Finding Friendship and Sanctuary
I knew when the Captain stopped riding and started walking, that was my licence to give in. There was no need for heroes on this hill.
I’d been stewing over this one all week, knowing the hill was before us. I’d promised gentle riding, a few small hills that were over fast and a ride that was manageable by everyone. But with the stupidly hard climb to Shiratakiyama –
and immersion into it’s heavenly world floating among the clouds – I knew we needed to do this.
It was day one, and as we rounded the bend through the market gardens a small road appeared. We knew that it took us straight to the 1.8 km climb with an average gradient of 15%. It was a killer hill, and with only about a third of it conquered, walking seemed like a far better option. I’m not sure if the Captain decided to walk because it was tough; more likely because he was being kind to us.
Walking up hill in cycling cleats isn’t fun, but the women persevered. Encouraged by the ever smiling Captain (a local cycling legend from Hiroshima and great friend and supporter of Wheel Women), we sweated and smiled along with him. Bikes parked, we tramped up a winding path on stone steps laid hundreds of years ago. We entered through the solid tori gate, and passed from our mortal world into the domain of the gods.
It was magical. One can only imagine the Buddhist dedication it took to construct such an extraordinary homage in an inaccessible and formidably steep landscape.
It was a dream come true to share this heavenly world with 11 riders from Wheel Women. At the suggestion of taking on Shiratakiyama on the first day, no one batted an eyelid. In fact, they all looked around at each other grinning, nodding with looks of ‘yes we can’ and a little bit of FOMO. This was the spirit I came to love so much about the women on this tour – nothing was out of their reach, nothing would stop them, and they’d do this as a team. Shiratakiyama was on their list to conquer, even if it meant walking most of it.
As we moved around the hilltop they were silent. Each woman in awe of what they were seeing; stone deities lined the walk to the temple top, the bamboo swayed gently in the breeze, and below it seemed like a thousand islands were spread out across the sparkling jewels of the Seto Inland Sea. I could hear their gasps of awe, and for some, I saw tears of happiness as they realised their dream of cycling in Japan was now a reality.
Yes, we were really here, as a team, exploring the islands, visiting the temples and meeting the locals. Being joined by my friends from Japan for a day of cycling meant we were immersed into an unfamiliar world; language barriers, unknown signs, strange snack foods. But one thing we all shared was our love of riding a bike. We were unified and bonded by the knowledge that we were experiencing more than just temples. It was magical beyond words.
Our Wheel Women team comprised a diverse mix of women aged from early 40s, to our oldest rider Sylvia at age 76. Some, like Sylvia, had been cycling with us in Japan before and knew this was a tour not to miss. Others, like Andrea from Colombia, had been cycling for less than a year, a real newbie on the bike but eager to be a part of this crazy ‘family’. The riders came because they wanted to explore, take time for themselves and simply see if they could do it.
There was never any doubt in my mind that each woman would bring to the tour her own spirit of adventure and determination. But I was overwhelmed by the sense of teamwork that started from day one. They were all familiar with riding together in Melbourne, but travelling together brings so many new challenges.
“I just love this teamwork…everybody is helping each other. We are a team. I love this!” Andrea declared in her wonderful Colombian accent as she helped another rider get their bike building completed. As a newbie to the bike world you could sense her excitement and enthusiasm and it was infectious.
Teamwork is just one part of the Wheel Women tour. There is also an unspoken decree of patience for your fellow travellers. Put a group of women together for two weeks and I often wonder how long it will take before the tearing down of poppies begins. But it just didn’t happen. This was a true team who rose to the challenges. Most had never done a multi-day ride before, some had never been away from their families for that long, most were afraid of the hills, yet all agreed we would ride as a team.
Though faced with the challenges in a land unknown, all the riders pulled together so beautifully. Sharyn knew from the outset that she wasn’t going to be the fastest up the hills. On our last Japan tour she had felt a sense of frustration at holding the group up as she struggled to make the climbs. But she had resolved that this year things would be different. She’d told me, “I can’t do that to the team... it’s not fair”. So with a mission to improve her fitness, Sharyn’s work started months before departure.
Riding regularly and working out at the gym took Sharyn from feeling like she’d always be last, to knowing she could seriously do it. It was clear that she had become a woman who would simply never give in. She plugged away on the hills and made it to the top every time, breathing hard, but determined and smiling. I felt so proud of her for the commitment she had made to herself and to the team – it was inspiring.
