On a cool Autumn morning in the small city of Imabari on Japan’s Shikoku island. The sun was starting to rise above the quiet town, as the clock ticked over 6:30am. For someone who’s not normally a morning person. I was awake, full of energy and excited to be on my bike and ready for the day ahead. Unbeknown exactly what I was about to experience.
I had been invited by JETRO (Japan External Trade Organisation) a government-related organization that works to promote mutual trade and investment between Japan and the rest of the world. The concept behind this particular project trip by JETRO, is to promote the attractiveness of lesser known regional areas of Japan. The aim is to increase the interest of overseas visitors to see the Ehime prefecture. And to promote the area as a tourist destination in the build-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, when many international visitors will travel to Japan.
It was day 4 of a 5-day trip that I had been very much enjoying so far. I had been getting taken around by our amazing Japanese hosts, along with 5 other invited ‘influencers’ and travel journalists from Spain, Italy, France and Tokyo. We had been spending our days discovering the sights, tasting local cuisine, learning about the history, and immersing ourselves in the culture of the Ehime prefecture of Japan. I’ll be sharing more on this part of the trip in another blog.
“There are 7 breath-taking courses to choose from, ranging from 30km up to 140km.”– Cycling Shimanami 2018
The main feature that this trip was built around however, was the 2018 Cycling Shimanami course. A mass-participation cycling event featuring the Shimanami Kaido expressway and the Seto Inland Sea Islands. The event takes place every two years, attracting 7000 participants from all over Japan and abroad.
There are 7 breath-taking courses to choose from, ranging from 30km up to 140km. You have the long course with a round trip over the Seto Inland Sea Shimanami Kaido. A middle course that sees you cycling through Imabari and Onomichi. There are the scenic course options that traverses around various islands. A cruising course involving a ferry ride together with cycling; and a fun course that can also be enjoyed by beginners and families.
So back to my ‘experience’ of the day. I found myself rolling out of the Imabari Kokusai hotel on my bike at sunrise following our local guide, a former ‘almost pro’ mountain biker I think I remember him telling me. Along with our translator, one of my fellow invitees Tino; a sports travel journalist from Milan, and one of our JETRO hosts.
“These are the moments I treasure, those quiet moments before most of the world wakes up.”– Tiffany cromwell
With the sun just starting to rise over the town, it was beautiful and calm. These are the moments I treasure, those quiet moments before most of the world wakes up. A magical time of the day.
We had only been entered in the ‘fun’ course, starting a little later from a different location. The reason for this was that aside from me, the rest of our group weren’t avid cyclists. And they were supplied with ‘leisure’ bikes for the event. 30km was a long way for them to go by bike on a course that wasn’t entirely flat. The entry into the event was reserved well before we were invited on the trip. I tried to get myself into the long course, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible to change.
So a few of us decided to view the start of the ‘long course’. Initially I wasn’t sure if I was up for the early start, but … well I had two motives. Firstly, I was going to see if I could attempt to ‘sneak’ in and ride the long course without anyone noticing. And secondly, I thought it could be interesting to witness. Especially to learn more about the event in case I ever get to return again. And I’m always up for the chance to enjoy a sunrise, if there’s a good enough reason to be up so early.
Once I was on the bike and arrived at the start point, I was very happy that I made the effort. Although I quickly realised that my first ‘motive’ of attempting to ride the long course wouldn’t be possible.
The staging for the start was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before at a mass participation cycling event. Initially on arrival we were looking for a ‘high’ vantage point to capture images of the start. We decided you couldn’t get a ‘clean enough’ shot, and we wanted to be down on the start line amongst the action.
However, as we weren’t ‘accredited’ media for the event, technically we weren’t allowed in that area. After a bit of negotiations by our Japanese hosts with the man on the gate, and Tino showing his Italian ‘media’ licence. We managed to gain access, and had prime positioning for the start.
It was a bizarre atmosphere, but oh so Japanese as in it was all very calm, very quiet and very organised. There was the occasional announcement over the PA in both English and Japanese with a countdown to the start. This was combined with periods of rather ‘peaceful’ music. Not the typical pump up atmosphere that you would normally experience at the start of a sporting event.
