Too early for blossoms

Bicycle in front of road and sign for Otarumi Pass

… too late for my thighs

I set out to do this ride a week ago, then bailed when a late start put me behind the clock. Two days later, I rode again but didn’t even think about Otarumi Touge.

Today’s the day!

I woke at 6 and, after some dawdling and assuring Nana she didn’t have to rush to finish the onigiri, set out about 9:20. The temperature at the time was somewhere around 2-4C, but there was no wind and I was warm from the moment I started riding. Soon I was on the Tamagawa and headed upstream.

Bicycle in park in front of decorative waterfall
First break of the day

At first along the river, the wind was with me. Nevertheless I wasn’t feeling strong. I messaged Fearless Leader Joe at the first stop that the weather was beautiful but my legs were nowhere to be found. I stopped just before turning off the Tamagawa and had the first of Nana’s world famous onigirimentaiko!

Fujisan all day

Cycle path, bridge and Fujisan
Straight … to the top!

On the good foot, Fujisan hove into view as soon as I left the Tamagawa and turned up the Asakawa. Less fortuitously, I was now battling against the wind. It wasn’t overpowering, but it was slowing me down and sapping my energy. For the most part I was down a gear or two from my usual pace, but at times I was as low as it goes (unless I’m climbing) — the same gear I use to start from a red light. Mindful of the climb I had ahead of me, I kept the gears where I could spin without using up all my energy.

I stopped at the usual rest area about 5km shy of Takaosan Station and ate the remainder of the mentaiko onigiri. Thus sated, I continued on. The wind was still an issue, but it wasn’t long before I was leaving the cycling course for the urban Takao experience. There, mercifully out of the wind, I rode right past the convenience store that’s a usual stop on this route and started the ascent.

Wimp

Any idle fantasies I had about today being the day I would make this climb in one go were quickly dispelled. I downshifted early to preserve my energy for the climb to come, but after just a couple of kilometers I pulled off the side of the road for a short rest. At that point the seal was broken — I continued upward, but the motivation to punish myself to reach the goal was gone. I stopped several times along the way, including one last stop when I knew the goal was just around the corner ahead. I was shameless.

View from the top

Bicycle in front of road and sign for Otarumi Pass
View from the top

Despite all my shilly-shallying, I was never really tempted to throw in the towel. I made the top in a time not much different from my usual — and in fact set a PR because I’d skipped over the convenience store. At the top I breathed deeply until my heart stopped racing, and I took in the view that was on offer.

Fujisan from Otarumi Touge
Fujisan from Otarumi Touge

Selfie of biker in sunglasses and bandana with Fujisan in background
A man outstanding in his view of Fujisan

Slow return

The descent was rapid enough to bring tears to my eyes, and I hit 50km/h at one point. (A driver insisted on passing me at another point when I was going 40 in a 30km/h zone, just so we could sit together at the next light.) I pulled off the road at Takaosan Guchi for the traditional photo.

Selfie in mask, sunglasses and banadana in front of Takaosan Guchi ropeway entrance
Takaosan Guchi

After that the going was slower as the wind picked up along the Asakawa. It came and went, and I adjusted my speed accordingly. I stopped about 6km after leaving Takao for a snack of convenience store apple pie, and then another 10km on, when I reached the Tamagawa again, my last Snickers bar. I checked the time and my distance remaining and let Nana know I would be home about 5 p.m.

And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?

And the strong winds continued. I already had 85km under my belt at this point (as well as three onigiri, two Snickers bars and an apple pie), so again it was a matter of shifting down to keep spinning, not trying to force my way against the wind and use up my energy all at once. Whenever the wind let up for a moment, my speed picked up correspondingly. I had a tad less than 15km to go downstream on the Tamagawa, into the wind the entire way, before leaving the cycling course and heading back into city traffic. As I fought the wind, I tended to turtle my head into my shoulders to reduce the drag, but that was leading to very stiff shoulders and neck. So with a will I put my head up high and shifted down again and soldiered onwards.

The final 15

At last I left the river course and headed into city traffic. Usually I hate the traffic, but today it meant blessed relief from the headwind. On my last rest stop of the day I checked the time and let Nana know I would be home just about 5 p.m. I drank the last of my water and headed into it.

The ride from this point was unremarkable. The usual tussles with traffic, including a driver who tried to squeeze me against the curb at the back of a line of traffic. The usual broken pavement and construction work. I had my lights on for safety (it was mostly still bright at this time, but the shadows were lengthening), and at one traffic light I took off my shades and stowed them in the cockpit bag. After a railroad crossing about 6km from home, I encountered a high school baseball team on their way home on bikes, riding three and four abreast. A policeman passing in the opposite direction waved to them to move over to the side of the road, and I took that chance to pass the lot of them. At the next light, as I was waiting, they all crossed ahead of me, against the light, but thankfully headed in a different direction.

At this point I was looking at my overall average speed for the day — total elapsed time including breaks. It was hovering right around 15km/h, but dipping below that whenever I stopped to drink water and message Nana about my progress. Now that I was out of the wind, I was moving at more than 20km/h while riding, but I was also spending significant time at lights. Surely I couldn’t pull that time up — from a dip to 14.8km/h after my last rest break — while in traffic and obeying the lights, could I?

I simply kept pressing on, and didn’t run any of the lights on the way. And to my disbelief, I got the needle to move back to 15, and to hold there. With enough kilometers on the clock it would take quite a pause to make a difference, and now I was watching a different clock: Could I get home by the promised 5 p.m.? It looked like I was in the clear, but not by much. With aching thighs, but triumphant, I rolled into the plaza and stopped the clock at 4:49 p.m., with an all-in average speed of 15.1km/h.

