Bike Tokyo 2018

The start of Bike Tokyo 2018

I joined Bike Tokyo for the first time this year, although I’ve ridden their previous routes frequently — alone or with a friend. I was aware of the group ride since 2016 but I didn’t join. In both that year and the next, the starting point was Tokyo Big Sight, which is halfway ’round the course from where I am. If I’d wanted to join I’d have ended up doing it twice (not out of the question given the distance).

This year the start was from Gaien, and that’s less than 5km for me so there was no excuse. I asked Tomo to join and she quickly agreed, and we both got the registration with no hassle (although my son later tried to join and it was already full).

Riders lined up to start
Ready … Steady …

Bike Tokyo is a fun ride organized by Tour de Nippon, which hosts a number of events — “stages” — around the country each year. The ride is a loop around the city taking in many of the sights and landmarks, such as Tokyo Tower, Roppongi, the Imperial Palace, Bank of Tokyo, Ginza, Tsukiji, Ryogoku, Budokan and many more. There are slight variations each year in the course, which is posted as a Google Map and as KML, GPX and TCX files.

This year, the organizers had eliminated some of the steepest climbs (as well as some of the fastest descents) from last year’s course: from Gaien to Akasaka Palace and then Akasaka Mitsuke; from the Diet building past the Prime Minister’s Residence and the Cabinet building; and the bridge over Sumida river towards Tokyo Big Sight. This no doubt made the course more inviting to non-competitive riders, and we saw a few upper elementary aged children riding along with their parents, decked out in matching team kit and even sporting Garmin wristwatches. According to my own Garmin, there was nearly 480m of climbing this year, compared to 635m for last year’s course (which I most recently rode on Oct. 13).

Guy Jean and Tomo show off their helmet stickers
Ready for fun!

The day dawned cloudy, with a promise of clear skies and warmer temperatures in the afternoon. I arrived at Gaien at 8 sharp and found a spot to park Kuroko. I messaged Tomo to let her know I had arrived and quickly received a response, “I’m at Tokyo Tower.” I knew she’d be a few minutes yet as she had to make a rather steepish climb from there. While I was waiting I eyed some of the various bikes people had brought: everything from Docomo rental electric bikes through the folding bikes that are so popular in Tokyo all the way up to full carbon top-flight (and top-dollar) racers. Finally I checked in, which was simply a matter of handing over my entry postcard, and received my numbers in return: a sticker for my helmet and a larger “bib” number with safety pins for the back of my jersey (or my windbreaker, as it happens). Tomo showed up in plenty of time and also got checked in quickly.

While I was waiting and watching Group A start (each group consists of 500 riders, and we were in Group B), I was approached by a woman who asked (in a slightly European accent) if spoke English. “Everybody has these serious racing bikes, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to keep up on my three-speed.” I assured her it was a fun ride, and she was welcome to take it at her own pace. In fact, I pointed out, there was a huge variety of bikes on display and she was sure to have some company no matter her pace.

Electric bike with homemade rain cover
A huge variety of bikes

With preparations out of the way, Tomo and I joined the throng of bikers in Group B waiting for the start. At the front, organizers were breaking up the pack into smaller groups of 20-30 riders. A couple of “tarento” (TV personalities) were interviewing one or two riders from each group before counting down to send them on their way. As we approached the line I heard one of the riders tell the interviewer he was a student at British School in Tokyo. There was some confusion then as the interviewer tried to think of things to say in English, and the rider said, “Actually, you know, I’m from Japan!” We were in the next group and I’m glad to say the interviewers ignored me and picked a Japanese man ahead of me to question about what he was looking forward to on the ride.

And we were off! We followed the riders ahead of us around the Gaien loop and watched for volunteers with signs at the corners. At each turning point on the course, there was a volunteer holding a sign with a large red arrow showing the direction and the distance to the next rest stop — “Aid Station” in Bike Tokyo parlance. As a safety measure, at each right turn the volunteers directed us to dismount and make a two-corner turn: first cross in the direction we’d been going, then at the opposite corner turn and cross again. It makes sense from a safety standpoint (and I know from my recent driving license course this is the required behavior for cyclists at a multi-lane intersection), but in the large group we were traveling with, there would often be a great bunching up of riders at the corner while the light was changing.

Progress was slow but steady at first. “The riders will spread out soon,” I called ahead to Tomo. But in fact there were so many of us that we didn’t break up until we got to the wide boulevard in front of the Imperial Palace, where we could finally stretch out and increase our pace a bit. Once past that, though, we were back into the traffic and a large pack of slow-moving riders. At some points we were simply pedaling a few dozen meters from one traffic light to the next, stopping at each one to join the long queue of riders waiting. I noticed that pedestrians were keeping pace with us.

We reached Tsukiji, boarded up now for the start of demolition, and proceeded across the Sumida river. Suddenly a pigeon swooped in from the left and nearly flew into Tomo’s face. It was quickly followed by another. It was startling, but no more than that.