As the time neared closer to kick off. The riders who were all waiting, and lined up in an incredibly organised manner in their ‘course’ groups, made their way up to the start line. This was the most fascinating thing to watch. I’m used to the argy-bargie of everyone trying to be first and take their place in prime position, giving little respect to the people around them. But no, not here, that’s not the Japanese way. Everyone walks together with their bike in hand, rolling the bike alongside them up to the start line. All 5000 of the participants taking to the start of the five courses beginning at this point.
“The major emphasis of the day was all about having fun and enjoying the beauty of the Shimanami Kaido.”– Cycling Shimanami 2018
Each course route had guides dressed in orange vests, so they could be identified easily. There was a guide for the lead, one for the last person on course, and a few ‘roaming’ guides so no one is left behind or gets lost. They took their place on the front row with the lead car just ahead of them. The commentator over the PA rolled out all of the ‘rules’ of the event as the countdown to the start neared closer. The major emphasis of the day was all about having fun and enjoying the beauty of the Shimanami Kaido. They also wanted to highlight that the event was also a celebration of the rebuild of the region. And the took a moment to remember all of the heartache that the region went through when the Ehime Prefecture was hit by deadly flooding and landsides back in July. This was the aftermath from one of the recent Typhoons that swept over Japan.
Finally, it was ‘go time’, 10, 9, 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 …. go! I was ready for people to race straight out the blocks and get on their way as quick as possible. But no, it wasn’t like that at all. It almost felt like there was a delayed reaction to the start. After a couple of moments, the cyclists started rolling away like they were just rolling off from a coffee shop stop. The riders had to navigate their way through the toll booths before making their way onto the expressway. A road that is normally reserved for the cars. This was part of the special experience and one of the major features of the Cycling Shimanami sportive.
As the mass of riders were rolled out in their waves, there were plenty of ‘support crowds’ lining the first hundred metres or so complete with their inflatable ‘cheering sticks’. There were the volunteers with their signs for everything from warning signs to direction signs and good luck signs. The toll booth attendants stood there waving and bowing continually as the cyclists passed through. It was incredible and unique, but amazing all at the same time. These are the traits that you slowly become accustom to, the more time you spend in this beautiful country. The politeness of the people and the unphased manor in that they go about their jobs.
After watching a number of the waves of riders roll out, and taking photos from almost every possible angle and place. It was time for us to make our way over to our start point and join the rest of our group. It was about an 8km journey, I secretly was hoping we’d have time to pass by a coffee shop on the way. Tino and I subtly tried to suggest it too. But one other thing I’ve quickly learnt is that when the Japanese have a schedule, they stick to it. It’s very hard to divert from that schedule. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it meant there was no time to stop for a nice coffee shop, and get our quality caffeine fix after our very early start. So a ‘boss’ coffee from one of the infinite vending machines you find in Japan had to do. Let’s just say it was a means to an end and far from gourmet.
We arrived at the starting point of the ‘fun’ course, which had spectacular views over the Seto Inland Sea Islands and the 4km long bridge that we would be cycling over. As the sun was warming up the crisp morning air, I could feel that we were in for a beautiful day of cycling.
We experienced the same level of organisation and calmness that was experienced at the long course starting point. The 1000 participants taking on the ‘G course’ were lined up in the place that matched the number group of their entry bib. We found the rest of our group, I may have showed off a little bit with my ‘superman skills’ and track standing abilities to add to the pre ride entertainment. There were pre-event announcements over the PA, the Cycling Shimanami mascots floating around, and a local marching band to play for us before we set off.
Finally, it was time to go cycling, time to go and experience the route for myself. I was super excited. I had heard about this cycling route and the expressway, and always wanted to ride my bike here. I wasn’t aware of the event before the invite, so I was excited to be able to experience it all.
It was beautiful, every part of it. Riding across the 4km long Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge and down onto Oshima Island. Everyone was so friendly. It was impossible to get lost. There must’ve been thousands of volunteers who lined the way with their signs, giving directions to the respective course routes. Everyone happily standing there with a smile on their face and waving as the cyclists passed by. What I loved most is the respect everyone had for each other amongst the cyclists. No one was trying to race, trying to be a ‘weekend hero’ or ride dangerously. I didn’t see the sign of any crashes along the way, which is often something you worry about in these mass participation cycling events.
It was an incredibly picturesque route. I tried to take it all in, whilst wanting to take thousands of photos and capture the entire experience for my memories.