GPS record of bicycle ride
Too early for blossoms

Still some cleaning up to do

Bicycle bag under vinyl cover and sundry bicycle parts blocking balcony window

Since the clean-up following my return from England, the bicycle bag has been sitting in front of the bedroom window under a tarp. We don’t use that window to get to the balcony, so that’s not a problem. But it does get in the way when I’m working on a bicycle in the stand. And meanwhile it’s just become too convenient a place to toss odds ‘n’ ends rather than properly put them away.

A pair of luggage straps in their packaging
Basic luggage straps

I’ve been meaning for ages to get some straps so I can stand the bag up on end and secure it to the air-conditioner stand. I have to make sure it’s really secure, not just against earthquakes but typhoons too. Today while I was in Shinjuku for some unrelated shopping I had the chance to pick up some cheap straps. (I could probably have had something delivered from Amazon at one-quarter the cost, but I also like to support my local neighborhood superstore … )

I wasn’t sure how long a strap I needed. I knew that even folded up, the bag was more than 40cm tall. I also knew it would be easier to shorten a strap than to make it longer, so I got a couple that were 200cm long. This turned out to be more than enough.

With the materials in hand, it was the work of a couple of minutes to stand up the bag on end, make sure the tarp was secure, and strap the whole thing snugly to the a/c stand.

Montage showing bike bag in a tarp strapped upright to an a/c stand, and miscellaneous bicycle maintenance bits
Bag out of the way

With that done, I moved the remaining bicycle parts and cleaning supplies into a couple of piles for later sorting. Even without the final clean-up, though, I’ve freed up quite a bit of space for bike maintenance.

Balcony with bike bag, wheels and workstand
Free at last!

Against the wind

Selfie of biker in front of Arakawa river marker with bicycle

Another cop-out

Nana asked several times this morning where I was going to ride today. I kept putting off the decision. I’d plotted out a new route I’m eager to try, but at 125km it would be pushing the available daylight today, even with an 8 a.m. start. (Of course, a 6 a.m. start would have meant no worries … )

Nana mentioned that I’d planned on Friday to ride Otarumi Touge before copping out because of a late start — wouldn’t today be the perfect chance? Instead I copped out again and went for an easy ride (or so I thought at the time): Arakawa to Tokyo Disneyland would have me home mid-afternoon, and I didn’t have to hurry to get going.

9 a.m. departure

I’d planned an 8 a.m. start to ride the new route and Nana had the onigiri ready in time, but once I’d decided on Arakawa, the pressure was off. I took my time getting prepared and was finally ready to go at 9 a.m. As on Friday, the rear tire was low — this time it was down to about 20psi. There’s a slow leak there that the sealant is not fixing. It could be the poor factory taping job I noticed when I got the new wheel.

I’m satisfied to note the front tire was at about 35psi without having been topped up since I first set it up as tubeless on 1 Jan.

Selfie of biker in front of Arakawa river marker with bicycle
Arrival at Arakawa

It was about 9C when I set out in the morning, but I knew the temperature would rise to more than 20 during the day. I put on the windbreaker instead of the winter jacket, and packed a pair of summer gloves. I was worried it would be a bit chilly when I first set out, but this turned out not to be an issue. As soon as I reached the Arakawa, I shed my undershirt, the windbreaker and the full gloves. Even in the shade after that, I wasn’t cold at all.

Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo Skytree

I often enjoy a tailwind when riding down the Arakawa and turn in 5km times of 10-11 minutes. Today, by contrast, the wind was against me or at best a crosswind. I didn’t put a lot of energy into the pedals but just chose low enough gears to ensure I could keep spinning. Given the headwind, I was gratified to see I’d racked up two consecutive 5km averages of 13 minutes — about 23km/h. This despite the road furniture along the course.

It seemed to take much longer than usual to reach my regular rest spot on the river course — a rare bit of shade thanks to a highway overpass. But after taking only a couple of minutes there to relax, I set off against feeling very refreshed.

Still a headwind, though

Despite my new-found refreshment, I was still struggling into the wind. It wasn’t overwhelming, and I was still making progress, but I was also starting to get hungry. I was counting down the kilometers to the end of the river course, thinking all the way of Nana’s onigiri in my saddle bag.

River and bridge in distance
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

I finally arrived at Shinsuna, where the Arakawa meets Tokyo Bay, and immediately sat down to eat a couple of mentaiko onigiri. I was sitting in the direct sun, which I usually try to avoid (yes, even in February!), but I just couldn’t wait at this point. I was more concerned whether anyone was messing with Kuroko and the GPS (and my wallet, and the GoPro, and … ). I kept turning my head to check. Of course, this is Japan and no one was giving it a second glance.

Disneyland!

No sooner had I wolfed down a couple of onigiri and some water than I got back on the bike and started my way across the Arakawa, through the amusement park and over the Kyuedo River to Tokyo Disney Resort.

Montage of selfie and bicycle in front of Tokyo Disney Resort fountain
Goal!

Now that I had reached the goal, and in good time, I could relax for the return. I made my way back across the Kyuedo and through the amusement park and turned up the Arakawa — this time with the wind at my back. I made very good time back to the bridge. Rather than cross immediately, though, I found a convenience store and stocked up on food and drink. Then I made my way to a small park at the foot of the bridge and relaxed while stuffing my face.

Bicycle leaning against tree
Final onigiri

Homeward bound

Again I didn’t linger over the final onigiri and the convenience store treats, but started back as soon as I’d had my fill. From the Arakawa back to Nihonbashi it’s 10km, but the time seemed to pass without notice.