The second Aid Station was in front of Ryogoku station, next to the sumo arena. A famous restaurant was serving up bowls of steaming chanko nabe, a stew favored by sumo for gaining weight. During the pre-ride interviews, a number of riders had mentioned that they were looking forward specifically to the chanko nabe. We were starving by this point and tempted to go back for seconds.

Aid Station at Ryogoku
Aid Station at Ryogoku

Chanko nabe
Chanko nabe

After Ryogoku, the riders finally started to spread out a bit, and we picked up the pace. The bridge across Sumida river in front of Tokyo Skytree was undergoing repairs and was reduced to half its width. But after that, back on the road towards Ueno, I overtook Tomo and a few of the riders we’d been keeping pace with. Traffic is not light here so I was playing it carefully, checking back over my shoulder from time to time to make sure Tomo was still with me. After a few kilometers we turned up a steep, narrow road towards Ueno. There were more straggling riders here, but no cars for the moment, so I passed them and powered my way up the hill. At the top I stopped to wait for Tomo, but there she was already, right behind me! We continued onward to the last aid station.

From there we were in a much smaller group of riders, about six to eight in all, with the lead changing from time to time. The route here differed from last year’s, and after Tokyo University we didn’t descend by Tokyo Dome. After a few kilometers, though, we ended up at the same place: riding up Kudanzaka past Budokan. Tomo said she might dismount and push, but in the end she made the top just a few seconds behind me. We pulled off the road here for a little break and I bought a bottle of water from a convenience store.

Chidorigafuchi, next to Budokan
Chidorigafuchi, next to Budokan

At that point it’s just a little more up and down and then a long, straight stretch back through Yotsuya before finally turning towards Gaien. I’d jumped away from a traffic light and gotten a few riders (and a few dozen meters) between me and Tomo. When I looked back over my shoulder, there was an older man in a purple jersey chatting her up: Murasaki Ojisan [Purple Uncle]. I didn’t realize at first he wasn’t one of the group, but just an old (but fit) rider out for his Sunday jaunt who’d chanced across the ride. He was asking Tomo all the details about the ride, and he said he’d done more than 70km himself that day. He paced with us most of the way back towards Gaien, and then said he knew a shortcut and took his leave.

Tomo and I powered up the final hill towards Rt. 246 and turned left to Gaien. On the long boulevard we passed rows of expensive sports cars out for a Sunday club meeting, and few wedding couples taking photos. I rounded the last corner to the finish line, stopped, turned … and waited. No Tomo. I waited a minute, and then another minute.

Finally she came around the corner and crossed the finish line with a thumb’s up. Before I could ask what happened, she said, “Murasaki Ojisan was waiting to congratulate me.”

Bike Tokyo schwag
Bike Tokyo schwag

There were Belgian waffles waiting for us at the finish line. We decided not to get in the queue for the coffee, but near the refreshments we noticed a signboard for door prizes with the winner’s bib numbers showing. And there was mine! I got an insulated cup from B.B.Base, a service from JR East to carry riders and bikes together out to the Boso resort area of Chiba Prefecture.

Will I join Bike Tokyo 2019? I’ll have to consider it. The ride is fun and it’s a good way to see Tokyo. But as a group event, it’s clearly too crowded. I witnessed too many instances of drivers trying to turn left through a long stream of cyclists at intersections (and one nearly got Tomo near Ginza!). And then there’s the total lack of Porta Potties at the Start/Finish and Aid Stations. This is offset somewhat by the enjoyment of a group ride. One thing I know: if I join, I’ll need to pack a bit of my own food. I need a few more calories than we were supplied with, chanko nabe or no.

Bike Tokyo 2018
Bikes of Bike Tokyo 2018

Hamura ride with my son

Father and son bikers in front of the statue of the Tamagawa brothers at Hamura Intake Weir

The Hamura ride is one of my standards, a nice, flat 100km round trip that I take if I can spend 8 or more hours on the road but am not quite up to a new challenge (like the Yokohama round trip, or perhaps Kamakura). The route is (mostly) smooth bike path free of automobile traffic (but often plagued by pedestrians) along the Tamagawa (Tama river) with inviting scenery and — weather permitting — views of far-off Fujisan.

Early morning view of Fujisan from Nishi Shinjuku
Early morning view of Fujisan from Nishi Shinjuku

I’d invited my son, the Halfakid, to join me on this ride back in August, not long after I’d purchased Kuroko and bequeathed Ol’ Paint to him. On that occasion, he was under the weather when the time came to ride, and the temperature reached 36C or so. I completed the ride solo, but I took a lot more time at the rest stops than usual and spent 9 hours all together just getting there and back. I also suffered a rather extreme case of bonk within about 4km of the goal, and had to stop and rest in the shade of a tree and scarf a couple of onigiri before I could continue.

This time, the Halfakid was ready when I rolled into his apartment bike parking, and the temperature was a more moderate 30-32C. I noticed Ol’ Paint had a bit of rust on her chain and gears from being kept outside in the elements. The weather was partly cloudy, intensely blue. The Halfakid started out strong and I was not holding back a lot as he followed me through town and then down a fast descent to the river. (OK, I was holding back a little. I have a lot more biking experience, and of course — as a father — I don’t want to expose him to the same risks I take myself every time I get on the bike.)

