check their pride and run. And run and run and run. The shores of Lake Biwa are anything but tranquil—and the course designer is intent on setting records for suffering.

We arrive in Yasu the day before the race with 90 minutes for pre-ride. Five Portlanders with six bikes and an army of wheels. We’re here specifically for this: to race ‘cross bikes in Japan—to sink our tires into another country’s mud.

We’ve spent 25 of the past 36 hours in transit. We are fucking tired and staring at the longest section of sand that we have ever seen. Among us, only Molly Cameron really knows how to ride the stuff. We fumble and follow her and run and curse. It’s been raining since we set foot in Japan and now the temperature rises, delivering an almost tropical weight to the air. Warmth presses through our unnecessary layers and by the time I’m done with three laps, I’m a hot mess with a bike that sounds like a coffee grinder.

We leave Lake Biwa to check into the hotel and I have the same feeling that I always do before a ‘cross race: apprehension and terror mixed with giddy anticipation. I want it to start. I want it to end. I want it to hurt so bad that everything in the world disappears for 45 minutes. Nothing about the landscape or language is familiar, and yet here is everything I expect, just as it should be: fear, nerves, pain, grit.

In the morning I check my brakes and roll to the registration table where I show an official the International UCI license that I purchased just a week earlier. There are nine women in my field. I plan to go top ten.

It’s good to have attainable goals. That’s what coach says anyway.

The weather has gone soft with gentle breezes and dull winter sunshine. Everyone is smiling. A woman in a white knee-length puffer jacket and matching white hat paces excitedly with a clipboard in one hand and a wireless mic in the other, announcing things with impressive crescendo.

At the rider’s meeting before the race, we get our first glimpse of Toyooka Ayako, the Japanese national champion. Her entire helmet it studded with pink rhinestones and her nails are decorated with art to match. She’s going to kick our asses and look good doing it. We fawn over her despite ourselves.

The start line photo will show all of us side-by-side, with Toyooka standing tall near the middle. Our heads are down and hers is held high.

There is a sound—a gun or a whistle or a horn—and then we’re racing. It’s a right-hand turn onto the beach followed by chaos and running. Everyone runs away until I’m running by myself. My legs are screaming in long, high-pitches worthy of a horror story: “Noooooooooo!!!” and then “Whyyyyyyyyyyyy!?”

Later when the official hands me my prize money for 9th place (6,500 yen) I will know why. But it’s not for the money. Not even for the UCI points. It’s for the smile on his face, the endless welcoming gestures, the infinite patience with which they tolerate our ignorance of the language. We are here on a cyclocross mission and it has little to do with racing. We’re using bikes as bridges, seeking shikurokurosu (cyclocross) transcendence. Brubaker comes fourth and our friend Alexandra Burton lands in 6th. At the front of the race, Toyooka Ayako dominates but suffers a mechanical and eventually has to settle for second.

In the afternoon, Molly Cameron rolls a perfect Parlee through the endless beaches for a respectable 7th place finish in a pro men’s field stacked with national champions and roadie-powerhouses. A bit further back, our host Daisuke Yano tangles up and hits the pavement but lives to tell us about it. At the tent someone makes fresh coffee with a Jetboil camping stove, hand-grinder and French press.

Glory stories and caffeine.

Driving for 14 hours (from Tokyo to Nobeyama, then Nobeyama to Yasu and return) after flying for 12 hours sounds like hell and kind of is. But there is an upside: the Autogrill.

Truck stops turned supermall tucked just off the freeway: teeming with travelers, awash in neon and fluorescent lights. A tall machine glows with big, punchable buttons labeled with numbers and kanji. Soba here, udon there. Katsudon, curry, tempura, steam bun! Stuff the machine with yen, punch a number, collect your ticket and then head to the window where your number pops up. Within minutes, hot and steaming noodles in tasty broth.

Our first visit to one of these “truck stops” moves us all to near paralysis. The endless options and shocking efficiency. Robot-like machine dispensing free paper cups full of green tea. Rows and rows of vending machines, shining like boxes full of caffeinated promises.