Wedding couple posing at Nihonbashi
Someone else had the same idea

I usually stop for a photo at Nihonbashi, but today someone else apparently had the same idea. I was content to share the scenery with them. This once.

I quickly mounted up and resumed my way to Otemon and Budokan. There’s a bit of a climb up Kudanzaka to reach Budokan — I have to climb up past it and then come back, thanks to the safety railing along the roadside — but I didn’t have any trouble with it today. Just kept shifting down and spinning, until I was in my lowest gear, crawling and spinning as I made my way upwards.

Chidorigafuchi
Chidorigafuchi

Tayasumon
Tayasumon

Final push

Cherry tree at Chidorigafuchi
Cherry tree at Chidorigafuchi

From Budokan it’s about 7km to home. I was racing nothing at this point — there was still plenty of sunlight, no threat of rain, and I’d left myself plenty of leeway in the time I’d told Nana to expect me. Without the headwind that plagued me down the Arakawa, I was making pretty good time. I didn’t ease off the pace, but I relaxed mentally. My only concern now was whether my total for the day would exceed 75km. It looked like I would fall just 1km or so shy of that. So after passing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building and racing down past Central Park, I decided on one final lap around the block. I made good time on the rise up to Nakano Sakaue and passed the 75km mark racing back down Yamate Dori, 30 seconds ahead of the pursuing traffic. At last I turned towards home and rolled up to the gate, still well ahead of the time I’d given Nana to expect my return.

GPS record of cycle ride
Against the Wind

With today’s ride, I handily surpassed my goal of 400km for the month, at 433km (and there’s still next weekend!). At the same time, I reached another milestone without realizing it.

Garmin record showing 8,000km on bicycle
Another milestone

(If I’d known, I’d have cycled the extra 100m to make it an even 8,000km … )

Cop out

Selfie of masked cyclist in front of statue of Tamagawa Brothers

I had a day off work and so I decided to give Otarumi Touge a try. When I told Nana, she said, “Alone?” Why not? I’ve done it alone several times.

Anyway, I dawdled around this morning and didn’t get ready until nearly 10. Then when I took Kuroko off the parking rack, the rear tire felt a bit soft. I checked it and it wasn’t just soft — it was completely deflated. I quickly topped it up with the new Panaracer pump, and I noticed a bit of sealant seeping around the rim, near the valve. With luck, that will have sealed up whatever leak there was.

First stop at the Tamagawa

It’s Friday and there was a lot of traffic in the morning. It took me far longer to get down to the Tamagawa than expected. At the second rest stop of the day, after eating some onigiri, I checked the time and took stock. At my current pace I wouldn’t make Takaosan Guchi before 1 p.m. Add an hour to climb the mountain and then descend it, and I’d be getting home about 6 p.m. — well after dark and well into Nana worry territory.

Facing this reality, I did the only logical thing and copped out. Instead of turning off the Tamagawa for the Asakawa and hence Otarumi Touge, I would just continue along the Tamagawa to Hamura. If I found I was running too late, I could turn around at any point.

Fujisan behind field and trees
I had a nice view of Fujisan, though

Tailwind

I benefited from a tailwind all the way up the Tamagawa. I didn’t really press my advantage: just continued at a good, steady pace. Since I’d already eaten all the onigiri, I stopped at a convenience store a few kilometers short of Hamura and loaded up on carbohydrates. Soon I was wheeling into Hamura in the shadow of the Tamagawa Bros, and I stopped to enjoy my goodies.

Hamura Intake Weir

Kuroko takes a lunch break

Selfie of masked cyclist in front of statue of Tamagawa Brothers
Tamagawa Bros Three

I’d dressed in the morning for the 6C weather I’d be setting out in. As the temperature rose to 15 during the morning, I grew more hot and sweaty. But now, sitting in the shade and wind as I ate, I grew quite chilly. It helped to motivate me to get back on the bike and head for home. I let Nana know I was heading back and I set out.

Headwind

You can benefit from a tailwind for 30km and not really appreciate it, but the moment you turn back into the wind, you know it. I had roughly 30km to fight back into the wind before leaving the river course and heading back into city traffic. I put my head down and concentrated on spinning the pedals, no matter how much I had to downshift or how slowly I was actually progressing. I was pleasantly surprised to find I was maintaining a hair under 20km/h average.

As I neared the end of the river course, a construction worker on a bike entered the course from the side of the path without checking if the way was clear, “Hey hey!” I shouted to stop him cutting me off. “Hey hey!” he mimicked back, sarcastically. I ignored him and kept pedaling. At that moment the headwind picked up and my speed dropped. After a minute or so, the construction worker passed me — electric bike. I was glad he didn’t try to hassle with me. After another minute the wind dropped off, and I passed him again. That was the last I saw of him. After another couple of kilometers, I turned off the path and back into city traffic.

Bicycle leaning against railing with waterfall in the background
The first shall be the last

At the last rest stop of the day (with luck!) I checked my progress. I’d done 82km and had 15km to go — just shy of 100km. I decided to see how close I was to 100 when I got home, and how I felt. With that, it was back into traffic and homewards. There are a couple of small hills on the way, just 2% or so, but after more than 80km they feel much steeper. My knee was aching at this point as well, but I just put the bike into progressively lower gears and continued to spin. I put both climbs behind me and continued on my way home.

A little shy

When I got near home I checked the GPS. I would be at about 97km if I went straight to the door. A lap around our block would be about 2km so I needed a bit more. I continued on towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, did a lap around Central Park, and then returned home and did a lap around our block (taking me to Nakano Sakaue and then down Yamate Dori). That did the trick, pushing me nicely over 100km for the day.

