My schedule in Japan is busy, but I really wanted to go for a ride in the mountains. “Why don’t you ride to Utsukushigahara?” suggested Natsuko. “It even has some gravel.” So on Saturday morning, I joined hundreds of hikers and cyclists who boarded the first Super Azuza Express that runs from Shinjuku to Matsumoto.
Without fenders and racks, racing bikes are quite easy to Rinko – just remove both wheels and the handlebars – as long as you don’t mind a larger package that doesn’t stand on its own.
Just five minutes after I got off the train in Chino, the Firefly was assembled and ready to roll.
The Rinko bag I use for this bike is about 3x as bulky as the superlight Ostrich bags we sell, but I managed to strap it under the saddle just fine.
After a 10-minute warm-up in the valley, the road started climbing. In Japan, this means 10-15% for a little over an hour. Fortunately, the Firefly “planes” wonderfully for me, and the climb was great fun.
At the top of the first pass (above), I stopped at a little souvenir/food shop. The owner gave me two tomatoes with salt and spices. “You need vitamins!” he said. They were delicious.
The road dropped back down, before climbing what seemed like a vertical wall. The terrain was so steep that the hairpin turns were built on bridges, since there was no room for them otherwise. Signs by the roadside indicated the elevation: 1700 m, 1800 m, 1900 m. In the distance, I could see a huge volcano poke out of the clouds (photo at the top of the post).
Utsukushigahara is a neat place: Roads lead up to it from both sides, but the top is connected only by gravel trails. It’s a popular destination for cyclists, and I saw a few riders walk their bike along the 5 km hike across the top. No need to walk on the Firefly, of course!
The Utsukushigahara Highlands are very pretty. In the summer, they are used for pasturing cows. The path gets incredibly steep for the last hundred meters to the top. Fortunately, it’s paved, because maintaining traction on loose gravel would be next to impossible.
Then I reached the top. A stone engraving showed the altitude: 2034 m (6673 ft). It really feels like the top of the world.
Taking the bike around the switchbacks on the gravel downhill was fun. So was experimenting with the self-timer of my small camera!
What followed was that Japanese specialty, the Skyline: a road that runs along the ridgeline. It’s always up or down, but the gradients are never steep nor long, so you can go really fast. Key is knowing when to pedal, when to coast, when to tuck… It’s a great place to work on your technique, and it’s great fun.
The real downhill was even more enjoyable. It’s impossible to photograph the incredible series of hairpin turns, with hardly any straight sections in between. The map below gives you an idea of what this road is like. In just 12 km (7.5 miles), the road drops 850 m (2800 ft) – it’s fast and the many hairpins really challenge the bike’s handling.
It’s as if this road was custom-designed for the Firefly. The grippy, wide tires offered incredible cornering traction. I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching – way beyond anything I’ve ever done on a bike.
Just as important is this bike’s low-trail geometry. It allowed me to adjust my line in mid-corner, because many of the hairpins have decreasing radii. With a high-trail bike on a steep downhill like this, I’d have run wide, into the oncoming traffic, many times… (Actually, I would have gone much slower to avoid this.)
Down, down, down I went. I passed a number of riders on racing bikes, whose narrow tires were limiting their speed. Motorcyclists who saw me corner at crazy lean angles waved enthusiastic encouragement. It was fun.
Then I reached a lake, and to my surprise, saw a sign for the Café Il Pirata. It’s run by a couple who are cycling fans, who serve food and drink. I got to watch a stage of the Vuelta à España while they admired my “very strange” bike. Their own fleet included racing and mountain bikes, but road bikes with wide tires still are a rarity in Japan.
A few more hairpins dropped me right into Matsumoto. It was getting dark, so I didn’t visit the famous castle, but went straight to the station and boarded the train back to Tokyo.
As I fell asleep in my seat, I dreamt of this amazing ride. It combines everything I love: epic mountain climbs, vertiginous descents, gravel roads, and great scenery. It climbs more than 2900 m (9500 ft) in 90 km (55 miles).
The ride to Utsukushigahara can be done on any bike, but the Firefly really is the perfect machine for it: It combines the speed of a racing bike with the surefootedness of wide tires. I can’t wait to go back and ride it again!
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