Left on our own, Dan Sharp and I look desperately at one another, trying to decipher the kanji and the color-coding on the Machine of Big Buttons that lords over the noodle and curry haven. “We have to figure this out, Sharp!” I whisper desperately.

“I know, I know. We got this. Pull yourself together, Swift.” We do and then we sit across from one another, heads down and bowls up, slurping. To our left, an old man disappears into his ramen. To our right, a school-girl still in uniform manhandles deep-fried fish on a stick.

We leave Lake Biwa race-weary and haggard. We are all too tired to smell bad or at least too tired to notice. The countryside flicks by in streaks of light and sections of looming neon signs as Brubaker and I doze in and out of consciousness, curled up next to each other in balls with alternating turns at leg stretching.

A haze of recognition comes on slowly as I feel the van down-shifting. Smaller roads, slower speeds, fewer lights. Like childhood road trips—this is the feeling of getting home. Except we’re not. Instead, we stop at the top of a hill in front of a brightly lit building.

“Onsen” Daisuke explains, “It will be easier than everyone trying to shower at home.” Although his house is incredibly large for a Japanese home (it used to be a Bed and Breakfast), it still only has one shower.

Here is me getting naked with strangers at 9:30 p.m. after a day of nerves, racing, running, jetlag, driving and “sand hell.” Here is me not caring in the least.

The Onsen has the casual feeling of a community center. Old men gather in the lobby where a television hums. More vending machines. Quiet. Calm. Warm.

Inside, we segregate by gender and then sit in front of mirrors and bathe the Japanese way, alternating with the hand-held shower and bowls of water poured overhead—an action that is as symbolically purifying as it is practical. Daisuke’s wife, Mari, washes her little ones with an impressive deftness, laughing a little as she goes. When the soap and shampoo wash away every bit of suffering and sand, we disappear into the steaming shallow outdoor pool and look up to discover a black sky full of tiny lights.

Across the surface of the water, local women are blue silhouettes against rising mist. Long necks and hair piled high. Slight shoulders disappearing into liquid silver.

The initial two-day travel frenzy finally ends back in Nobeyama at Daisuke and Mari’s house and our entourage collapses into a long sleep. In the morning, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. according to my normal habit and stumble down to make strong French press coffee. Between us, we’ve brought over 10 pounds of beans from local Portland roasters. Which is to say, when it comes to life and death issues like coffee, leave nothing to chance.

I brew a pot and attempt to correct catastrophic computer failures while the sun comes up around me. The dogs want to run so I open the sliding doors that lead to the woods behind the house. Harp and Guinness (dogs named after beer—my kind of people) are gone before I know it, bounding into the frosty edges of tall grass and low brush. Reluctant to wake the entire house by calling after them, I grab a pair of boots from the back porch and take off in pursuit. The sun is coming up around me and I’m pajama-clad and chasing beer-dogs through unknown territory.

By the time I get back, Daisuke is awake and laughing at me from the back door. He fires up the wood stove and my sleepy American friends file down from their rooms. We sit around the long table eating thick toast with Nutella or jam. Mari fries eggs from the farm next door: yolks orange and blazing. (We will marvel at their orange-ness all week remarking, “What kind of chicken calisthenic program are these healthy birds on, anyway?”) The milk is from a nearby cow: “Fresh-squeezed!” Mari says as I pour it into my coffee.

Later, we’ll unpack the van and clean bikes in Daisuke’s dream-worthy bicycle shop. Walls lined with Independent Fabrication and Speedvagen frames. Shelves stocked with Chris King parts and fancy Rapha packing tape. He’s the General Manager for Rapha Japan, with a little business on the side: Yatsugatake Bicycle Studio, named after the mountain that keeps watch over Nobeyama.