GPS record of bicycle ride
Cop out

Hub replacement

Bicycle hub, rim and spokes on a newspaper, ready for assembly

This poor wheel has seen a litany of mechanicals in its two-and-a-half-year life, and it’s all my fault. The trouble started several hundred kilometers into an ill-starred Lejog ride, when the rear derailleur got stuck in the four lowest cogs. In my haste to get the gears shifting again, I backed out the limit screws. There’s a reason I shouldn’t have done it, and sure enough, an hour or so later I ended up putting the chain into the spokes. The result was several broken and mangled spokes, and some galling of the hub flange. I’m still grateful to Ben the Amazing Wandering Bicycle Mechanic for showing up late in the evening with a truck full of tools and getting me back on the road.

Mechanic truing wheel on bike in parking lot
Ben’s mobile bike repair

Since that seminal mechanical, the following ignoble history of broken spokes has plagued the wheel:

That was the spoke that broke the camel’s back. After checking prices for a replacement hub and all 32 28 spokes, I bought a new rear wheel (and, incidentally, new tires). The new wheel and tires are working fine and I’m very pleased with the result.

But that rim with its broken spoke has remained sitting on the balcony, where I can see it every morning through the bedroom window. I kept looking at it, and the spare front wheel (the one with the dynamo hub that I bought for Lejog) and thinking how neat it would be to have a spare set of wheels. Just for … reasons. And so (even though it doesn’t make economic sense), I finally ordered a replacement hub and spokes. (Yes, and nipples.)

Step 1: Disassembly

Bicycle wheel on newspaper-covered floor
Wheel beginning

I realized I had to remove the rim tape first in order to remove the nipples. The tape put up more of a fight than I expected. That’s a good thing, because the tape has one job and it’s sticking to it!

Bicycle wheel with discarded rim tape and cutter on newspaper-covered floor
The rim tape put up a fight

To prevent the nipples from falling inside the rim as I removed them, I used my time-honored technique of threading a spare spoke in through the opposite end.

Montage showing the use of a spare spoke to remove nipples from a bicycle wheel
A spare spoke is an invaluable tool

I started with the drive side and removed all the nipples first. When I’d created some space, I started pulling out loose spokes.

Bicycle wheel with removed spokes and nipples on newspaper-covered floor
Making progress on the drive side

Some clown got the spoke wrench on crooked when he replaced a broken spoke a while back. The nipple was rounded off, and subsequent efforts to remove it with a pair of pliers resulted in a broken nipple! I saved this spoke for last, and then pushed it through the rim until I could get at the hex head on the nipple with the pliers. It took some work but I finally removed it.

Bicycle rim and hub with single spoke and broken nipple
Monkey with a spoke wrench

And with that, the disassembly is done. I kept the bits for the drive side (which I’d previously replaced) separate from the non-drive side (which are original), and I sequestered the broken nipple and corresponding spoke.

Parts for a bicycle wheel, including rim, hub, spokes and nipples, as well as gloves and tools
Bicycle wheel (some assembly required)

I still need to clean the old latex and tape residue off the rim before the rebuilding starts.

Bicycle rim with dried latex and tape residue
Some gunk remains

With all the spokes removed, the damage to the hub flange from the earlier spoke breakage is evident.

Bicycle hub showing damaged flange
Not supposed to be shiny

I haven’t decided yet what to do with the hub. I can reuse the freewheel body, and possibly the bearings. It will be a challenge to find some use for the remaining naked hub — it’s the wrong shape to make a novelty drink coaster.

Damaged bicycle hub on newspaper
This ol’ hub

Step 2: Reassembly

Nearly a month has passed since I disassembled the wheel. The hub, spokes and nipples arrived from Germany, but the package was torn and some nipples were missing. I’d ordered 30 (to have a couple of spares) and received 19. It took a week to get a response from the vendor, but they finally asked if I could get the replacement nipples locally, and they’d refund me the difference. I could and did — 100 nipples, in fact, with next-day delivery. I told the vendor of course they didn’t have to pay for 100, and they ended up refunding me 5 euros.

I got the replacement nipples on Jan. 26, and since then I’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to get started.

Bicycle hub, rim and spokes on a newspaper, ready for assembly
Taking stock

A friend asked what the difference was between a wheel with 28 spokes and one with 32, and of course the answer is four spokes. Anyway, it’s a trade-off between strength and weight. His question made me curious enough to see what difference four spokes and nipples would make.

Four spokes and nipples on a scale
Answer: not a lot

That hardly seems worth the difference, especially when you consider that an extra four holes in the rim and hub will mean the difference is even less.

Before starting I had a brief refresher, particularly on the significance of the key spoke:

With that under my belt, I quickly set to work.

Hand holding a bicycle hub with a few spokes inserted
Key spoke at top right

Partially assembled bicycle wheel on a newspaper
The first seven

Bicycle rim held on edge to view the hub logo through the valve hole
Hub logo through the valve hole — the mark of a pro

The work proceeded quickly after that. I’d ordered slightly thicker spokes and laced them cross three (each spoke crosses three others between the hub and rim), rather than the original cross two, for extra strength. But once I got all the spokes in place, it was clear I’d made a miscalculation: the spokes were too long.

Bicycle wheel before spokes are tightened
Sam, you made the spokes too long

I could recalculate the spoke length and order new spokes, or I could try cross four (even stronger!) and see if the length worked out. Either way, I had to tear down the wheel again and start over.

Bicycle wheel disassembled
Back to the drawing board

I decided to give cross four a try. It was a fight to get the spokes in the right position without tangling their heads together in the hub flange, but I got there in the end.

