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Reaching the turning point...

There’s always a turning point, I see it happen time and time again. To watch as they change from that nervous and unsure rider with little self-belief to the one who says ‘yep, I could do that… I WANT to do that!’ It’s that moment where you know their life has suddenly taken a different turn. It’s that moment where they choose to make their holiday include cycling…it gives me tingles just thinking about it.

It felt almost like a dare when I said to my husband ‘Maybe while we are in Japan we should ride that cycling route I heard about’. I half expected him to say ‘don’t be ridiculous you could never do that’…but his answer was an emphatic yes! And that was my turning point — our first holiday overseas with bikes.

I’d been cycling for about 4 years but was a self-confessed ‘Japan-ophile’ since a design study tour in my university days. To combine the two passions came as a surprise to me — can you really do that? I simply never imagined way back in university I’d swap that design career for one helping women start out in cycling. But as the years of cycling rolled on, the possibilities for new adventures seemed to emerge when I least expected it.

My first visit to the Shimanami Kaido was in 2015. Buoyed by ‘new rider’ enthusiasm and a willingness to prove to my ‘boys’ I could do this, we took on the adventure. Filled with maps, local info, bike hire sorted and a place to stay we set off on our first family cycling holiday together.

Though that first trip with my small family is now a distant memory, it set the wheels in motion for me to develop our own Wheel Women Cycling Tour to Japan. We completed the first one in 2016 and with some covid years in between, have just completed our fourth tour of the region with 9 intrepid and willing Wheel Women.

Having crossed the Tatara Ohashi we headed for the Tobishima Kaido with The Captain.

Japan provided an opportunity to immerse in the land I fell in love with as a design student and hence share that passion. It seemed a perfect tour destination and ticked so many boxes for a women’s cycling tour. I knew enough about the country to be capable of leading a tour from the information point of view. Add to this my training as a cycling coach as well as Japanese language skills, I ticked a few boxes myself!

The idea of cycling the Shimanami Kaido with our group started as a lofty idea. But the premise was really all about showing women that they ‘can’ do stuff. It’s about creating an experience where women sometimes come from a low base in cycling, but by the end of the pre-tour training and then the tour itself, they have a transformative epiphany…bikes are their doorway to adventure.

What always surprises me is watching those riders who were so nervous about getting to the tour start location suddenly become gung-ho adventurers by the end…extending return flight dates so they could explore more on their own in cities never visited, renting bikes from Japanese and negotiating public transport. It was music to my ears seeing the transformation take place over such a short space of time.

Lunch stop at Sunset Beach, Ikuchijima

We centralised our location this year to the Shimanami Kaido area on the Setouchi Inland Sea. The famous route is located in both Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectures, with the border between the two located on the Tatara Ohashi (bridge). Start locations are at either Onomichi located in Hiroshima Prefecture and some 80km east of Hiroshima city, or Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. Imabari is a little more distant for some as it is located on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japans main islands, while Onomichi is still on the mainland of Honshu. Regardless of which end you start, the route is spectacularly beautiful, not too difficult but some challenges available if you want. It’s a cyclist’s dream!

Riding with women is a different kettle of fish to what many cycling tour groups offer. We don’t want to be smashing Strava segments, but at the same time we take our cycling seriously — we want great bikes, reasonable distances, and a few challenges. The criteria for joining the tour is that riders must have completed more than several 80km rides, be able to sit on at least 25kmphr and be confident to ride in traffic. You don’t have to be great at hills!

The idea of hills seems to strike fear into many, and for me certainly they are my nemesis…I’m just not a climber! But I recognise that many other women feel the same — they want immersion and experience, not Strava cups! With that always in my mind I ensure that the daily routes contain plenty of picturesque seaside beauty, ‘inaka’ or deep country experiences with locals and a few challenging hills just so the participants have a sense of really accomplishing something by the end of the tour.

It’s amazing to look back at the group and remember the day each rider turned up for their first ride at Wheel Women…clunky old rust buckets, flapping jackets, shoelaces askew, borrowed kids helmets and so many nerves! To be there with them flying across bridges, whooshing down hills, and hearing screams of sheer joy was exhilarating for me…I’d watched their journeys. Across the 6 days of cycling, we completed around 350km with 2400mt of climbing, so in my books that’s a great accomplishment!

Exhausted but smiling after the climb to the top of Mt Kirosan, Oshima

The mantra at Wheel Women is that cycling is for every woman, any size, any shape, any age, any bike. Our purpose is to help women take those rusty old steeds in the shed and to get back on the bike — choose active over inactive. We teach new riders who have never had the chance to learn before. The Wheel Women Japan Tour seeks to challenge, but not defeat…it’s about suddenly realising that bikes can be family adventures, bikes can be a ticket to confidence and bikes take you places that surprise and amaze.