In addition to those duties, Daisuke is also putting on a UCI cyclocross race in exactly six days. We’re here to race. We’re here to take photos. We’re here to document. We’re here to help and—truth be told—we’re here to podium. No one says that explicitly, but everyone is thinking it. Why else travel halfway across the world to a mountain village in the middle of Japan? We’re ambassadors, but maybe also we’re warriors. Earn respect with performance.

All eyes are on my roommate, Tina, the Speedvagen rider from Salem, Oregon. Among us, she has the legs and circumstance to make good on our mission. Molly Cameron is flying this year, but the pro men’s field is stacked with crazy talent— lungs and legs that punish. For Cameron a top-five finish will be amazing. Top-ten a super solid ride.

If we want one of the steps, Brubaker must deliver. No pressure.

At night we gather around family-style meals of udon, soba, curry or rice. Mari prepares sushi as a special treat (the first time she’s done this in her house) and as we sit in reverence in front of the sharp-cut and stunning fish, we realize that back in the U.S. it is sometime before or after Thanksgiving. Our families are gathering and carving turkeys. Big football men are smashing-crashing on TV screens. And here we are together—a long table full of strangers-turned-family united by bikes and fish and nori. Itadakimusu.

Hill and Dale
Nobeyama is a small farming village nestled on the eastern slope of Yatsugatake Mountain in the Nagano prefecture. At 1,345.67 meters, its train station is famous for being the highest rail stop in Japan—a fact that is repeated with pride many times during our stay. With a population of only 3,500 (just 25 people per square kilometer), it has a quiet and industrious feeling. In the growing season, this town produces some of the sweetest cabbage you’ll ever eat. Neighbors share amongst themselves, delivering eggs and produce and milk to each other with regularity.

The surrounding landscape is unapologetically serene—stoic mountains dusted with snow, sweeping farmland in precise geometric formation. Tiny, smooth, and virtually car-less roads. During the weekdays, we put slicks on our ‘cross bikes, follow Daisuke’s wheel and ride harder than we should, climbing switchbacks through dense forest punctured by winter light. Past family shrines and down descents that seem unending.

Tiny one-lane farm roads turn into paths, which turn into gravel roads. On the farm lanes, the road is narrow enough that when tractors approach, we have to pull to the side to make room for the farmer to pass.

Brubaker and I escape alone in the middle of the week and follow mysterious dirt roads uphill until we can finally see Mt. Fuji in the distance, a graceful blue silhouette. On the way back we tuck into a tailwind and fly along paths that slice through recently-harvested fields, eating salty Japanese snacks from my back pocket as we pedal home.

Takizawa Bokujo
After one chilly ride, we end at the Frontier Cafe, a coffee shop on the Takizawa Bokujo “family ranch,” where the Nobeyama Cyclocross Race will be held. An old-fashioned wood stove is flanked by walls papered with photos of award-winning animals, happy tourists in cowboy hats and old pen-and-ink drawings.

A woman in a shiny red jacket that says “STAFF” on the back makes us coffee in a Chemex. She flashes me the peace sign when I ask to take her picture and then delivers the coffee in short ceramic Takizawa Bokujo mugs. It’s the best cup of coffee we will drink in Japan.

Outside, vintage country music lulls out of loudspeakers placed throughout the property. A tinny Merle Haggard or faint Loretta Lynn waft through the air above a bonfire and a billy goat. It’s weird like a David Lynch movie. Amazing in a way that only a Japanese cowboy-themed family ranch can be.

Race day comes on in a rush. Two days prior to the main event, Daisuke’s house is overrun with guests: friends in town to help with preparation, PR, photography, sales, set-up, tear-down and everything in between. Outside on the deck, two girls spray paint the boards that will line the starting shoot with the main sponsor’s logo: “Rapha Rapha Rapha” over and over again, three coats of paint per board. When temperatures drop so low that the paint stops drying, they pull out their hair dryers to speed the process.

When I wake up early the next morning, sleeping bags line the main living room—a sea of bodies, an army of incredible volunteers. Mari cooks vats of udon, huge pots of curry and tubs of rice. The venue is about 500 meters from their front door so people come in and out all day long in a frenzy, grabbing snacks and supplies. Daisuke Yano has slept only a handful of hours in as many days, but it’s all about to pay off. It’s coming together.

