Let me introduce Kenji Kojima, a Miyagi-based road cyclist who really knows his stuff. For the last three or four years, he served as a support rider in the Tour de Tohoku. I recently talked with him about the Tour, held every year mid-September.
Kenji says that the courses are challenging and offer beautiful scenery. The first thing to note is that cyclists wishing to participate in the Tour need to sign up a few months in advance—typically the window for entries is between mid-April and early June. However, even for spectators, the event offers excitement and natural beauty.
The events are centered around Ishinomaki. I ask Kenji if he can tell me a little bit about his experience with the Tour de Tohoku. He answers:
“The charms of Tour de Tohoku are that you can see the beautiful coastline and touch the people’s mind of Tohoku. Of course, some Miyagi foods are good at the breaks. Sadly, it is possible to confirm traces of the earthquake. I think it is important to feel and think about earthquakes and life from these traces.”
I once took part, just for fun, in the Sendai stage of the race. But the Sendai stage on that day was just one stage; the race took serious riders all over Tohoku. Kenji continues bringing me up to date on the current format of the race:
“Until last year, the TDT was held over two days. The first day’s group rides went over three courses: around the Oshika Peninsula, Matsushima, and Sendai. For the second day’s Gran Fondo events, as many as six courses were set, with different distances—50 to 210 km.”
Perhaps what I recall was one of those group rides. The event has changed, though. Starting in 2019, Kenji tells me, the Tour is to be held on just one day and will feature the Gran Fondo rides almost exclusively. The one group ride offered will be a one-way trip from Sendai to Ishinomaki.
"Very-very-very nice and godly . . . but tough like hell!"
—Kenji Kojima, support rider
Once Kenji explained how the Tour is now concentrated in Miyagi’s northern coastal area, I realized that the event had changed considerably in the dozen or so years since I took part. I ask Kenji about that. He agrees emphatically; this event is fundamentally different from the race it was before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami:
That explains a lot. There is a lack of information on the official pages about what happened between 2007 and more recent years. Suffice to say that the Tour has taken on the role of memorializing the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.
I ask Kenji about his role as a support rider. He describes to me in simple terms what must have been a serious commitment:
“On the first day I would lead a group of ten riders, explain the scenic points, perform emergency response (injury, repair), etc. The groups were organized before the start and, riding together for one day, the riders got along well. This is the real thrill for support riders. On the second day, the support rider's role was emergency response only. Because Gran Fondo participants ride individually, there is no guidance. Therefore, support riders concentrate only on emergency response. I supported the [100-km] Oshika Peninsula group ride and the [100-km] Kitakami Fondo last year.”
If you know the terrain, you might be thinking it’s a tough haul. Depending on your fitness level, you may be right. The shortest ride, the Onagawa/Ogatsu Fondo, takes a 65-km route over a number of slopes where the wind is often strong. If you are young and fit and have a decent bike in good condition, you will probably have little difficulty. All the better if you are a somewhat seasoned cyclist The more experience you have, the better you will know which course is the right fit for you. In this way, the event is open to many participants. Events like this can really teach you a lot. Novices are welcome, and learning from the experience is part of its value.
For spectators, Kenji recommends watching from the Start/Finish Line at Ishinomaki Senshu University, where many riders head out from and return to. Four of the racing courses begin and end there, and the Sendai–Ishinomaki Group Ride ends there too. Only the 100-km Kesennuma One-Way Fondo sees riders leaving from Ishinomaki and not returning.
Kenji’s other most-highly recommended place for spectating from is scenic Kamiwarisaki, a coastal parkland with campgrounds not far from the town of Minamisanriku. All of the Gran Fondo participants, except for those in the Onagawa/Ogatsu Fondo, will pass by Kamiwarisaki at different times (and paces). Even if you go just to get an impression of the event, watching from places with spectacular scenery like this may inspire you to take part the following year.
Kenji’s personal favorite course to ride is the one on the Oshika Peninsula. I am inspired by his account of it: “very-very-very nice and godly . . . but tough like hell!” As he says, there are no flat stretches; the road only takes you uphill or downhill:
“Participants coming from elsewhere think that it is a simple course, running along a flat coastline. When we explained the course layout at the briefing, the participants’ facial expressions changed dramatically! The Oshika Peninsula is typical of the ria coastline of Sanriku.”
One of these days, I have been telling myself, I will get out to the coast for a little tour of my own. There really are so many wonderful places within range from Sendai. And so many amazing people like Kenji!
Tour de Tohoku (ツール・ド・東北)
Official website (Japanese): tourdetohoku.yahoo.co.jp
Official page (English but out of date): tourdetohoku.yahoo.co.jp/2017/info/en
2019 dates: September 14 & 15 (Spectator-oriented festivities will be held September 14 and 15, races are held only on the 15.)
Time: Spectator festivities 11:00–17:30 (September 13), 9:00–17:30 (September 15). Races start from 5:30 on September 15.
Admission: Free for spectators. From 8,640 yen for participants (varies by course).
Reservations: Not necessary for spectators. Participants must register a few months in advance, during the entry period mid-April through early June (see website for details)
Ishinomaki Senshu University (石巻専修大学)
Location of Start/Finish line and a recommended spot for spectators
Official website: senshu-u.ac.jp/ishinomaki/
Access: 20-minutes by bus from Ishinomaki Station. From Ishinomaki Station bus platform 3, board Ishinomaki Senshu University Line (石巻専修大学線) bus bound for Iinogawa (飯野川). Alight at Ishinomaki Senshu University (石巻専修大学) bus stop. See timetable here.