That time we cycled up an erupting volcano
Cycling up an erupting volcano is not something I’d generally recommend. Hey, don’t get me wrong, cycling up a volcano is cool. Just not when there is ash, molten lava and poisonous gas spewing from its summit.
Phil and I cycled over Mount Aso in Japan in April 2015. Aso is Japan’s largest active volcano and is among one of the largest in the world. We were on our second last day of a 7 day self guided cycling tour of Kyushu, the most southerly main island of Japan. We’d had a brilliant trip so far. The weather had been chilly for April, but we had finished each day's ride in an onsen (hot spring) town, so the cold hadn’t bothered us too much as we could soak our body in piping hot water each night.
Rain Rain Go Away
We were staying in Kurokawa the night before we climbed Aso. We woke up in our cosy ryokan to the sound of torrential rain outside. Noooo! We’d done so well so far, having only gotten wet once on the trip. Clearly our run of good-weather-luck was over. We’d booked our tour through a company, so we had no other choice but to pull on our lycra and saddle up as we had to be at our new accommodation that night.
Thankfully the ride was only 55km that day...although we did have to go over a volcano. There was that. The ride guide for the day said “More ups and downs today…” which actually meant a hell of a lot of up. FYI - Japan is not flat. Remember that if you are booking a cycling tour.
Are we in Yorkshire or Japan?
The first part of the ride was actually quite pleasant despite the rain. We followed a ridgeline for the first 15kms or so which resembled the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve never actually been to Yorkshire. So I could be totally wrong. We did take a selfie and tagged a friend from Yorkshire on Facebook and he didn’t deny the resemblance so i’m taking that as fact.
At about the 15km mark we hit a descent. All I can say is i’m glad I wasn’t going up it! Holy crap it was steep. The road was covered in pine needle and all sorts of unrecognisable debris - I think I saw a mushroom. I descended the switchbacks at about 5km an hour as I thought I was going to lose it in the wet. Is there an award on Strava for slowest descent ever? I’m pretty sure I got that.
We made it down unscathed (albeit with sore hands from braking) and headed along the valley floor for the next 10km to find our lunch before we hit the climb.
Wait...Is that Ash?
Ok, so by now we were 25km into the ride, completely drenched, freezing and had a volcano ahead of us. We picked up a quick lunch in the equivalent of a service station, pausing only to warm our hands and chat to a French guy who was riding a bamboo bike and had cycled all the way from France to Japan. He’d decided to avoid Aso because of the weather and was instead riding 100km around the base. We considered doing that too, but then realised our accommodation was halfway up the volcano on the other side, so it made much more sense to go over.
Really, how bad could a bit of rain be? We only had 30km to go, we’d be there in no time.
The Aso climb is actually great. I think it would have been quite lovely in nice weather. Those harsh weather gods at least gave us a tailwind for most of the climb, and it wasn’t particularly steep so we could simply pedal away dreaming about our hot onsen at the end.
We were about 500 meters from the top and the road doubled back on itself in a U bend. We came around the corner and were hit in the face with a howling headwind that seemed to have dust in it. No...not dust. Ash. What the hell?
We pushed our way to the visitor’s centre at the top. It was bleak and black & no one to be seen. Not another cyclist in sight. We ducked into the visitor’s centre, but there was no one really around - plus we didn’t speak Japanese so we couldn’t really strike up a conversation with anyone.
At this stage we hadn’t realised anything was amiss. We simply thought the weather was horrible. We rode over to the chairlift where you can get a ride up to view the caldera. We saw a couple of people near by and asked them if the lift was open (can you believe that we actually wanted to go up to view the crater!) They looked at us like we were mad and said “The volcano has erupted. It is closed. You have to get off the mountain!”
Yeah, that makes sense now.
We looked around and there was black sludgy wet ash flowing freely on the road. Then we looked at each other and were like “Oh my God, I can’t believe we are on bikes on an erupting volcano.”
We had no choice but to continue on over the other side to try and get to our accommodation unscathed.
Our hotel at Jigoku Onsen was only 7kms down the mountain. We hoped it was still there. We started descending the wet sludgy road but had to stop every few hundred meters to wipe wet ash of our glasses. I tried to ride without my glasses on but that was worse. Ash in your eyeballs is not a pleasant feeling.
About 3km into the descent Phil yells out and tells me to stop. I skidded to a halt. Something on the bike didn’t quite feel right. Phil was looking down at his brakes & says “My front brakes are gone”. Turns out the ash had ground them away to nothing. His back brakes were still half there. After inspecting mine I found I had the same issue. Holy crap, we still had 4kms to descend to get to our hotel.
We had no choice but to push on and take it very gingerly, only using our brakes when we really needed them. Do you know how scary it is to descend an erupting volcano, blind with no brakes??
We arrived at our accommodation at Jigoku Onsen completely covered in ash. I felt relieved, elated and a little proud that we’d ridden through an ash storm and survived. We laughed at our ridiculous appearance and took a few photos that could have been used in Rouleur - reminiscent of Paris Roubaix contenders covered in grit.
The owner of the hotel ran out when he saw us arrive and frantically wiped us down with white towels, not the best colour choice. We had to hose the bikes and ourselves off completely before going inside.
Handy tip: if you are ever stuck in a volcanic storm and need to wash your bike down afterwards, check that the water is not sulphurous. Our chains were rusty as hell the next day.
I tell you what, this day has to be one of the most unusual I've ever experienced on the bike. I certainly enjoyed my hot onsen and ramen for dinner.