Rapha Gents Race, Oguni Japan

Life is full of little surprises.

Almost a year ago I was lucky enough to be invited to join the Rapha Australia team to go and ride the Rapha Gents Race in Japan. Anyone that knows me would be able to tell you how excited I was about this. I’ve had many trips to Japan, and love being there. The friendliness of the people, the belief in doing things properly, the food, and the landscape have always held a special place with me. To find myself lying on the roads edge in kings park, having severed all of the ligaments in my shoulder, just two weeks before the race was shattering. My last crash had been back in 2001, nearly 120,000km ago. This was a seriously bad sense of timing.

I spent 4 days in a pretty bad state. Not only had I snapped the ligaments, but I’d also managed to crack a couple of ribs. Sneezing was proving to be character building. At this stage, riding was completely off the cards. After a CT scan ruled out any clots I was given the all clear to fly, and the Rapha Japan guys were kind enough to organise me a seat in the media car, so I could at least be part of the experience. I’m a keen photographer, so this sounded like a pretty good opportunity given the circumstances. Slowly things started improving though. Over the next week, the scrapes and bruises improved. I did a couple of sessions on the trainer, and they felt ok, and then the day before I was flying out, the shoulder specialist decided I wouldn’t need surgery on the ACL. So with my bags & camera equipment packed, I hoped into bed feeling pretty positive about it all. 15 minutes later I was up again, packing my bike. There had been some chat about a gentle cruise the day after the race, and I was pretty confident I’d at least be able to manage that. So armed with my bike, camera and a large roll of strapping tape I jumped aboard the flight to Japan.

Each year the rapha gents races are held in different places. There’s no formula for the ride, but the intent is that the course will follow a path less travelled. This often means small gravel roads or grass paths, often used to link rarely used climbs. This years Japan race was held in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. The start and finish was in a small town called Oguni. I flew into Fukuoka on the Thursday, and just spent the day wandering around the city, taking in the sights, and dinning out on the awesome food Kyushu is famous for.


I met the rest of my team on Friday morning. It consisted of a couple of the rapha Australia employees, a couple of other rapha ambassadors from NSW and Vic, and our official photographer Marcus Enno, better known as Beardy McBeard (Instagram @beardmcbeardy). We were collected at the airport by Hiro, one of our rapha Japan hosts, and we jumped into a couple of mini vans and headed inland. Although the weather was closing in a bit, the scenery of Kyushu was pretty amazing.

A couple of hours later we arrived in Oguni, and jumped out of the van like a group of over excited kids at a theme park. The weather had cleared nicely for us, and Beardy was keen to check out some of the local area and get some photos taken… Sounded like the perfect opportunity for me to jump back on the horse.

Image copyright Beardy McBeard

Oguni, like much of the inland parts of Japan, is pretty mountainous and dominated by a mix of small agriculture and forested areas. One of the benefits for cyclists is that there are huge numbers of small quiet roads that link the farms & numerous small villages.  To say central Kyushu is quite hilly would be an understatement. Our Friday spin was just under 20km, and had taken us over an hour. Most of the climbs were in the 8-10% range, but relatively short. The area reminded me a lot of riding in the Ardennes. Post ride consisted of a soak in the natural onsen, a great meal and a chance to get to know our Japanese hosts a little better over a few beers.


Saturday’s race saw 24 teams of 5 riders, set off at 3 minute intervals on a 135km loop around the Oguni and Mt Aso region. Each team had the course loaded into a garmin. As many people will know, garmins are a great device, most of the time. Turns out that Australian garmins, with Japanese base maps is not one of these times. By the 4th minute, we were 3 minutes down, and laughing with the Japanese team that we were now following.  Whilst the event is called a race, its not really the spirit of it all. The overwhelming impression I have of the weekend was that it was about getting a large collection of bike loving folk in the one place, and to explore new roads. As the ride continued, and we got out of the tight valleys near the Hotel, we managed to get enough gps signal to allow us to leave our guides, and push on a little.

