Okutama Revenge!

Participants at Okutama Station

This ride has always seemed a no-brainer, and I first started planning it four years ago. The Tama river has a nice cycling course for the last 53km to the mouth at Tokyo Bay (near Haneda airport). But why not trace it further, up to the source? Okutama, an artificial lake created by damming the Tama river, is a beautiful location regardless of the season, but especially so when showing off autumn leaf coloration.

We planned out the route last year, with three of us riding and Nana and her mother taking the train to meet us there for an overnight onsen stay. But our plans were interrupted by a late-season typhoon, and we ended up all going by train. We enjoyed an abbreviated visit, beautiful foliage, and a nice onsen stay. As we enjoyed the relaxation, our resolve was fixed: next time, Okutama Revenge!

In preparation this year, I replotted the course. There’s a straight route out from Shinjuku, but it’s crowded with traffic and there’s little space given for bike traffic. On the other hand, there’s no need to take countless back streets in an effort to avoid the traffic. I searched routes others had posted and found an acceptable compromise: Not overly trafficked, from what I could see, and a minimum of turns. Climbing all the way from Hamura, which is the end of the cycling course, but not too bad overall.

Okutama to home
Okutama to home

There was the usual kerfuffle with the arrangements, but it soon became clear: a hotel was booked and the principals were all available on workable dates. Tomo had a new bicycle which was much more suitable for the outing than the one she’d planned on using last year, and the Halfakid was ready with Ol’ Paint, which was surely up to the ride. Right?

We met at Futako as planned (Tomo was a few minutes late as she lost her way) and set off in high spirits. I made my usual fast descent into the Tamagawa valley and then waited for the others to join me before we crossed the Tamagawa to the path on the Kanagawa side. We rode on without event and crossed back into Tokyo to our first rest at a park not far from the cycling course.

Mechanical No. 1

We suffered our first mechanical at the first rest stop, and it was entirely self-inflicted. A couple of years ago I’d bought a tire pump for Ol’ Paint, and I got the wrong size: It was just too small to fit snugly in the frame. I kept the pump as I thought it might fit Tomo’s bike. Her previous bike wasn’t suited, but when she bought a new one recently, I thought this was the chance. So I brought the pump along, and at our first rest stop I decided to see how it went. Tomo was curious about how the valve worked (it’s her first bike with Presta valves) and we went over that. And then we fit the pump to the frame and it was perfect.

But as we pulled away from the rest stop, she let out a yelp. The tire we’d been toying with was flat! With her skinny tires, it only took a little air to make a big difference. We spent a few minutes playing with the universal adapter on the pump and finally got it right. In the end, it took just a couple of dozen strokes of the pump to refill her tire.

After that, it was smooth sailing to Hamura, which is my usual turnaround point on this route. We stopped, took a few pictures and ate the onigiri prepared fresh that morning by Nana.

Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers
Three riders with Tamagawa Brothers

From there it was into traffic as the cycling course was at an end. Our first stop was Aso Shrine, which sells good luck talismans for cyclists. Then back on the route and onwards (and upwards!). We were glad to see the traffic wasn’t bad compared to Tokyo proper, and the streets had a usable bit of shoulder for bikers. Meanwhile, Nana and her mother had already reached Okutama by train and were sharing photos of the scenery.

Okutama foliage
Okutama foliage

I had to take care not to just leave the others behind, but in the end the climbs were not quite as bad as I had anticipated. Some of the route that I had plotted did not include the available tunnels, which were (for the most part) accessible to cycling, and that cut down on the expected climbing. Meanwhile, the Halfakid reported that Tomo was not using the smaller chainring on her new bike. She’s still adjusting to the sophisticated gearing, and she spent the entire ride Sur La Plaque.

As a result of having overestimated the effort required, and Tomo and the Halfakid keeping up with the pace, we arrived in Okutama more than an hour before the time I had allotted. Our triumphant arrival was duly noted by … er, ourselves.

Participants at Okutama Station
Participants at Okutama Station

From there it was a scant few dozen meters to the hotel. The concierge directed us to a parking lot where we could chain our bikes, and I signed the registry on behalf of Nana (who was still out exploring the scenery with her mother). Within minutes of checking in, we were enjoying the luxuries of a Japanese bath to soothe our aching muscles.

