Here’s a look at Mikuni pass in Japan. It’s not famous but it should be the decisive climb of the 2020 Olympic road race, if only for the men, so here are some notes in this climb outside Tokyo which offers double-digit gradients and if that doesn’t take your breath away then the views of Mount Fuji will… as long as the weather’s fine.
The Route: starting in Oyama, the 147 road heads north. It is 6.75km long and climbs 710m, an average gradient of 10.5% to the pass. The descent on the other side is shorter and less steep.
The Feel: stock up drinks and food before, there’s not a shop or a vending machine on this climb until you drop down the other side. It climbs from the start but nothing too savage as you pass farms, these are not the giant holdings readers in Europe or the US may be used to, but small plots of land with raised beds of soil and an array of vegetables planted in tidy lines.
Bushes lie in neat rows, they’re not decorative, they’re camellia sinensis whose leaves make the omnipresent green tea, much of which is grown in the area surrounding Mount Fuji. Soon woodland encloses the road and it’s not going to change much along the way. Signs warn of 12% gradients and sure enough the road pitches up, often you can see 500m or more ahead before the road bends and progress feels slow, that bend ahead can take two minutes to arrive because the slope is 14-16%. The bends are gentle, think wide corners rather than tight hairpins, the kind you just pedal through rather than stand on the pedals to clip the apex for a short cut… because if you do then you can get 15% or even 20%. Progress is further hindered by the grippy road surface, sections are cement with narrow scoring, presumably to drain tropical, even typhoon rain.
It levels out before the top before a final kick over the summit but if this sounds like it’s just a five kilometre climb with rest and then a kick over the top, it takes a long climb to get to the flatter section and then the final part to the pass twists and turns more and is too long for a quick sprint to the sign at the top. The best part comes once you clear the top when all of a sudden you round a corner and are presented with the vast Mount Fuji, stunning beauty with volcanic menace and here reflected in the waters of Lake Yamanaka. Or that’s the plan, when I visited it was a cloudy, murky day and if Hokusai had 36 views of Fuji, the roadside observation point offered zero. It was a useful halt to don a rainjacket with only a panoramic table to hint at what might be.
The Verdict: possibly decisive for the Olympics, certainly selective. It’s a good fitness test, not the best climb Japan has to offer, it’s a steady, steep ascent with a double-digit gradients but without great views nor intimate charm, for Europeans it’s more Laffrey than Mortirolo. For the Olympics the difficulty could be compounded by heat and humidity.
Heat: it’s south-facing, often lined by dark stone walls and comes late in the race so even if the event starts in the early morning this could be broiling hot for the Olympics. It’s common for Japan in summer to have temperatures well above 30°C (90°F) which you can get on a hot day in the Tour de France too, the difference in Japan is high humidity which changes everything.
Men only: it’s on the route of the Olympic road race but only for the men. Their event is longer than the women’s race and so a loop including this climb is added. It makes the two courses different. “Should women and men have equal courses?” is a wider question, the distances are different across many races whether Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Strade Bianche or the Worlds. But if the women are going to have a shorter course it’s a pity they miss out on this climb, ideally they’d have started 50km outside of Tokyo avoiding the suburban procession past countless apartment blocks, shopping malls, baseball pitches and golf driving ranges of the Tama hills. This way the climb would have been a good test late into the race. Only both races have to start in Tokyo for municipal pride and so this loop is cut out from the women’s race.
2020 vision: it’s shaded in red above and will be a decisive climb, at the top there’s 30km to go which is a long way on paper but half of this is a descent where it’s hard to take back time. This climb is the last chance for many in the race to make it selective. It’s steep enough for a lone rider to go clear but likely a group forms and it’ll be tactical, can the best climbers get together over the top and work together to hold off a chasing group. It’s longer and steeper than the Vista Chinese climb in the 2016 Rio Olympics, that was a 12 minute effort in Rio, this is 20 minutes or more and so it’s probably out of the register of Greg Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan, archetypal riders would be the likes of Julian Alaphilippe or Michał Kwiatkowski as they can make this effort and win from a sprint.
What’s in a name: Mikuni-yama (三国山) means “three countries mountain” and refers to the mountain whose peak forms the point between three prefectures.
Travel and access: you could do this via a long loop from Tokyo but it will involve a long section through the suburbs. Otherwise you could skip the city altogether and enjoy some riding from, say, the spa town of Hakkone or enjoy Suruga bay and the views of Mount Fuji. The choice is yours because the road and rail network is convenient, you can take your bike on a train in Japan just as long as it’s wrapped in a light bag.