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The Infinity Ride – Shikoku Island

Iris Slappendel Tekst Iris Slappendel Gepubliceerd 26 April 2018

The elevator door slides open and my Japanese entourage is right in front of me, ready to go. It’s 6:45 a.m. and todays schedule is so precisely planned it feels like a race day. I’m in a remote area of Japan, riding a two day cyclo sportive called the Infinity Ride. I was invited by the local government who are on a mission to promote the region for its spectacular environment fit for any outdoor lover, including overseas cyclists.

Image: Maarten de Groot

When we arrive at the start in Sukumo, the parking is already filled with neatly aligned cubic shaped cars. Riders are prepping their fancy bikes and look fully equipped for a long day on the road. Unlike the Japanese riders, I came unprepared. I’m not sure how long the ride is, or how many feed stations there will be. I just slipped some bars in my back pocket and figured I’d be alright.

I take my bike and ride over to the start area to get my number. I’m a special guest for the Infinity Ride (not to be missed, thanks to the big sticker on my helmet) and as it turns out, I’m the only foreign participant.

The Japanese have their priorities when it comes to cycling. Equipment and outfit are all very much on point. Image: Maarten de Groot
I can’t hide from the fact I’m a special guest at this event. Image: Maarten de Groot

We all gather for a group photo and the mayor of Sukumo says a few words after which he hands me the microphone. I’m al little startled, but improvise a short speech that is readily translated for the Japanese crowd. It’s dead quiet when I speak and the participants listen politely. It will be the first of many impromptu speeches and photo moments on this trip.

The starting signal is given and we are off. I’ve been directed to take the lead alongside the mayor. Everyone is careful to stay behind us, and after 15 km I begin to worry that I have to lead the peloton for the complete ride. Thankfully, I’m released from my duty when the first stop pops up. Just 17 km on the clock and we are already parking our bikes for a feed. Not knowing there will be a stop every 20 km, I fill up on fresh noodles.

Image: Maarten de Groot
It’s not the physical challenge, but also the many food stops that attracts participants. Nobody skips a stop and we all take our time to enjoy the excellent local cuisine. Image: Maarten de Groot

We finish up our noodles dishes and continue. For the next 70 kilometers or so we follow the winding Shimanto river that runs through a wide river valley. Around every corner another jaw-dropping view is waiting. I gaze into the shimmering turquoise of the river, lined by different shades green and wonder at the incredibly versatile beauty of this island. The river valley is interspersed by wide rice fields and lush forest and every now and then we hit a modest climb. It’s a cyclists’ dream.

From the start in Sukumo we follow the Shimanto river. I’ve been told this is the cleanest river in Japan. Image: Maarten de Groot

I hear whisperings of ‘the Champion of Holland’ when I pass riders. It’s a little uneasy at first but then I smile and attempt some small talk and the ice breaks. Not everyone speaks English, but you don’t need many words to connect when riding a bike. They point out beautiful birds and show me how to eat hot, sweet red bean soup (zenzai) with chopsticks.

Image: Maarten de Groot
The roads are smooth and quiet. Image: Maarten de Groot.
Image: Maarten de Groot.

Elderly people wave and clap when we pass through their villages. The news of our passing is announced by the village bell and everyone comes out to see us. I spot more walking frames than strollers. The Japanese population is shrinking rapidly and to make matters worse, 91% of the population lives in urban areas. The government has set up different programs to move young people back from the cities. But for now, the mass migration to the cities means there are only a few cars and many volunteers keeping crossings clear and serving delicious local food. It might not be good for demographics, but it’s heaven for cyclists.

Image: Maarten de Groot.

The next day we ride to Cape Ashizuri, the southernmost point of Shikoku Island. After a stunning prelude over some hills and through a valley of rice fields, we hit the rugged Pacific coastline. The road follows the coastline closely and I can’t keep my eyes off the beautiful swells and rocky cliffs alternated by magnificent, sandy beaches.

Image: Maarten de Groot.
The spectacular southern coast supplies some of the best seafood in Japan. Image: Maarten de Groot

The early spring sunshine is strong and soon enough I take off my arm and legwarmers. This triggers some worried faces. “Iris-san, are you not feeling well? Are you okay?” I convince them I’m better than ever, but just a little warm. I do realise I look a bit weird in comparison to the other participants who are covered in winter wear, including ski-gloves, overshoes, beanies and neck warmers. But for a Dutchie, 17 degrees is enough to show some leg.

Once we’ve rounded the cape the road rises again. The kilometres covered are starting to count and many riders struggle on the climb. Still, their joy, gratitude and politeness is unrelenting. Even after dismounting because they can no longer pedal up the hill.
After the climb, I pass a small group of women who are clearly struggling in the headwind section. I instruct them to follow my wheel closely and guide them for a while. At the highest point, I stop so they can catch their breath. The women are besides themselves with excitement. Those few k’s on my wheel have made a lasting impression.

Image: Maarten de Groot

The sun is setting when I reach the finish in Sukumo. It’s been two long days on the bike, two days of non-stop smiling and chatting and a great many stops with plentiful noodles.
The Infinity Ride is not the most challenging of rides and it’s certainly not about chasing KOMs. It’s about experiencing dreamy, magical Japan from the bike guided by genuinely delighted people who are honoured with your visit.

All images by: Maarten de Groot

The Infinity Ride is two days of riding with a total of 285 kilometres. It’s called ‘Infinity’ because of the omega shape of the course and it takes place in the very southwestern part of Shikoku Island, in the Kochi prefecture. This region is trapped between mountains and sea and is regarded as one of the wildest and most remote places of Japan.

Image: Maarten de Groot

Iris Slappendel is an ex-pro cyclist and a team leader at Delta Cycling Rotterdam. She has a degree in industrial design and designed several pro cycling kits including the 2016 Olympic kit for the Dutch cycling teams. She also heads the Cyclists’ Alliance, a project set up to encourage womens cycling and promote and represent riders. In 2017 Iris launched her own cycling apparel brand I.R.I.S. – I Ride In Style. Her summer 2018 collection, inspired by traditional Japanese patterns and designs, was just released.