Why are there stairs?

Tomo

(The first shortcoming of the hotel that we noted was that our room was on the second floor — and there was no elevator. Then the concierge informed us that the ladies’ bath was on B4 … )

Dinner was fantastic, and made up for whatever other shortcomings the hotel may have had (e.g., old and run down, staff that could probably inspire a roman à clef, lack of in-room facilities or indeed elevator).

Mechanical No. 2

Before we set out in the morning, the Halfakid asked me to have a look at his brakes, which had started dragging in the final legs of the previous day’s ride. I adjusted and loosened them, and gave the wheel a spin. “How’s that?” I asked. “A bit better,” he replied.

Three riders and their bikes
Setting out under cloudy skies

We set out under cloudy skies with the Halfakid in the lead, since we had several tunnels to pass through and he’d forgotten to charge up his taillight. He readily set the pace and we followed along to Kori, our first turning point.

After that the route turned downhill, and we soon noticed that the Halfakid’s bike was in serious trouble: Ol’ Paint was setting up a squealing that I could hear from 30m back. We pulled off the side of the road and loosened the brakes some more. That didn’t help. We checked that the tire wasn’t rubbing the frame. Finally it dawned on me that the bearings in the hub were going.

We didn’t have the tools, grease or parts to service a bearing in the field, so I did the only thing I could: I opened the quick release, slid the wheel out of the dropouts and then seated it again. Finally I tightened the quick release just enough to hold the wheel in, and no more. We gave it a couple of spins and it seemed to have improved.

Then came the rain

We’d no sooner got back on the bikes when it started to drizzle. “This isn’t so bad,” we thought, and continued on. Ol’ Paint seemed to be doing better, and at our next stop we discussed at which shop en route we could stop to have the bearing serviced, as well as how much the Halfakid would be willing to pay before it became more than what the bike is worth (putting aside sentimental value). While we were stopped I put the rain covers on my backpack and cockpit bag, thinking at the time it wasn’t really necessary.

As we rode on, though, the rain continued to pick up. We had our lights on, and I’d ditched my sunglasses. The Halfakid continued wearing his because they kept the rain out of his eyes, and he doesn’t have regular glasses as I do. We kept our pace moderate to avoid skidding, and did our best to stay out of the way of the other traffic.

In less than two hours, including the time spent dealing with the mechanical, we were approaching Hamura. At a convenience store we agreed it was too early for lunch, but a snack was definitely in order. We loaded our purchases into our bags and continued on to Hamura to rest and eat, and joke that the forecast had been for cloudy skies with rain in the evening.

After the break, the rain came down steadily. It could no longer be called sprinkling as our tires kicked up rooster tails to splash our backs with muddy water. In the lead, I continued to signal caution on descents and curves. It’s a path I’ve ridden many times and so I know its potholes, speed bumps and deceptions. I picked the next rest area for its large covered area — enough to get our bikes out of the rain — and restrooms.

Optimistic start
Optimistic start (with wobbly Tomo)

We were weighing the risk of heavier rain if we stopped to have Ol’ Paint serviced vs that of continuing on and having the bearing fail completely. As we were contemplating this, the Halfakid was checking his bank balance. “I’ll just buy a new bike,” he decided. Tomo told him she’d bought hers during a mid-summer sale, and he decided he’ll wait for the New Year’s sales. As the bearing was not complaining at this point, we continued on. The rain lifted for about 20km, and we started drying out quickly. There were still slick spots in the course, though: in particular the tiles on one of the bridges over the Tama river.

Following another convenience store stop for carbohydrates, the rain started again. We were just a few kilometers from Futako now and there was nothing to do but continue onwards. We were soon crossing back over the Tama river to Tokyo, and then I made a mistake in the traffic and we had to dismount and walk a bit before coming to the last good climb of the day. We had a brief rest and sipped water at a small park and then said our goodbyes. Despite the rain and the mechanicals, we agreed to meet up again soon for another ride.

In less than an hour, I was home, wet and tired. Nana accepted my muddy clothes without complaint and started the bath for me. When I got out of the bath, Nana informed me that she and her mother had decided that next year they would follow along by train when we biked to Otsuki.