Utsukushigahara – The Perfect Day Ride

volcano

My schedule in Japan is busy, but I really wanted to go for a ride in the mountains. “Why don’t you ride to Utsukushigahara?” suggested Natsuko. “It even has some gravel.” So on Saturday morning, I joined hundreds of hikers and cyclists who boarded the first Super Azuza Express that runs from Shinjuku to Matsumoto.

rinko_bag

Without fenders and racks, racing bikes are quite easy to Rinko – just remove both wheels and the handlebars – as long as you don’t mind a larger package that doesn’t stand on its own.

assembled

Just five minutes after I got off the train in Chino, the Firefly was assembled and ready to roll.

rinko_strapped

The Rinko bag I use for this bike is about 3x as bulky as the superlight Ostrich bags we sell, but I managed to strap it under the saddle just fine.

first_touge

After a 10-minute warm-up in the valley, the road started climbing. In Japan, this means 10-15% for a little over an hour. Fortunately, the Firefly “planes” wonderfully for me, and the climb was great fun.

At the top of the first pass (above), I stopped at a little souvenir/food shop. The owner gave me two tomatoes with salt and spices. “You need vitamins!” he said. They were delicious.

hairpins

The road dropped back down, before climbing what seemed like a vertical wall. The terrain was so steep that the hairpin turns were built on bridges, since there was no room for them otherwise. Signs by the roadside indicated the elevation: 1700 m, 1800 m, 1900 m. In the distance, I could see a huge volcano poke out of the clouds (photo at the top of the post).

near_top

Utsukushigahara is a neat place: Roads lead up to it from both sides, but the top is connected only by gravel trails. It’s a popular destination for cyclists, and I saw a few riders walk their bike along the 5 km hike across the top. No need to walk on the Firefly, of course!

highlands

The Utsukushigahara Highlands are very pretty. In the summer, they are used for pasturing cows. The path gets incredibly steep for the last hundred meters to the top. Fortunately, it’s paved, because maintaining traction on loose gravel would be next to impossible.

2034m

Then I reached the top. A stone engraving showed the altitude: 2034 m (6673 ft). It really feels like the top of the world.

gravel_hairpin

Taking the bike around the switchbacks on the gravel downhill was fun. So was experimenting with the self-timer of my small camera!

skyline

What followed was that Japanese specialty, the Skyline: a road that runs along the ridgeline. It’s always up or down, but the gradients are never steep nor long, so you can go really fast. Key is knowing when to pedal, when to coast, when to tuck… It’s a great place to work on your technique, and it’s great fun.

downhill

The real downhill was even more enjoyable. It’s impossible to photograph the incredible series of hairpin turns, with hardly any straight sections in between. The map below gives you an idea of what this road is like. In just 12 km (7.5 miles), the road drops 850 m (2800 ft) – it’s fast and the many hairpins really challenge the bike’s handling.

skyline_map

It’s as if this road was custom-designed for the Firefly. The grippy, wide tires offered incredible cornering traction. I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching – way beyond anything I’ve ever done on a bike.

Just as important is this bike’s low-trail geometry. It allowed me to adjust my line in mid-corner, because many of the hairpins have decreasing radii. With a high-trail bike on a steep downhill like this, I’d have run wide, into the oncoming traffic, many times… (Actually, I would have gone much slower to avoid this.)

cafe_pirata

Down, down, down I went. I passed a number of riders on racing bikes, whose narrow tires were limiting their speed. Motorcyclists who saw me corner at crazy lean angles waved enthusiastic encouragement. It was fun.

Then I reached a lake, and to my surprise, saw a sign for the Café Il Pirata. It’s run by a couple who are cycling fans, who serve food and drink. I got to watch a stage of the Vuelta à España while they admired my “very strange” bike. Their own fleet included racing and mountain bikes, but road bikes with wide tires still are a rarity in Japan.