Starting in Onomichi, the quiet seaside hamlet famed for its history of film-making, authors and ramen we stayed in the stylish U2 Cycle Hotel. Rated as one of the best cycling hotels in the world it was the perfect base to start from. Bikes were checked, set up correctly and a few test rides and further adjustments completed. We headed out the following day to Tomonoura with my old friend Atsuko, a local cyclist whose husband also runs one of the local bike shops…Atsuko also happens to be one of my Japanese teachers!

Along winding roads sitting neatly by the sea, the sparkling waters set the mood. There was a silence came over everyone for at least the first 40 minutes before we stopped to take in some bridge views. Then the gasps started, followed by the laughter, and screams of delight, the sheer joy of experiencing riding with buddies in a foreign land. I could feel their sense of suddenly being overwhelmed by the reality of where they were…I’ll admit, I felt the emotion too. To be able to share my passion for bikes and Japan and to see its impact was powerful.

We had a fabulous selection of bikes, ranging from e-bikes, gravel bikes and road bikes

But the exhilaration wasn’t just ours. To see the day end with Atsuko leaping from her bike, then running back to high five everyone before she departed for home just made me want to cry. This was the woman I had met at a lookout on the bike path in 2016. As bikes are prone to do, we struck up conversation that day…a chance meeting has led us to be the best of friends who catch up weekly via zoom! We ride together as much as we can whenever I visit, and Atsuko is a huge advocate for women’s cycling.

The chance to ride with locals is always a big part of the tour. We aren’t a ‘tour group’ really…we are just a bunch of friends from a cycling club exploring in unknown territory. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to meet so many local cyclists who are always generous with their time, but above all respect what Wheel Women is all about. Their willingness to assist our women riders is filled with a generosity that seems boundless. Some take days off work to come and ride with us, others share their local route knowledge while most become ardent online friends with all our riders! It’s brilliant to see the relationships grow across borders and language barriers. I call it building bridges with bikes!

Some conversation with one of our Japanese cycling buddies, Aki san

As we head south along the Shimanami Kaido we take a side route to Tobishima Kaido, led by good friend Hori san, otherwise known as ‘The Captain’…I’ve never really been sure why, but that’s what I call him! Heading up the Hiroshima Cycling Association The Captain is always a keen participant in our rides and this year led us on an epic all day adventure climbing hills, eating traditional Japanese sashimi lunch at a small inn and organising a fleet of local riders to join us on our fabulous adventure. Our concluding ferry ride saw satisfied faces, exhausted from their achievements and ready to sit in the sunshine as dusk closed in, talking quietly about their favourite moments with new Japanese friends.

Cycling with The Captain as we make our way across the Tobishima Kaido

A rest day was needed after our adventure with The Captain and our stop for the next 2 nights at Wakka was the perfect place to just chill. Wakka is the brainchild of Arashi Murakami, descendent of the original Murakami Pirates of the Setouchi and enthusiastic cyclist. To say he has thought of everything is an understatement. Cycle taxi van, cycle taxi car, cycle taxi boat…you name it he has it. His facility Wakka has everything for the cyclist from a bicycle repair station located at the entrance for any passing cyclists, showers and clothes washing facilities available even if you aren’t staying at the facility as well as a swish café with excellent food and spectacular views to the Tatara Ohashi where the sunsets are picture postcard.

Staying two nights at Wakka was just what the doctor ordered for the weary team. We had use of the 3 cabins onsite as well as the glamping tents. The designer cabins have their own bathroom and toilet facilities while the glamping tents share bathroom facilities with the beautifully designed dorms for the more budget conscious cyclists. Each cabin and tent is equipped with bike parking outdoors, or you can bring your bikes inside and hang it from the supplied bike hangers. Specialized Vado SL e-bikes are available for rental.

We opted for a group barbecue on our first night and the Wakka barbecue is like no other — it’s not exactly what we’d expect in an Aussie barbie with a few snags and some beers in the esky. We were treated to local cuts of meat including wild boar if you so desired, vegies supplied by the local farmers and fish caught in the local waters. This was a culinary feast barbecue finished off with desserts made from local citrus…it was heaven! Coupled with local craft beers, as well as my favourite, a local sparkling Japanese wine!