Wheel newly laced before spokes are tightened
That’s more like it

Newly assembled wheel with tightened spokes
After 10 minutes with a spoke key

The final step in building a wheel is truing it. This is a repetitive process of tightening the spokes, checking the roundness of the wheel and the position of the rim between the hub ends, and checking the spoke tension. It is far more art than science (although I’ve seen videos of high-speed machines with high-tech measuring tools at a factory), and it helps to stop every so often and stress the spokes manually to get them to seat in. But we got there in the end.

Tight and true

Along the way, the monkey reappeared and rounded off another nipple. I’m happy to say it was easier this time to get the damaged nipple off, and I was able to replace it without having to disassemble the wheel yet again.

A pristine bicycle nipple next to a damaged one
Before and after monkey

With the wheel tight and true, I topped off the reassembly with fresh rim tape and a new valve.

Montage of bicycle wheel in truing stand
Taped and valved

Another day

The wheel is ready now for a brake disc, cassette and tire. I’m saving those steps for another day as it’s dark and cold out on the Workshop in the Sky, and it might be a bit of a fight to get the tubeless tire to mount. As this wheel is meant for a spare anyway, there’s no hurry.

Nothin’ but blues and Elvis

Bicycle in front of moat and Edoj┼Ź Sakurada Tatsumi Yagura

I had a late start this morning because Nana’s been after me for a couple of weeks now to have a haircut. I finally got on the road after 11, and immediately I knew I was overdressed for the weather. It was not quite 10C while I was preparing for the ride, but the temperature was soon in the double-digits and eventually hit a high of 17C. Meanwhile, I was dressed pretty much the same as I would have been if the temperature was 3.

I’d been thinking of riding to Haneda today, but Fearless Leader Joe brought up the Tokyo Landmarks ride in an e-mail last night, and I realized it had been a while since I’ve done this. I took Dionysus because I wanted to check if tightening the bottom bracket had solved the bearing knock I’d detected on my last ride.

Bicycle in front of hedge, fountain and Meiji Memorial Portrait Gallery
Meiji Memorial Portrait Gallery

Dionysus doesn’t have a cockpit bag, and the saddle bag is small (just big enough for a spare inner tube, tool kit and the lock), so I loaded everything I needed to carry in my jacket pockets: wallet and cash, phone, keys, tissues. This was fine, but when I got too warm I had no alternative but to just unzip the jacket and continue on.

That was pretty much the only fly in the day’s ointment, though. The weather was sunny and warm, and the wind was mild. Dionysus’s bottom bracket was silent — no sign of the earlier bearing knock. The brakes and shifter worked flawlessly. Every man called his fellow “brother,” and the lion laid down with the lamb.

… and somebody else’s favorite song

This was by far my longest ride on Dionysus since I acquired Kuroko. I’ve only used Dionysus for commuting since then. I was pleased to find I had none of the finger and toe numbness I used to experience with Ol’ Paint. The riding position is good — a bit more upright than Kuroko, with my hands just a bit farther apart. Dionysus accelerates quickly and is very nimble, but lacks some of the top speed I get out of Kuroko (owing to the more upright riding position). And the quick steering means constant vigilance, particularly on fast downhills.

Bicycle in front of moat and Edojō Sakurada Tatsumi Yagura
Edojō Sakurada Tatsumi Yagura

At the Imperial Palace, I thought I might get a closer look at the Sakashita Gate. There’s a large gravel lot separating it from the road. I dismounted to have a look and immediately noticed the “No bicycles” sign. I hoped that I could slip through by walking my bike. But as I approached the gate I saw I was walking directly towards a guard booth. The guard advanced and told me, very apologetically and politely in broken English, that no bicycles are allowed. I thanked him and returned to the street, and then stopped as usual by the Edojō Sakurada Tatsumi Yagura.

I continued on my way through the financial district. I’d chosen to ride without navigation, and this was the one spot I thought I might miss my turning. But I found the exact spot without any difficulty, and continued past the now defunct Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu and on towards Tokyo Big Sight. It was getting towards 2 p.m. when I stopped at a convenience store for lunch, which I ate at a bench in the shade.

Rainbow Bridge
Rainbow Bridge

Bicycle on pedestrian bridge with Tokyo Skytree in background
Tokyo Skytree

There’s no getting away from the fact that the next leg of the route is a long, straight slog through city traffic with lots of traffic lights. It was on this portion of the ride that my butt started hurting and my left wrist was feeling the strain. None of the aches and pains were too heavy to bear, though, and I continued on towards the Sumida River. I stopped on a pedestrian bridge just long enough to take a snap of Tokyo Skytree before continuing onwards.

When I set out in the late morning, I’d planned to stop and photograph every landmark I passed along the way, and send these along to Fearless Leader Joe along with the GPS coordinates. As always happens, though, I get in a groove on the bike and don’t want to stop. After leaving Tokyo Skytree behind, I didn’t stop for Sensoji (Asakusa shrine), Ueno Park, Tokyo University or Tokyo Dome. Even though a couple of these involved fairly challenging climbs, when I got to the top I just wanted to continue onwards. I finally took another break (my last of the day) at Budokan.

Bicycle leaning against railing in front of Chidorigafuchi palace moat
Chidorigafuchi

Tayasumon Gate
Tayasumon Gate

It was about 3:30 when I arrived in front of Budokan, having oozed up Kudanzaka in my lowest gear. I messaged Nana I would be home by 4:30 (as always leaving myself a generous margin for error). I still had plenty of water in my bottle so I set off without delay. Despite obeying the traffic signals (mostly) and not taking chances in traffic, I rolled into home about 4:05, having made quite good time through Yotsuya and Shinjuku.