A few more hairpins dropped me right into Matsumoto. It was getting dark, so I didn’t visit the famous castle, but went straight to the station and boarded the train back to Tokyo.

dream

As I fell asleep in my seat, I dreamt of this amazing ride. It combines everything I love: epic mountain climbs, vertiginous descents, gravel roads, and great scenery. It climbs more than 2900 m (9500 ft) in 90 km (55 miles).

The ride to Utsukushigahara can be done on any bike, but the Firefly really is the perfect machine for it: It combines the speed of a racing bike with the surefootedness of wide tires. I can’t wait to go back and ride it again!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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72 Responses to Utsukushigahara – The Perfect Day Ride

  1. I have done the route in reverse. It truly is an amazing ride. Glad to see you had such fine weather for it as well.

  2. Marco says:

    How are disc brakes with regard to packing/transporting the bike?

  3. Rick says:

    Which tires were you using ?

  4. Archetype says:

    Sounds incredible Jan! I wish you had some video of the descents! I love the way you spoke of the deep cornering and lean angles. Interesting about the low-trail vs the high-trail geometry. I had never given that any thought as to mid-corner corrections. Sidebar: Do you notice that have to utilize more ‘input’ to the bars (countersteering) with the wider tyres? Or is this not the case. I ask, because when I went from 23mm to 25mm to now 28mm, tyres, I do notice that on fast descents, I need to be more firm on the bars when countersteering.

    Geo

    • The Firefly corners like a good racing bike. There are two parts to this: The smaller wheel means that even with a 54 mm tire, the rotational inertia is the same as a 700C x 30 mm tire. And by reducing the trail, the geometry has adjusted to the extra pneumatic trail of the wider tires (more rubber on the road stabilizes the bike). I don’t countersteer actively on the bike, just look where I want to go, and the bike follows.

      If you only increase the tire width, your bike will become less nimble. That is why the idea behind “Road Plus” is not ideal – keeping the outer diameter of the wheel the same (by going from 700C x 25 to 650B x 47) will not result in the same handling, because both rotational inertia and pneumatic trail increase – the former due to the heavier tire, the latter due to the extra rubber on the road.

      • Archetype says:

        Great explanation, thanks Jan.

        What I did notice when I switched from the 25mm f to the 28mm f, is that the steering did become a bit ‘sluggish’ at low to moderate speeds. But, the 28s give me more confidence in the front end- i.e. it ‘feels’ more stable in high-speed corners and offers slightly more edge grip imo. It’s a trade off is what comes to down to.

      • When you look at the “optimum” rotational inertia that we found in our empirical testing (three testers with different preferences before the test all preferred the same setups), you’ll see that the optimum for 700C lies somewhere between 28 and 32 mm tire width, depending on the tire weight. So yes, a 28 mm tire will give you a less “darty” feel in high-speed corners, and no matter how it handles, a wider tire will have more grip.

  5. Eric Daume says:

    Is that a new fork on the Firefly? I thought it had a carbon fork in the Mexico article.

  6. steve says:

    I only need 1 new tire at the moment. What if I bought a Barlow Pass as my new front tire, but kept a 40 mm Marathon Supreme as my rear tire until it wore out? Would that work ok?

    • We haven’t tried that, but it should work. The front tire is probably the most important for comfort. It would be an interesting experiment, and I am confident that you’ll replace the rear tire soon, too, such is the difference in feel and comfort (not to mention the greater speed).

    • Jacob Musha says:

      Steve, I’d suggest buying two Barlow Pass tires since you’ll need them eventually and you can save on the shipping… As a couple of my friends have said, Compass tires ruined me on “normal” tires. At this point I don’t want to ride anything else. The Compass tires have such an amazing combination of speed and comfort (especially on rough surfaces) and nothing else comes close. It sounded too good to be true, but they’ve made a believer of me.

      I assume you haven’t ridden Compass tires yet, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking the question in the first place. You’d be giving away that Marathon tire to the first person willing to take it!

      • steve says:

        Nope, never ridden them. There’s a store here in Portland that said they could order them for me, so hopefully I won’t need to pay shipping. There must be some other stores around here that carry them & have them in stock, but I haven’t found them yet. It’s not like there’s a shortage of bike shops here.

