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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