GPS record of bike ride
Nothin’ but blues and Elvis

FLJ always names his rides after the song lyrics he’s been signing that day. In my case, the Steely Dan lyrics have been stuck in my head all day. It’s true I suffered no static at all on today’s ride. But I’m not promising I’ll make this a regular thing.

Shirako Onsen

Cyclists waving goodbye outside hotel entrance

Shirako Onsen is a small spa resort on the Pacific Coast of Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo, and known for its natural iodine baths. We chose Chiba as a destination for our 初走り, the first ride of the New Year, with the intention of visiting in late January. But our chosen weekend turned to rain (and very cold rain at that), so we rescheduled for the first weekend in February. This turned out to be a good decision as the weather was sunny and warm, and the wind gentle.

Cyclist's musette full of plastic-wrapped onigiri
Bag o’ onigiri

Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen
Tokyo Tower from Shiba Koen

Nana awoke early on Saturday to rustle up a mess o’ onigiri, three for each of the four riders, including the “furry” konbu onigiri with umeboshi centers favored by the Halfakid and Tomo. Our agreed meeting spot was Shiba Koen, a park in central Minato, Tokyo, near the iconic Tokyo Tower. For Tomo and me this was a short jaunt of less than an hour, but for the Halfakid and his Tomo, newly relocated to Kanagawa Prefecture to the west of Tokyo, it was nearly 30km. I received word from the Halfakid at 6:50 that they were leaving home to make the 9 a.m. appointment.

As I passed through Tokyo Midtown, the GPS beeped with a message from Tomo: I’ve arrived at Kanri Jimusho. “Great,” I thought. “What’s a Kanri Jimusho?” Imagining it was some mid-way point on her way to the park, I continued on my way. Within five minutes, I was relaxing in the park, sipping water, sharing location and photos with friends, and waiting for the Halfakid to arrive with his Tomo. I checked Google Maps meanwhile, and there were hundreds of matches for “Kanri Jimusho,” with the top result being 25km away.

The Halfakid arrived and soon put me straight: Tomo was waiting just a couple of hundred meters away, near the restrooms. We soon met up and were sharing greetings and snacks for our upcoming ride.

Central Tokyo

The first leg of our ride was through central Tokyo, passing by the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station on our way to Ginza and thence to Nihonbashi, where we picked up Eitai Dori to lead us eastward towards the Arakawa and out of Tokyo. It was all very flat riding, extremely urban (although thankfully not too heavily trafficked on a Saturday morning) and very smooth going apart from the frequent stops at traffic lights. The ride along Eitai Dori is one I often take in reverse, when returning from Tokyo Disney Resort after a jaunt down the Arakawa cycling course.

We made good time and soon found ourselves crossing the Kiyosunao Bridge over the Arakawa. We stopped immediately afterwards at a small park we know at the foot of the bridge in order to use the facilities and enjoy the first onigiri of the ride. In this way we avoided the crowds we knew would be waiting at the larger Kasai Seaside Park just a couple of kilometers further on.

Newly energized, we departed and worked our way down to Kasai through a crowd of weekend cyclists, joggers and strollers. The skies were clear and the wind almost non-existent, allowing us to enjoy the view over Tokyo Bay as we passed. Soon we were riding up and down the pedestrian overpasses that lead to the Maihama Great Bridge and hence to Tokyo Disney Resort.

Four cyclists selfie in front of Tokyo Disney Resort sign
Mickey was just out of the frame

After the celebratory photo and updating of Nana on our current location, we turned briefly northeast on Osankakusen and Niihama avenues to cross the Edo river via Myoden Bridge, trading a couple of extra kilometers in this way for a wide pedestrian and cycle way over the river and into Funabashi, Chiba. Once over the bridge, we headed briefly south again to pick up a pedestrian walk paralleling the Wangan Shuto Expressway. And thus began a length of what Fearless Leader Joe and I refer to as really rubbish exurb riding. We were out of traffic — marginally. Our only view was of warehouses to the left and highway traffic to the right, and we had to navigate frequent crossings, including a couple of pedestrian overpasses that required us to dismount and push our bikes up narrow ramps.

Exurb Chiba

We’d continued more than a dozen kilometers in this fashion when we agreed it was time for a break and lunch. We pulled off the road into a likely looking park, Yatsugahata, with restrooms and an unoccupied gazebo that we quickly commandeered to finish off what remained of Nana’s world-famous onigiri.

It was 12:30 when we stopped for lunch and nearly 1 when we resumed riding. Immediately we stopped as Tomo had a flat front tire. We quickly pumped it up and tested that it would hold air. We were back on our way in minutes, but I was getting worried as I knew we still had more than 60km to go, including a long uphill stretch, and it was all terra incognita.

Our next bit was a pleasant paved path through Narashino City Akitsu Park, with the sunlight filtering down through dense overhead foliage. It was a nice change from cycling immediately adjacent to a highway. As the route came to an end we turned to cross through the park to the other side, only to find we had to dismount and walk our bikes. Fortunately it was only a couple of hundred meters, and then we were riding again, this time through empty suburban streets.

Not long after passing through some urban roadway, a small park leading to what was probably private condo property and then more heavy urban riding, we crossed the Hanami river and then dismounted for a pedestrian bridge over the East Kanto Expressway. As we passed into the Masagodai 4 Park, the Halfakid raced me down to tell me that Tomo had come to a halt. I backtracked and found her waiting with a flat, and we decided to replace the tube at this point. The Halfakid eagerly did the lion’s share of the work, and my new pump really came in handy, allowing us to fill up the new tube with a minimum of fuss and effort. And we were back on our way.