  7. Montgomery says:

    Hi Jan,
    These were big ascents/descents: what gearing did you use?

  8. vgeecc says:

    I am still curious to find out why racers don’t use 28mm tires. It is not that they lack access to testing and knowledge, right?

    • When I started racing way back, I was surprised how fast the racers went uphill and how slowly downhill. Races are rarely won on downhills. Also, racing equipment moves in small steps. We’ve already gone from 21 mm to 23 mm and now to 25 mm tires. In terms of air volume, that is 50% more! And surprisingly, you now see racers using the downhills to attack more frequently.

  9. Which bars are you using on this build? can’t quite tell from the pictures if they are the Randonneur bars or not, they seem to flare to the drops, but don’t seem to go up like a rando bar does. They look very very comfortable.

  10. John says:

    Hi Jan –
    Which size Ortlieb saddlebag is that ?
    Thanks!
    – John

  11. John Duval says:

    Your coasting comparison between this bike and the 7 hands seems like a great comparison of aerodynamic performance between the two bikes (though this one is less well equipped). But I don’t recall such a comparison between the 7 hands and a contemporary racing bike with their claims aerodynamic superiority. That is the one area that keeps me pondering carbon bikes, especially with wide teardrop shaped rims (which supposedly reduces drag) though that may turn out to be a big disappointment in the end.

    • We tested the Specialized Diverge that way, and it was definitely slower than a classic randonneur bike. I think the huge tubes don’t really help the aerodynamics – mostly because you cannot get your legs as narrow when you coast in the aero tuck. On my Mule, I actually have my knees touching underneath the top tube. That gains another inch in width compared to a “compact” frame. And when you look at the top tubes of many carbon bikes, they are easily 2″ (50 mm) wide.

      When we tested bikes in the wind tunnel, we found that lowering the stem by 20 mm resulted in 5% lower aerodynamic resistance – more than a set of aero wheels. Reducing the rider’s width probably has a similar effect.

  12. Daniel Jackson says:

    Jan,

    How do the RTPs compare to the SBHs in terms of cornering and climbing adhesion on pavement and gravel? Comparable?

    Choosing between building a custom frame around either the RTPs or the SBHs…

    Thanks,
    Daniel

    • Cornering adhesion is the same between the 26″ and 650B tires, but the lower rotational inertia of the Rat Trap Pass gives you a more nimble handling. The bike feels more like a good racing bike with 28 mm tires. When we tested the Elephant NFE with 650B x 48 mm tires, the bike was a bit hard to push into corners, because the tire’s rotational inertia is larger. So given a choice on a custom bike, I’d take the 26″ wheels every time.

      • Ray Varella says:

        Is the Elephant NFE the only bike you have tested with the 650 X 48b
        Tires?
        Does a 6mm increase in tire size make a significant difference in handling characteristics?
        Running tires from 36-42mm on my bike has very slight differences in handling but not enough to want to change anything.
        Does handling change exponentially as you get into larger tires or does the change scale linearly?

      • We’ve run both the Firefly and Hahn’s “Ex-Bontrager” with 26″ wheels, and really liked the handling. The NFE didn’t handle as well, despite having similar front-end geometry. As the tires get wider, the weight difference increases – it’s a bit more than 50 grams between the Babyshoe Pass and the Switchback Hill, plus the radius increases by about 10 mm (the Babyshoe Pass is more like 40 mm on a 23 mm rim, the Switchback Hill measures 49-50 mm).

        The on-the-road experience matches our empirical testing of different wheel sizes on bikes with the same geometry otherwise.

      • ThermionicScott says:

        “So given a choice on a custom bike, I’d take the 26″ wheels every time.”

        Uh-oh, does that mean 650B is “over” already? 😉

      • Not at all. I was referring to tires that are 48+ mm wide. For road riding, I still prefer 42 mm-wide tires, and for those, 650B is the perfect size.