As you dropped down off the expressway and onto the Oshima Island route, it had a completely different feel, but still so beautiful. You passed through small local villages. You barely saw a car along the way, and the cars that were along that part of the route gave you plenty of room when they passed. Locals both young and old sat outside their homes all day long and cheered everyone on too. It was a beautiful sight to see.
Then there were the feed stops. This was something else. I’m used to the usual energy gels, bars and bananas that are often on offer at sportives. But no, not here. You could have a feast if you fancied it. Ok, there were bananas and western food of chocolate chip bread and croissants, etc. but there were also skewers of meat, fish and other Japanese delights. Hot tea, coca cola and water. You could even park up and get yourself a free massage, taping, stretching or acupuncture if you fancied. I did attempt to try that, but my lack of Japanese made it a little bit difficult. I received some version of a massage and accupuntured through our communication via sign language. Although I must say, it was a little different to what I’ve experienced before. It was an experience none the less and fun to try out before continuing on my way along the remainder of the course.
The return route hugged its way along the waters edge before making its way back up onto the Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge. This time as you crossed back over the bridge, you would take the dedicated bike path that runs alongside the expressway to get back to Imabari. You got to enjoy panoramic views over the Seto Inland Sea islands and truly take in your surrounds.
The final part of the course made its way back through Imabari and up to the festival zone at the finish. This is the only area of the ride I’d say could be improved, as it wasn’t closed roads and you had to stop at traffic lights. The drivers were still very courtesy, but sometimes there were lengthy waits as you waited your turn in line behind the other cyclists to make your way across the intersection.
But once you made your way along those final few km’s through Imabari, there was one last little climb to conquer. Which, I’m sure for some felt like a mountain. But at the top you would cross the finish line, complete with photographers ready to capture the moment for you. Then you would be able to collect your certificate of completion, and of course take a ‘souvenir event shot’ at the ‘photo booth’. Afterwards it was time to go and enjoy the atmosphere of the festival expo ‘village’.
There were plenty of bike racks to park your bike, an amazing selection of complimentary food options for ‘finishers’ as part of the entry fee. This buffet was more impressive than the food stops along the route. Red snapper Burgers, noodles, rice dishes, sweets. I was in heaven! The ‘Expo area’ was full of brands and tourism stands, there was local dance acts on stage, a bike skills area for kids and a few mascots hanging around to get your photo with. It was really nice, and the perfect atmosphere to cap off the experience of the Cycling Shimanami event.
With the remainder of the day free to do as we wished. After I had refuelled and made a brief coffee stop at a local cycling inspired café – A cup of Nakamura, that I had found in downtown Imabari. I decided to head back out on my bike, and check out more of the Shimanami Kaido cycling route.
I made my way back along the expressway, across three of the bridges connecting the various islands, before deciding to take the island explorer route around the Omishima island. What I love most about this cycling area is that it’s so well sign posted with so many options, dependant what you want to cycle. The contrast of cycling along the expressway with it’s dedicated cycle path next to the toll road for cars, versus cycling along the island roads is amazing. The island cycling is so quiet and peaceful as only residents are allowed to take their cars onto the island. So it means there’s very little traffic on those roads. You also have options of making it a fairly flat route, navigating around the edge of the islands along the water. Or going inland and finding a number of climbs to challenge yourself on.
With the daylight hours running out fast, I sadly needed to make my way back to the hotel. As I made my way back along the route of the Cycling Shimanami course, I was amazed to see that the volunteers were still out along the route, guiding the last of the riders on course, and the smile on their face hadn’t disappeared.
As I rode back across the Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge one last time, the sun was setting behind the mountains in the distance. The temperature was starting to drop, and a headwind blowing in my face. But I still had a smile from ear to ear as I was truly appreciating this experience, and taking a moment to just get lost in the moment.
It should be put on any cyclists bucket list places to cycle.– Tiffany Cromwell
As I rolled back into the Imabari Kokusai hotel after having ridden from sunrise to sunset. I put my bike away and took a moment to reflect on the beautiful day I had just experienced.
I couldn’t recommend this event or area to cycle around more highly. It should be put on any cyclists bucket list places to ride. Whether it be as part of the Cycling Shimanami, or as your next cycling holiday. I hope to return again one day, as I know there is so much more to explore and experience around the Shimanami Kaido cycling mecca.
Special thanks to JETRO for the invitation and amazing hospitality.