Just before reaching Chiba Station, we stopped at a convenience store and loaded up on carbohydrates. Soon we were on the road again, deeply urban riding, past the station and hence out of Chiba city and then upwards, slightly upwards. But inexorably. We began climbing just before 3 p.m. and continued, gradually but nearly without break, until 5. The rise, ranging from moderately challenging to scarcely noticeable at times, took its toll. As I pressed on in the lead (thanks to my role as navigator), glancing frequently over my shoulder to see if Tomo and the rest were behind, I felt torn between the ticking of the clock, bringing sunset closer and closer, and Tomo’s obviously increasing fatigue. Finally, in a rare stretch of country road, my GPS beeped with a text from the Halfakid, 500m back: Stop at the next convenience store. I held up my thumb for him to see as I waited for them to catch up, and then led the way back to a rural highway and eventually another in our long string of convenience store stops.

On to the promised land

Without rechecking our route closely, I knew we were a bit more than 5km from the end of our long climb. That end would bring yet another convenience store rest stop, and then a precipitous descent on a winding two-way road with no shoulders and heavy traffic. I’d held out the downhill as a promised reward for the climbing time and time again, and now I did it once more. Just a few more kilometers! The final push! At the same time I messaged Nana that we’d passed Honda city (not that Honda) and I fretted: it was now 4 p.m. and we still had 20km to go. The daylight was fading fast as we set out once again.

Flummoxed

Immediately after leaving the convenience store, the GPS was flummoxed. We had just made our way a few hundred meters along the route we’d been following, when it started insisting we were going the wrong direction and should make a U-turn. I held up my hand to signal a stop, apologized to everyone, and turned around. We came to the cross street just after the convenience store and I turned. And once again, the GPS was calling for a U-turn. I sheepishly held up my hand again.

We stopped and discussed what was happening, and the Halfakid consulted his phone. “We’re just going to continue on 20 until we reach the Forest of Showa, right?” That’s right. Ignoring the GPS, we backtracked and then continued on our original heading. As soon as we passed the point at which it had been calling for a U-turn, it found our route again and we continued on, after dismounting once again for yet another pedestrian overpass. From there it was simply a matter of continuing to grind until we reached the crossing at the Forest of Showa.

We stopped again at the convenience store here but kept it short. We had perhaps 15km to go and it was obvious the light was failing. Our first order of business was the long-promised descent. Downhill is easy! And in fact, I hit a maximum of 48km/h on this one. It would have been faster but for the broken pavement and then the parallel grooves which did their best to try to pull Kuroko to this side and that rather than allow me a smooth and safe descent.

Rolling out at speed from the bottom of our mountain ordeal, we headed into flat farmland. If we’d relied on the course I’d laid out via GPS before, we’d have been well and truly lost now without it. Night fell as we sped along flat farm roads, hurried along by a welcome tailwind. It was fully dark when we arrived at the last rest stop at 5:30, still 9km from our goal. As I waited for the others to use the convenience store facilities, I updated Nana on our position. “We should get there about 6,” I texted. The reply was immediate: “Dinner starts at 6!”

Final stretch in the dark

The final stretch was in pitch darkness along straight but unmarked farm roads zig-zagging through rice paddies. I had my headlight on flashing mode, as always, to attract attention, but I soon found I couldn’t see the unlined roads as a result. I switched the light to a solid beam and that helped a good deal. We rolled to a stop just after hearing the loudspeakers announcing nightfall at 6, one hotel beyond our goal. We hastily backtracked and found ourselves at the destination at 6:10, Nana waiting for us in the entry.

GPS route of cycle ride
Shirako Onsen

Kaiseki dinner
Sumptuous dinner

With the blessings of the hotel manager, we carried our bikes up to the third floor hallway, outside our rooms for the night, then hurried to the iodine baths that the town is famous for. We just had time to wash off the sweat and splash around in the bath before we put on our gowns and headed to dinner. And what a dinner it was! There was so much food to be had that we all skipped the rice, even Nana’s mother!

Bicycles parked in hotel hallway
Accommodating hotel

After dinner we went once again to the baths to enjoy a leisurely soak. Thanks to Covid guidelines, the baths closed at 9 p.m. We gathered in one of the hotel rooms over vending machine beer and snacks, chatting about our day with Nana and her mother. Soon, however, the fatigue got the better of us and we split up to our separate rooms and quickly fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.

We were up in the morning not long after the baths opened again at 6. After a brief warm-up in the reddish iodine-impregnated water, we met in the dining room for a surprisingly delicious breakfast. The aji broiled on a small grill was an unexpected delight, as such hotel breakfasts usually include dried fish. We all had our rice in the morning, some of us more than one bowl. All the riders had come to breakfast in their cycling gear except me, still lackadaisically in my hotel gown. But as we rushed to prepare after breakfast for our ride home, I was not the last out the door.

Japanese ryokan style breakfast
Breakfast to rival our dinner

Mountain climb

We had a headwind first thing, offsetting our flat, smooth route back through the farmland. I refrained from pushing into the wind, knowing we still had the better part of 100km of riding ahead of us. Our route first took us back to the final convenience store rest stop of the previous evening, but then diverged.

Rather than try our luck at climbing back up the narrow and heavily trafficked two-lane road we’d descended on Saturday, I’d found a one-lane farm route back up that was steep but well paved, and unlikely to see much traffic. We nearly passed it by, even with the help of the GPS, but soon we were wending our way between farm houses and trending upwards. Once the climb began in earnest, I pressed on in my lowest Granny Gear, and continued for more than 100m before the fire in my thighs prompted me to pull over for a rest. I was soon passed by the Halfakid’s partner, and then the Halfakid himself, as I waited for Tomo, who had dismounted and was pushing her bike up the slope.