  13. bikemikeMike says:

    Good information on how the different sizes tires affect handling. I own a Cannondale Slate which runs 650 42c tires. It’s fun and comfortable but the handling is slow and does require much counter steering. I want to get a proper randoneur bicycle to experience proper handling. Btw, despite having wider tires and weighing more than a “race bike”, this is still my quickest bike. I am eventually going to upgrade the tires to some compass tires and hopefully that will improve the experience further.

  14. bikemikeMike says:

    Do you think a narrower tire would quicken the steering?

  15. Jona says:

    Hi Jan,
    I have a few questions- What is the pile of rope(?) on the pallet in the third photo used for? Are you near any of the 1998 Winter Olympic facilities in this region? What brings you to Japan so often? Is it just for vacation and riding or do you have business reasons too? Just curious. Looks like a beautiful, if really difficult, ride!

    • The main reason to go to Japan is business. Most of our suppliers are in Japan. We work closely with them to make sure our products are as good as they can be. For example, our new Steilacoom cyclocross tires started with our idea for a different tread pattern, which we then discussed with Panaracer’s engineers. We refined the design based on their input… After several rounds, we ended up with the final tread design. This is very different from just sending a drawing to the company and telling them “Please make this for us.” The same applies to Nitto, who make our handlebars, stems and racks. Thanks to working closely with Nitto, the Compass handlebars are lighter than any other Nitto bars. This is not something you can do via e-mail or on the phone.

      That doesn’t detract from the fact that Japan is a wonderful place to visit, and a great place for riding, once you get away from the big cities.

    • Takashi says:

      Pile of rope was used during Onbashira-sai (“The Pillar Festival”).
      People pull pillars made from fir trees (weighing about 12 tons) with this rope.

      The festival takes place near Chino Station, so I think it’s displayed in the station after use.

  16. Simon. says:

    What model (not so) Rinko bag is that and will you be selling them? Could be handy for when a small full Rinko is not needed such as bus travel. Thank you.

    • The bag is made for Grand Bois. We won’t sell them, because it’s too bulky and heavy, and the fabric isn’t a very high quality. Mine already has many rips and tears, even though I haven’t used it all that much. Similar sized bags are available with higher quality, and we’ll investigate those.

      • Simon. says:

        Excellent, thank you. I have seen some bags in the Ostrich catalogue which look good for larger packages.

    • Alex says:

      For larger, non-Rinko traveling, BikeFriday sells at least seven bags to put bikes in. I have one; they fit normal size bikes. Can’t say anything about its longevity, haven’t used it much.

  17. Was the Firefly set up with Rinko pedals? The photos suggest not, but it is difficult to tell for certain. Also, any comments on the performance of the disc brakes on a ride that would seem to offer a superb test track for brake modulation? I assume the Firefly is still running the TRP Spyre brakes discussed in BQ 56.

    • No Rinko pedals. In fact, the pedals don’t need to come off, since the wheels go next to the frame, and so the pedals only stick out a fraction beyond the wheels. It’s a larger, more clumsy package than my Mule (which uses the Alps/Hirose method of removing the fork), but it works fine for a bike without fenders and racks.

      As to the TRP Spyre brakes, they still have the gritty feel, and they still don’t have the power and modulation of a great centerpull, but the big tires have so much cornering grip that braking is (almost) optional on this bike.

  18. Peter says:

    Inspiring ride! You mention ” I pushed the bike into the turns harder and faster until I finally could feel the limits of grip approaching…”. This reminds me of a line in the summer BQ, where you write that “feedback from the tires indicated that we had plenty of grip in reserve”.

    Can you expand on what kind of feedback you feel? How can you tell where the limits of cornering are?

    I would like to increase my speed in descents, but I can’t tell how close I am to losing traction. As a result I ride conservatively and likely much slower than I could. In the past I’ve tested my traction on snow, but that just involved pushing the bike to a (safe) low-speed fall. Now I live in the Alps and a fall through a corner would be pretty dangerous.

    • It’s hard to describe the feeling, but good tires will give you feedback when they are about to slip and lose traction. Obviously, you don’t want to test this on a mountain descent, where a fall would be disastrous. Snow, mud and gravel are great to get a feel for this, because slides are recoverable. Your front wheel can slide, and you usually stay upright, because you can correct for the slide – unless you are going way to fast. This means that you can approach (and occasionally exceed) the limit safely, and then apply that feeling onto riding on the road.