For others, it was not the hills that were their nemesis. It was the nervousness of knowing they would ride more in eight days than they had ever done before. Treena would be leaving her three primary school children behind for a break she needed more than ever – something to challenge herself and something she had dreamed of doing. As the tears streamed down her face mid-ride, it was clear that disbelief was sinking in. She’d finally made it, she was with her team, making new friends, seeing a world she had only imagined. The challenge of being away from her children was huge (thank goodness for Facetime).
For Mary, this was about stepping out of her comfort zone. As Ambassador and co-founder of the Amy Gillett Foundation, and mother of Australian champion cyclist Amy Gillett, Mary was nervous before she’d even left home: fears of safety, being far away and worries that she wouldn’t be able to build her bike up at the other end all added to the personal challenge. When emotions took hold at the Hiroshima Peace Museum, I knew Mary was in great hands with Sylvia as they quickly opted instead to walk through the Peace Park for some solitude and reflection together.
Riding the 70 km Shimanami Kaido is a perfect place for reflection. Called the ‘cyclists sanctuary’ for good reason, the views across the Seto Inland Sea south of Hiroshima provide the perfect landscape to sink into a sense of wonder and awe. Sprinkled with small islands dotted below the seven bridges that create the passage from Honshu to Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands. The cycling infrastructure and friendly drivers is something we dream about in Australia.
Though there are designated ‘recommended’ routes along all of the Shimanami, we decided from the outset to try and take some of the roads less travelled, using slightly more difficult sections where we could. This included the hellish Shiratakiyama climb, which at times peaked at 23% gradient. There is also the legendary climb we dubbed ‘rose park’, where you round a corner and the hill leaps out to bite you. At an average 10% gradient for one kilometer, the ice-cream stand on completion of the descent is welcome relief (our riders certainly kept the ice cream economy of Japan going).
The Shimanami Kaido is just one part of cycling in the Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectures. Our mission was to explore as much of it as we could. Good friends and Hiroshima locals, Mari and Aki, took us on the 70 km journey across the Tobishima Kaido, which sits west of the Shimanami. It’s rained every time I’ve been on this course so I’m still waiting to see what it really looks like, but the rain didn’t deter the team who laughed the whole way through the mist and tougher climbs to the bridges.
In my opinion, the Tobishima is more of a pure cyclists course, with less traffic, less infrastructure but magnificent views (even in the rain), some great open flats to really let loose on and some climbs to challenge. Couple this with the 400-year-old village of Mitarai as a welcome rest stop and you have a perfect day on the bike. Though the rain and slippery descents presented a real challenge for everyone, hearing the laughter from behind me was warming. Even Mari and Aki were laughing at how much fun we thought it was.
Being joined by Japanese friends on various days meant we didn’t get lost. So, naturally en-route to Matusyama via the coast with me leading meant several dead ends, closed roads and re-tracing of steps. The beauty of being lost however meant we explored places we didn’t expect to find. We peered over back fences into the lives of locals in picturesque villages. We watched a man fishing with a cormorant off the rocks. We spotted sleepy neighbourhoods and skulking cats everywhere (as if we’d stepped straight into a Murakami novel).
With close to 400 km cycled and 2000 vertical metres climbed, the team completed what Jenny called the ‘experience of a lifetime’. From the outside, some may see it as a holiday, others as a ‘tour’, but what I see is a life changing experience for each and every woman involved, for everyone who took on personal challenges and personal demons and kicked them in the butt. I bow deeply in honor to you all.
(Be strong…you can do it.)
Disclaimer: Many thanks to the Governor Yuzaki and the Hiroshima Government for their generous invitation to attend and speak at the Cycle Shimanami 2018 Summit and for their support and assistance for our Wheel Women adventures to Japan.
Special thanks to my amazing Hiroshima cycling buddies who always enthusiastically cycle with us and extend such a warm hand of friendship whenever I visit.
Thanks to Specialized Australia for providing my Specialized Diverge Comp Women’s bike with Roval C38 wheels for the journey, amazing sparkles just like the Seto Inland Sea.
Story by: Tina McCarthy
Tina McCarthy believes you don’t have to be an elite athlete to ride a bike, you just need to have a desire to make time for yourself. Being on a bike brings a real sense of freedom, and sometimes that's just what we all need. Cycling takes her to a whole different headspace and it is a great place to be. Join her and many others at Wheel Women.