A few years ago, I wrote in Bicycle Quarterly how I collect roads. Others collect bikes, or rare components, or photos of racers. My collection is more esoteric: I collect roads. Not the physical roads, but the experience of riding on them. Like all collectors, I have criteria of which roads are worthy for inclusion in my collection, and which are merely conveyances that transport me where I want to go.
During the recent Golden Week cyclotouring trip, I was excited to add another road to my collection: Road 327 near Matsumoto in Japan. I explored this incredible road during a solo early-morning ride. And I don’t regret getting up at 5 a.m. to ride it.
The previous night, I had seen a valley in the distance, leading up to snow-covered peaks. If a road went up there, it could be spectacular. It seemed worth exploring…
A quick lock on Google Maps showed a promising road up the valley. The road dead-ends at an onsen hot springs high up in the mountains. “Dead-end” means little traffic… “High in the mountains” promises great climbs and descents.
The next morning, I headed out before breakfast. And the road fully lived up to my expectations.
The climb started with a set of amazing hairpin turns. The map and photo above show that first part of the road. The road wasn’t so steep that I was struggling, and it was fun to push myself on this stretch. I gained elevation quickly. Looking back, I could see several levels of the road below me.
The next section was more open as it ran along a steep cliff. This part offered great views of the valley below and of the mountains ahead.
I rode past waterfalls and across little bridges, even traversed a short tunnel.
The entire time, I saw no more than three or four cars, as well as a very short tour bus. Its driver clearly had driven this road many times, as he took very confident lines around the tight turns.
After an hour of climbing, I reached a small pass and realized that it was time to return, if I wanted to eat breakfast. Later, checking the maps, I realized that I had climbed 800 m (2500 ft) in just 14 km (8 miles). The maps also show that the road continues for another 3 km, with another 250 m of elevation gain. I’ll have to come back!
The descent was even more fun than the climb. I quickly gained speed on the wide-open stretches. My brakes got a workout as I approached the tight hairpin turns at high speed. As I leaned the bike hard, I could feel my wide, supple tires bite into the pavement. It’s nice to get feedback that there is grip in reserve.
The best part of the downhill was the section along the cliffside. With hardly any braking, I threw the bike right, left, right again. Japanese mountain roads have useful mirrors that allow you to see around the corners: It’s important to make sure that there is no oncoming traffic when you take the best line on a single-lane road!
In twisty sections like that, I appreciate a bike that handles with precision and corners without reluctance. Descents like these are the reason we spent so much time studying front-end geometry, think endlessly about bike handling, and optimize tire construction. On this empty road, nobody could see the smile on my face, but it was huge.
And I made it back for breakfast (almost) on time.
- Collecting Roads: Bicycle Quarterly 36 (Summer 2011)