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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.