Once we got on the path I figured out the speed at which the Halfakid was comfortable, a gear or two down from my best pace, and we did about 6km before stopping at Funajima Inari Daimyo Shrine. We rested there a few minutes and drank quite a bit of water before remounting. After that, we crossed back into Tokyo on the Tamasuido bridge and continued to a small shrine in the shadow of the Keio Oval, a bike track for keirin racing. I had an onigiri prepared by Nana, and the Halfakid — after asking if I was really going to eat an onigiri so early in the ride — joined me.

Mt Fuji from Tamagawa
Mt Fuji from Tamagawa

Our next leg was a longish one, but straight and flat, and I wondered if the Halfakid was going to call for a break before we got to the small park next to the shrine. But he was equal to the task, and we rested in the shade and ate another onigiri. Out on the road, only 15km from our goal, was a vending machine for Japanese persimmons.

Vending machine for Japanese persimmons
Vending machine for Japanese persimmons

After that it was a matter of persistence. The Halfakid said he was fine for the remaining 15km to the goal, but in truth he was flagging. The pavement at this point is rough, with tree roots and age adding to the deterioration of the path, as well as segments of gravel adding to our woes. We didn’t see the bonk quite as seriously as on my previous outing, but it was clear that my son was not keeping up. After several checks over my shoulder, I shifted down once again and then checked and double-checked at each transition point to make sure he was following. When the direction was clear, I took advantage a couple of times to sprint ahead and then wait.

Hamura — the goal

River is high at Hamura Intake Weir
River is high at Hamura Intake Weir

At last we reached our goal at Hamura Intake Weir. The river was running high, and more than a few people were seated in the shade of the pavilion, taking advantage of the good weather for an outing. We ate the remaining onigiri and rested. I waited until the Halfakid was ready, a good 20 minutes or so after we’d finished eating. We were both feeling we could eat a bit more after all the onigiri, and I asked if he wanted to stop at a convenience store just a few kilometers back down the path. No, he said, he was good until we reached the café, a short 17km away.

We refilled our water bottles and set off. On the return, the Halfakid was more confident — a combination of the refueling and the fact the wind was now at our backs. Still, I had to check my tempo from time to time, and I confirmed with him that he didn’t want to stop at the first rest area, 9km from the turnaround.

Carbo loading on the way home
Carbo loading on the way home

We stopped at the promised café for a soft cream and iced coffee. I took my time over the refreshments and waited for the Halfakid to indicate he was ready to continue. We visited the bike shop next door to get some chain lube for Ol’ Paint. By this time the Halfakid has ridden out most of the rust on the chain and cogs, but I wanted him to apply some lube on the spot to eliminate any remaining worries.

On the return, quite near the goal, the Halfakid suggested a couple of alternatives. One was to cross the Tamagawa (from Kanagawa back to Tokyo) via a different bridge. It’s an elevated bridge for Rt. 246, and we had to dismount and push our bikes up the ramp. It was a great improvement, though, on a couple of counts. At first, the lane was shared between bikes and pedestrians, but there were scarcely any of either. This is an improvement over the Futagobashi, where the lane is a bit wider for the most part, but is jam-packed with pedestrians and bikers both. Next, after crossing the mid-point, the lane separates bike traffic from pedestrians. From this point, the bike path is wide and the slope gradual, so we could coast back down to street level. By contrast, at the Futako end of the Futagobashi, the lane squeezes to such a narrow point that it becomes dangerous for bikes to pass in both directions simultaneously, with the result that the path is almost always a congested exercise in patience.

Sunset from Nishi Shinjuku
Sunset from Nishi Shinjuku

The next change was to continue from the end of the bridge ramp through Futako Tamagawa up out of the river valley to the Kanpachi-246 intersection. I usually ride up on the opposite side of Rt. 246 (which is where the Futagobashi bike/pedestrian lane brings me), and it’s a consistent slope of 4% over 500m, for a rise of 20m. By comparison, on the Halfakid’s route, we passed through a primarily pedestrian shopping area (at least on the weekend) before coming to a much more abrupt climb: 6% over 300m (for a rise of 18m). That probably would not have been such a great challenge, but the slope is not uniform and it peaks at 16.5% (thankfully for a short distance). The Halfakid, on Ol’ Paint, dropped to the lowest chainring and soldiered up at a walking pace. That’s not an option for me with Kuroko, and I bore down on the the pedals to reach the top without dropping below 9-10mkm/h. I was fortunate in that the climb is not long, and I had been taking it easy all day up to that point.

Hamura Round Trip
Hamura Round Trip

After that, it’s all well-worn paths for me. The Halfakid asked me to take the point again after having led me over the bridge and (part of the way) up the side of the river valley. It’s just a few kilometers from there to his apartment, mostly flat. I said my goodbyes to him there, and messaged Nana that I would be home soon. My last 8km were no-holds-barred, and I made very good time with the wind behind me and only a few slight climbs. In fact, my final 5km of the ride were the fastest of the day.

Hamura Ride with Halfakid