Urban Gravel, Japan Edition

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Uncategorized

Urban Gravel, Japan Edition

Gravel riding isn’t really a big thing in Japan, because there are so many wonderful mountain roads, and almost all are paved. There is no need to head onto gravel just to get away from traffic and explore interesting places.

And yet, there is a burgeoning gravel scene… It’s spearheaded by a few bike industry insiders, who took me on a gravel ride on the Boso Peninsula, right across the bay from Tokyo, at the end of 2022. That ride was organized by Makoto Ayano, who runs Cyclowired.jp, Japan’s most popular cycling news site. He also got me a bike, a magnesium VAAST gravel bike that impressed me as much as the terrain, the speed, and the skills of Makoto and his friends. The story of that ride (and test of the surprisingly affordable and eminently capable bike) were published in Bicycle Quarterly 83.

When I recently returned to Japan for a short year-end visit, I asked Makoto whether he wanted to ride again. He sent me a list of planned rides, but none worked with my tight schedule. Before I could be disappointed, another email from him popped up: “We’ll just organize a ride for you. I’ll meet you at the Hanno train station at 7:30 in the morning on the one day you have free.”

This meant getting up at 4:30, riding to the nearest station in the sub-freezing night, Rinko-ing my bike, taking three different trains… (Thank you to Natsuko for the instructions, as Google Maps is pretty much useless when it comes to Japanese trains.) I knew the effort was going to be worth it.

At 7:26 on the dot—Japanese trains are always on time—I arrived in Hanno, to be greeted by Makoto and his son (left), as I assembled my bike. This time, I’d brought my Firefly to Japan, and I was looking forward to taking it on a ride that would test it—and me—to our limits.

This year’s group was even bigger than the one that explored the Boso Peninsula a year ago. There were familiar faces, plus a host of new ones. Mikami-san (center with blue jacket) was going to lead today’s ride, with a theme of ‘urban gravel.’ Mikami-san grew up here, and he runs a mountain bike pro shop here, plus Studio Tecoli, a hangout for runners and cyclists that doubles as an event space.

That’s where we met, and where Mikami-san ran us through today’s ride: 92 km (60 miles), three stops to resupply, lots of climbing, plenty of single-track… “We used to ride our mountain bikes there,” he said, with a wry smile.

The ride started with a brisk spin through narrow streets in the cold morning. This was a time for banter and getting to know the new-to-me members of the crew.

Then came the first ‘gravel’ section along a river. “I like how Mikami-san’s courses are always playful,” mentioned Mikey, an ex-pat Coloradoan who imports Chapter 2 bikes to Japan. My mountain bike skills are next to none, so I opted for cyclocross technique on the trickiest sections…

…unlike Yano-san, whose attempt to climb the steep bank resulted in a bailout and wet feet. It was a good start to the day, and Yano-san was in good spirits. (He used to the head of Rapha Japan, so he had just the right clothes for this adventure. Now he manages the Japanese operations for Brompton, but he chose his Speedvagen for this ride.)

By the way, the photos are all by Makoto (center), whose ability to take photos while riding at full speed on bumpy trails never ceased to amaze me. Or he’d sprint ahead and suddenly pop up at the trailside, ready to capture the best moments. I was glad that I could just focus on the riding—which was challenging enough!

We climbed a large ridge in the forest…

…and turned onto a rough single-track that paralleled a smooth hiking path. Why take the smooth road when you can have fun? That seems to be Mikami-san’s motto. And yes, I did strike my pedal on that big root.

We traversed rickety bridges—this time, Yano-san’s feet stayed dry…

…and dry river beds that were too rough even for this crew to ride.

One narrow bridge led into a flight of stairs at the other end, requiring some tight-rope dismounts.

We got lost on small paths traversing fields…

…ate lunch at a Ramen restaurant…

…rescued an old man who had fallen in the forest—we got him a taxi that took him home for further evaluation by his wife; hopefully he was fine…

…tested our skills some more—I think only Mikami-san (front) cleared that long stretch on top of the narrow ridge…

…received some instruction from the master himself…

…fixed a broken chain…

…and even enjoyed some wide-open gravel roads like those I’m used to here in the U.S.

In between all the action, there were also some quiet moments to chat. That’s how I learned that Mana (center) had decided last spring to do Unbound. In late April, she bought a gravel bike and ventured off-pavement for the first time. A couple of months later, she headed to Kansas for the 100-miler across the Flint Hills. Did I mention that Makoto and Mikami-san had assembled an impressive crew?

The sun was low in the sky when we reached a dam and stopped to catch our breath. “Let’s do the optional single-track loop back to the base,” suggested Mikami-san, and so the mad chase continued.

It was getting dark when we stopped by Mikami-san’s house, then descended back down into the town of Hanno, where his wife and friends had prepared a wonderful dinner for everybody at Studio Tecoli.

And then it was time to head home. The locals just rode home, some loaded their bikes into cars, and three of us headed to the train station, Rinko’d our bikes, and boarded the train back to Tokyo. Mana (left) summed up the day best: “Gravel riding is so hard! And so much fun!”

It was a day that I didn’t want to end, and so there’s an encore: Join the action as Mikami-san distills this all-day ride into a 3-minute video—complete with water splashes and other fun. Enjoy!

And a big Thank You to Makoto and Mikami-san and the entire crew!

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