By the time we roll out for pre-ride on the day before the race, Takizawa Bokujo is overrun with racers and visitors (far more than expected).

Vendors sling everything from traditional Japanese stew to hot Belgian-style fries. There’s a pop-up Rapha store and a handmade bike display featuring beautiful Cielos. Photographers absolutely everywhere.

More amazing than angry billy goats or ghostly piped-in country music is the fact that the race t-shirts cost $50 U.S. and are almost all sold out by 9:00 a.m. Perhaps what I love most about the Japanese is their ability to latch onto something and then make it infinitely more incredible than it already was just by the sheer force of enthusiasm and fervor. Give them cycling and they make amazingness. Give them cyclocross and they make magic.

Race day. Takizawa is crazy cowboy festival land. Molly Cameron superfans are roving, flashing peace signs for photographs. Race time is 10:00 a.m. and Toyooka Ayato, the sparkling national champion is back to redeem herself. I follow Brubaker to the start line where the UCI official checks tires and lines us up. The starting chute is a long funnel lined with spectators. Cowbells clang against the boards. From all sides the encouraging cheer at full volume: GANBATTE!

It means, depending on context, “Do your best!” “Keep going!” or “Good luck!” (all three, in this case). Brubaker and the leaders get smaller and smaller in front of me as the group spreads out across the course. Cue the winding S-turns, peanut butter mud and a snaking dirt go-kart course section that loops you in and out and in again, the course turning on itself over and over. I can see Brubaker through the turns in the early laps and shout her name.

Everywhere I turn the bike someone is leaned in close, cheering: GANBATTE! GANBATTE GANBATTE! I make a steep off-camber left-hand turn and power down through a grass section when I hear Daisuke’s 4-year-old daughter calling my name. I call back to her and smile despite myself. Just then I hear the announcer across the course say Brubaker’s name and “third place” in the same sentence. The announcer is excited. One lap to go!

I spend the entire bell lap waiting to hear the status again and never do. When I cross the finish line, I have my answer. Brubaker’s smile says it all. She’s got the third step. We’ve got the third step. Fifteen minute later she’s standing on a podium next to the Japanese national champion with Olympic theme music blasting in the background while a sea of people hold up camera phones or DSLRs to capture an image.

Brubaker may be small, but rest-assured she’s big in Japan.

Pit Crew
Dan Sharp and I are called into action to pit for Molly Cameron during the pro race. This terrifies me, but fortunately Molly never has to take a bike. Instead, Sharp and I get to experience the pulse and push of fanatical mechanics running from one side of the pit to the other, necks straining, issuing battle cries from the bottom of their very souls.

Molly locks in a death-match throwdown for 5th place but will have to settle for 6th. At the front of the race, the reigning national champion, Keiichi Tsujiura trades the lead with Yu Takenouchi for nearly the entire race, causing every pit wrench to strain, lap after lap, to see who will appear first on the horizon. When Takenouchi finally appears alone, a cry goes up.

After the race, Cameron superfans flock for autographs and photos. TV stations conduct interviews. Tiny kids mob the course on equally tiny bikes. Beer and fries demand my attention and our thoughts turn to cleaning and packing bikes, both of which must be done before the long drive to Tokyo for tomorrow’s flight home.

Pink begins to sweep the winter sky as Daisuke Yano takes the stage. He hasjust finished his own race, despite a week of nearly non-existent sleep. He looks simultaneously demolished and delighted as he delivers the closing speech, which is met with applause and cowbells. When he’s done, he’ll entertain UCI officials at his home while we pack our bags.

Morning comes early and our van pulls away while Mari and the kids wave from the front porch. The dogs run alongside the road until we’re finally out of sight. I fall asleep and dream of ramen, billy goats, and rhinestone-studded cyclocross princesses—in that order.

From issue 09. Buy it here.