Top left clockwise: The WAKKA taxi fleet for bike emergencies, the cafe at Wakka where bikes are welcome, the sumptuous first course of the barbecue dinner, the luxurious cabin style accommodation

Riding the Shimanami is always a culinary adventure…but you need to know where to look. Well, here’s a top tip: the supermarkets especially in Setoda, 30km into the route, have some of the best bento boxes I’ve had in Japan! Fresh sashimi and sushi, tempura, okonomiyaki…you name it, they have it. And it’s crazily cheap like most food in Japan…at around $8 — $10 for an ‘I can’t possibly eat anymore’ meal, it’s a cyclist’s dream! There are all kinds of treats to be had with citrus and fish being the specialities of the area. And we can’t forget, no Wheel Women Shimanami ride is complete without stopping at Dolce ice-cream parlour for a ‘mikan’ (tangerine) gelati.

Ice cream all round…perfect for re-energising. Mikan ice cream is the local specialty

As we passed through Setoda we stopped at local cycling business Via Shimanami Café. Keiichi and his wife Katsue have retired but indulged their passion for cycling. They have set up a great little café in the heart of Setoda for any cyclists to drop by: fresh lemonade, beer or wine, a good coffee or maybe some cool water with fresh mint and lemon. Coupled with a fabulous range of well-designed cycling gear that seemed to make the perfect souvenirs for our group…judging by the amount purchased (okay, so it is a women’s group, and we LOVE to shop)! Later that night we enjoyed Keiichi and Katsue’s company as they hosted us for dinner at a local tempura restaurant and we were treated to local conger eel tempura. Nothing like some tempura carb loading to face the day ahead!

Our stop at Via Shimanami, all loaded with new kit and fresh lemonade before heading off.

As we traversed from island to island, each rider growing in confidence as the days passed, we concquered the hills at Shiratakiyama, home to the mystical 700 buddha statues that silently greet you at the climb to the top, and we slowly paced ourselves up Mt Kirosan to witness the Shimanami and the Setouchi unfold below us into a spectacular vista of islands. All with the end goal to reach Imabari to join the event ride Cycling Shimanami 2022. Held every 2 years and jointly organised by Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectural governments, the event attracts around 7000 participants from all over Japan in a lottery for entry. Foreign visitor numbers were distinctly down this year after cancellation in 2020 and the fact Japan’s borders had only opened 2 weeks prior to the event.

For some in the group it was their first event ride ever! There were nerves but exhilaration as they chatted to the local riders at the start queue, took thousands of selfies with anyone who asked and laughed along with locals when those moments of ‘I don’t understand but we both ride bikes’ happened! We were greeted with warmth and welcoming from so many, and our tour jerseys stating ‘Hisashiburi Shimanami (Long time no see Shimanami) were a big hit with the locals who I could hear commenting in Japanese at how ‘kakkoi’ (cool) we looked. The event consists of about 8 different routes, and we chose the 70km Imabari to Onomichi route…yes, we were headed back to our base at U2 Cycle Hotel in one long ride.

Event day picks, clockwise from top: Crossing the bridges in a car free zone is a highlight of the Shimanami event ride, some pre-event nerves as the team gathers at the start line, meeting up with cycling advocate and enthusiast Governor Yuzaki of Hiroshima.

As we crossed the finish line amidst what seemed like a crowd roaring and hundreds of cameras (yes, we were a press favourite!), there were a few tears shed. We had made it…for many it was more than just a few days cycling across islands: first event ride, first mountain climbed, longest ride ever, first holiday without partner, first holiday without kids, first time to Japan, first cycling tour. Yep, we ticked a lot of boxes and for that I feel immensely privileged that we could provide what some described as a ‘memory etched forever’ and to share in those ‘firsts’!

As I look back on those days of laughter and smiles, but also the warmth of my fellow women journey makers and pondered what makes this different to just any ‘off-the-shelf’ tour. It’s the fact that at Wheel Women we make it possible for women to believe they can do something they never thought they could do. They come without the fear and nerves of expectations that other tours set and they find their own ‘mountain’ along the way, be it physical or emotional, and we make sure they conquer it. They reach that turning point.

Many thanks to Arashi Murakami and Claudio Panno at Wakka for their crazy support and enthusiasm and to Hiroshima Government for their wonderful assistance to make this happen after 2 years of closed borders. Honto ni arigatou gozaimashita!

Tina McCarthy is Founder and Director of Wheel Women Cycling in Melbourne. A self confessed Japan-o-file as well as: Level 1 Cycling Coach, MTBA Skills Coach, UCI Level 1 Mechanic, This Girl Can VIC Ambassador, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Ambassador, Accredited Tour Guides Australia Tour Guide and Specialized Australia Ambassador. She speaks a little Japanese, loves a good island hopping ride and above all, loves seeing more women ride bikes!


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