As soon as she passed by, I mounted up again and continued for another 100m or so. The road followed a cut through the rock wall of the mountainside, making the most beautiful scenery we’d had all trip. Unfortunately, the GoPro I’d been hauling all along the ride did not record this epic climb. Once again, I waited for Tomo to catch up with me, pushing her bike, before I mounted up and climbed the next 100m.

In this leapfrog fashion, we continued our way up the climb. Near the top there was a sharp descent, and then an even sharper rise. I forced my way up the final 200m to reach the crossing, where once again I awaited Tomo.

We took the path alongside the road now as it skirted the Forest of Showa. I’d expected the Halfakid and his partner to be waiting for us at this juncture, but they’d apparently gone ahead. Soon we were descending, and we passed a parking lot entrance to the forest. We looked around in vain for any sign of the Halfakid or his bike, and then continued along to the final big climb of morning. Halfway up the path, I stopped for a rest. As I texted the Halfakid, Tomo continued pushing her bike up the remaining climb.

The Halfakid’s response came without much delay: they had stopped at the forest parking lot, but we hadn’t seen them. I let him know we were ahead of them now, and after a minute I saw him climbing up the road behind me and I turned and continued on to the top.

We regrouped near the convenience store that had marked the end of our climbing on Saturday evening and the beginning of our sharp descent. This time it marked the beginning of our more gradual descent, back to Chiba city. I called a rest after 5km, just about where we had got turned around by the GPS the previous day, not because we were tired but because I knew we were about to enter a stretch of few convenience stores.

Another 10km or so later we entered into a large park where we’d had a brief stop the day before. I checked the time and was surprised to see it was almost noon. We should have stopped at a convenience store just before this park so we would have our lunch in a nice shaded location. But with all our snacking, no one was particularly hungry at this point, and so we continued downhill until we’d passed by Chiba station again. We stopped at a convenience store to buy something to eat for lunch, and then continued on to find a place to enjoy it. At last, at nearly 1 p.m., I spotted a small park with an empty gazebo, and we stopped and enjoyed our convenience store lunch while watching a nearby little league baseball game in progress.

Not as much progress as it seems

I’d been updating FLJ on our progress and he remarked that we were making good time. “It’s all been downhill so far,” I replied. I knew from the route and the time that we were not well ahead of schedule. And indeed, after lunch, although our course was flat, our speed lagged. Once again we were threatened with the prospect of finishing well after dark. I worried in particular about the Halfakid and his partner, who had so much farther to go than Tomo and I.

For the return trip I’d plotted the opposite side of the East Kanto Highway, riding with the flow of traffic. But when we found ourselves, after a pedestrian tunnel and pedestrian overpass or two, heading back along the same course we’d ridden out, I decided to stick with it. The GPS howled from time to time, trying to guide me back to the programmed route, but I knew that we had only 10km or so before the paths joined once again.

We turned away from the highway and came again to the bridge over the Edo river. It’s marked as a 7% rise, a good effort though not very long, and I paused at the top to wait for Tomo (and the rest behind her) to catch up. To my surprise, they were right behind me and Tomo nearly overtook me before I set out again in the lead. We stopped to rest just after the bridge, and the Halfakid informed me that when we reached Tokyo Disneyland (another 7km on from that point), he would go on ahead to his final destination. Knowing he had at least 25km more to go than Tomo and I did, I readily agreed.

Disney fantasia

It was a straight, flat road to Disney, and just 7km, but with the setting sun, the traffic and mostly, the traffic lights, it seemed our goal was receding in the distance. When we finally reached it, I was surprised to find there was still some light left. We took a quick photo to let Nana know where we were, and then said goodbye to the Halfakid and his partner.

Bicycle in front of fountain
Rainbow at Kasai Seaside Park

Nihonbashi
Nihonbashi

With just the two of us remaining, Tomo consulted her phone. We no longer needed to head to our original meeting spot at Shiba Koen. After a bit of negotiation, we agreed to split up at Nihonbashi. That would allow us both to shave off a few kilometers on our way home. My new route would be a well-worn one via Budokan to Yotsuya, then Shinjuku and home.

We crossed the bridge over the Arakawa, once again in Tokyo proper and following the Eitai Dori home. At the first traffic light we put our lights on. Tomo was making good speed now, whether because of the flat going or a combination of her fatigue and the proximity to home, a hot bath and warm meal, I didn’t stop to ask. We reached Nihonbashi at 4:48, only to discover there were no public restrooms. We said a quick goodbye then and sped our separate ways.

I continued towards the Imperial Palace at Otemon. Apologies for the lack of a photo of this iconic gate, but I planned to stop just a couple of kilometers further at Budokan. I climbed Kudanzaka in my lowest gear, not fast but in no risk of failing, and pulled up for a photo at 5:05 p.m.

Chidorigafuchi
Chidorigafuchi, the palace moat at Budokan

Night was truly falling now as I sped homewards along busy city streets. I was caught for an extra cycle of the lights at a particularly notorious intersection in Yotsuya, and cooled my heels. In my fatigued state, I knew that it was not the time to take risks. I set off again into Shinjuku with the light and the temperature both falling more rapidly than I was pedaling. Waiting for a light, I felt a raindrop on my cheek — the only part of my entire body exposed to the elements. A couple of minutes later, passing by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, I felt a couple of more drops. Fortunately, that was all the rain I encountered, and it was less than two minutes more that I was pulling up outside the tower that is home.

GPS route of bicycle ride
Return from Shirako Onsen

A brighter future

When we return to Chiba for another cycling trip, we’d like to try boarding the B.B.Base train with our bikes to reach our starting point, and thus avoid all the exurb rubbish that made this trip such a slog.