      Obviously, you should always ride within the limits of your capabilities, and also leave some room for unforeseen conditions, like a patch of gravel on the road or a corner that tightens its radius unforeseen.

  19. DaveS says:

    Do the fork blades taper? From the picture, I think they do, but can’t be sure. I was wondering if this is a design consideration to prevent brake shudder.
    Also, why did you decide to go with a disk brake on this fork? I don’t think a center-pull would work work with the width of the RTP tire, but you could use cantilever. This would allow the fork blades to be thinner and more compliant (plenty about that written in BQ). Does the TRP Spyre have better braking characteristics than a good cantilever brake to make up for this trade-off?

  20. thebvo says:

    There are so many amazing rides just outside of Tokyo. When I worked in Chiba (next door) we took those special express trains every 3day weekend we had. Its addictive. Searching Google maps for good routes becomes a worm-hole of planning. But once on the ride there seems to always be a cute cafe that makes you wanna stop and take in the adventure, and lose track of time, miles, and plans. Japan has wonderful pavement seemingly everywhere, so those gravel roads are an exciting surprise. Using google maps on “walk” instead of “car” has gotten us into some crazy hike-a-bike situations because of landslides. Sometimes those road closed signs should be politely ignored, but sometimes not… ha
    Heading back there for the spring next year, so keep on posting these awesome rides! It’s just fueling the fire!

  21. James says:

    Hi Jan! You might have covered this in the Summer 2016 issue of BQ (56), but can you provide any specifications on the wheels you had built for this bike? I can see the hubs are White Industries CLD, with presumably either an 11-speed Campagnolo or Shimano freehub body. What about the rims and spokes? Also, is the front hub attached to the fork with a thru-axle?

    Thank you!

  22. Sam Krueger says:

    Whoa: Jan said: “So given a choice on a custom bike, I’d take the 26″ wheels every time.”

    Jan, I think many of us are considering how to jump in to the “fat tire revolution” and what bike to get. It seems like you’re saying, at this point, given your experience, you’d recommend “skipping” over the 650B 42mm tire bikes and going right to an “all road enduro” machine. In the recent BQ, it appears there is no speed trade-off with the larger tires.
    Can you elaborate on this? My thinking is why not get the most comfortable, versatile bike possible, understanding that that there are great bikes in all wheel sizes. My Lemond Zurich is riding better than ever before, with a 32mm EL in front and a 28 in back, but I know I’m only scratching the surface.
    Interestingly, the 26in wheel size has almost ceased to exist, it’s amazing. I was looking for bikes for my 13 yr old daughter to use the Rat Trap pass tires, and they all have 650B/27.5 wheels! Incredible.
    And good compass tires are a necessity…

    • If you ride mostly on road, I’d still get 650B x 42 mm tires. Yes, the bigger tires offer as much speed, but they are basically huge undamped air springs. So tire pressure is much more important to prevent bouncing. Plus the issues of packaging the big tires into a bike – no easy solution for brakes, etc.

      If you ride mostly on gravel, then I’d get the 26″ x 2.3″ tires, not that 650B x 48s. That was what I wanted to say in the comment.

  23. Hey Jan,

    Youre comments here regarding pneumatic trail, rotational inertia, tire width/size, and how “Road Plus,” isn’t ideal have been real eye opening for me. I’m still learning about how all these factors effect handling.

    I’m currently having a 650b bike built, still in the design stage…was going to build for a maximum tire of 50mm or so…and for typical road/dirt road/hardpack running was going to roll with 42mm.

    Considering your remarks it sounds like there’s an ideal min/max tire size for a given wheel diameter…and that flips the whole “Road Plus” paradigm onto its head; at least in my mind.

    With that I found myself thinking, “Can I design the bike for 650b 42mm and 26” at 48-50mm, and retain desirable handling characteristics?

    Thanks for the provocative discussion.

    Martin

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