Image copyright Beardy McBeard

The first part of the ride was punctuated by regular gravel sections, and a lot of steep, slippery climbs. The 39*27 was getting a lot of work, and by the 2 hour mark, we’d barely made 30km. This was starting to look like it might be a very long day in the saddle. The other thing that really sticks in my mind from the ride is just how rapidly the scenery changed. Every 10km brought with it a real change in vegetation, terrain, even temperature. In some areas the trees where still bare from the winter, whole others where in full leaf.


Image copyright Beardy McBeard

By lunch time we’d somehow managed to make it to the front of the race, despite the garmin assisted overshoots and u-turns. We’d also managed to loose Beardy, who’d stopped to get some photos and missed which way we’d turned. Our lead was pretty short lived though. Running through on of the small villages we saw a small road side sign promising coffee. Tao’s organic cafe was nestled atop a steep gravel driveway, with a prime view over the valley. It turns out that the couple running the cafe, Tao & his wife (who’s name I missed) had travelled extensively around Australia, and their hero in life was a nice Tasmanian chap who was the founding father of modern permaculture. Go figure. Anyway, an hour later, after some coffee and home made Japanese/Italian fusion pizzas, we thought we’d better chase down the teams we’d seen shoot by during our lunch stop. Still no sign of Beardy though.

Image copyright Beardy McBeard

The next few hours brought yet more amazing changes in scenery – especially as we climbed up onto the  rim of the collapsed volcano Mt Aso… The transition from winter grasses on the top, to a full hillside in cherry blossom bloom with a fast hair pinned decent was spectacular. At about the 100km mark we hit the biggest climb of the day, at a little over 5km long and an average of 9%. I really enjoyed the climb, the legs felt fresh, and the smooth roads and more spectacular views were a treat.

Image copyright Beardy McBeard

Just after the top, back on the high plains that make up the rim of the collapsed volcano, was the 2nd and final check point. We snacked on French pastries, top drip coffee and decided we’d ride back to the climb to try and link up with Beardy again.  Pastries and coffee might seem like an odd snack to have found in Japan, but the revolution in perfectly made pastry, and good coffee is a testament to the Japanese philosophy of doing things properly.

We got back to the top of the climb just as Beardy arrived, so six of us turned for home.  It must have been the lure of a soak in the onsen, and a cold beer, because for the first time the chatting stopped, and the pace went up.  We motored the next 25km back into Oguni, leaving only the final climb up to the hotel, which turned put to be a grass, gravel walking track with a couple of long and very dark tunnels.  A flat tyre, some walking and half an hour later we made it up to the finish line.

Image copyright Beardy McBeard

Just after we’d finished, Chris Stack (@caffine_abuser) who’s an accomplished A-grader turned to me and said “I think the only part of me that feels sore, is my jaw from smiling so much“. I really think this is comment perfectly sums up the weekend. Saturday was the most enjoyable day I’ve had on a bike, and I’d really encourage everyone to consider doing events like this. Events that take you somewhere new, and take you off the beaten track. I’m certainly keen to head back to Japan for more riding, and particularly to check out the riding around Kyoto… From chatting to the locals, mid-late Sept is probably the best time to go. Sounds like a nice preseason training opportunity.

7 thoughts on “Rapha Gents Race, Oguni Japan”

  1. Beautiful photos and equally good piece of journalism, Tom. Very enjoyable read (and not just because of all the climbs). Thanks for taking the time to put together.

  2. Mate, my shoulder is aching just thinking about riding. Couple o questions:
    1. Did you grow a beard?
    2. Can we expect you to feature in a Rapha hard man coffee table book and/or ad campaign?
    3. Did you grind your teeth away like Tyler?
    4. Is your new name “Bonkers McBeardy”?

    Chateau to you.

    Sorry Chapeau. N.

  3. Three little words “I…Hate…You”

    What a superb write up and great photos. You must have had a sublime experience. Look out Cycling Tips, there is a new journo in town….

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