As part of the series looking at roads featuring in major races, here’s a look at Yamabushi pass. Neither household name, nor familiar in the peloton, this is the first major climb of the 2020 Olympic road races and an ideal day’s ride out of Tokyo too.
The Route: National Route 413 starts just outside Sagamihara and climbs the Dōshi river valley to the Yamabushi pass at 1100m. It is 38km long with 1143m of vertical gain.
The Feel: you turn your back on Tokyo’s suburban sprawl as finally the road ahead is flanked by woodland. By some measures Tokyo is the biggest urban area on the planet and once you turn onto the 413 it feels rural all of a sudden. Almost as there’s a waste plant on your left with refuse trucks buzzing in and out like worker bees and the smell in the air is noticeable. You could almost hold your breath to pass before the road dips down. But this is supposed to be a climb? The average gradient here is deceiving, the road rises and falls more than the profile suggests and the first half has several short climbs and descents. The valley here is wide with small farms beside the road, the soil raised into neat rows, one of many micro differences between a ride here and Europe. Often the river is obscured but you cross several giant bridges which invite you to stop and peer down at the clear water below. It’s gentle on average but with some 10% sections in reality.
The village of Dōshi is both the halfway point and the start: halfway probably in time to the pass ahead; the start because the climbing picks up here. The village is elongated along but there’s not much for the visitor. A large banner hangs outside the town hall at the moment boasting it’s an Olympic venue.
As you leave there’s a small convenience store but if you want to stop, press on because soon there’s a Michi-no-Eki, a roadside station in English, and designed as for the motorist or coach tour to pull over, stop, rest and eat. Sounds familiar but in Japan they’re designed to have a local feel, perhaps the architecture and certainly the food for sale and if the raw vegetables aren’t ideal, various rice-based snacks and confectioneries are and there’s a bank of vending machines outside selling drinks. It’s ideal for the passing cyclist to fill up bidons and pockets. Is the bear mascot above that greets visitors here a cyclist?
Onwards and the slop picks up, but it’s only 3-4% rather than the usual 1-2% so far and all on the same smooth tarmac but there are fewer and fewer buildings. It’s lined by pines and cedar trees and has a wilder feel, you’ll smell damp forest and spot crushed mukade centipedes on the road, the white water torrent on your left is now just a stream. The slope picks up towards the top and there’s a wide hairpin bend and the end of the climb is in sight.
This isn’t a climb you go over but through, as the pass is via a short tunnel and for once the smooth road ends and the surface is cement with groves just about the right size to sink your tires in, they’re not deep like tram tracks, nor the “valley of death” on a betonweg but enough to preoccupy you and influence steering. Emerge from the tunnel and you can stop to put on a jacket or gilet if it’s cold but the descent down is short, you’ve reached a plateau. Oddly the roadside is littered with tennis courts, most of which look abandoned. What happened? A tennis boom that turned to bust? A weird tax break? Just as you ponder this the road bends and Mount Fuji comes into sight and the stunning view of the vast conical volcano takes over your mind, it’s mesmerising, both beautiful and ominous.
The Verdict: a long climb but not a difficult one. It doesn’t look decisive for the Olympics but it’s over 1,000m of vertical gain early in the race and it’s the sort of climb where the strong teams will each use up a rider to set the pace. For the local or the visitor it’s strategic if you’re in Tokyo and want a ride into the mountains, it’s scenic.
Ride more: keep going and you pass the countless tennis courts and the Marriot hotel – a likely base for teams racing the Olympics – and reach Lake Yamanaka and you can take other roads to the north (say Otsuki and the railway line) or south towards Hakone, or just ride back down turning the long climb into a shorter descent.
You can also take an scenic detour, turn off the 413 in Hokyoji (宝鏡寺) and you cross the Dōshi river with spectacular views of the river and then climb up a quieter road – passing the Team UKYO service course – and then the Dōshi dam before you can rejoin the 413 again.
History: I couldn’t find out if this has been used before in a race like the Tour of Japan but so it’s the future that puts it on the map given the 2020 Olympic road race will go through. It’s the first climb of the race – labelled Doushi road above – and both the men and women’s pelotons will climb it, unlike some other parts of the course. The race finishes far from Tokyo but for reasons of municipal pride and politics it has to start in the suburbs meaning a procession across uneventful roads before the Tama hills and then out to this climb.
Travel and access: it starts 50km outside of central Tokyo and a long ride given all the junctions, lights and more. You can take your bike on any train, just pack it in a “rinko bag”, a small unpadded sack, normally you remove one or both wheels and some bags fold up small enough to fit in a jersey pocket or you can stash it in a coin locker at the station.