Tokyo’s Mountain Cycling Club reminds me of the Groupe Montagnard Parisien: almost unknown, yet fascinating and influential far beyond their limited membership. The French riders brought us the Technical Trials and modern randonneur bikes, while their Japanese counterparts co-invented mountain bikes.
The Mountain Cycling Club started exploring the mountain passes in the Japanese Alps decades ago. For their incredible rides on single-track or even hiking with their bikes on their backs, they developed “Passhunter” bicycles: wide tires, derailleurs, flat handlebars and cantilever brakes… meeting all the definitions of what makes a mountain bike.
Around the same time, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and all the others in Marin County started putting derailleurs on their “Klunkers,” so they could go up, and not just down the mountains. I’m still learning about Passhunters, but it’s clear to me that they were initially designed to go uphill, whereas mountain bikes started with the idea of going downhill… Imagine if the Japanese riders had been as ambitious in marketing their ideas as their Californian counterparts – mountain bikes might look quite different today!
Natsuko has been a member of the Mountain Cycling Club for many years, and she introduced me to the club. Every year in late February, the club organizes a hillclimb race. That is why last weekend, we left central Tokyo at sunrise with our bikes in their Rinko bags and headed into the mountains by train.
We assembled our bikes and rode to the start. The race goes up a pass that climbs more than 700 m (2300 ft) in about 8 km (5 miles). The road is paved, but this early in the season, there often is snow on the upper reaches. As you’d expect from the Mountain Cycling Club, this isn’t an ordinary race!
Riders show up on a variety of machines. This winter hasn’t seen much snowpack, and conditions were rumored to be dry, so two riders came on carbon-fiber racers. Others had brought cyclocross bikes, like this lovely Amanda (above), in case there was snow after all.
And then there were purpose-built machines like Makio-san’s old Toei, with 650A wheels, cut-off randonneur handlebars and low gears. This machine exists only to climb hills as fast as possible.
At 11 o’clock, we lined up for the start. We could see the pass in the distance, looming high above and doing its best to intimidate us.
As the club has aged, there aren’t as many racers as in the past, but those who came were serious about the task ahead. In fact, two participants weren’t members of the club, but racers who had come just to measure themselves against the mountain. Natsuko, who was the only woman, had started 15 minutes earlier together with the oldest rider…
The first few kilometers were on a moderate gradient, and the group rode together to warm up. Then the valley steepened, the road narrowed, and the race began in earnest.
Obviously, I didn’t have time to take photos while racing… I got a good start and opened a small gap on a short downhill section – the only one on the course – but then the two racers reeled me in relentlessly. As the road steepened to about 18%, I struggled as they caught me. Knowing the course, they accelerated before a sharp turn after which the gradient relented a bit. I didn’t have the legs to stay with them, and they vanished into the distance.
The course was un-marked, and twice, I reached forks in the road not knowing which way to go – until I heard the organizer’s trumpet from above. It was a very romantic way to guide me and the other racers in the right direction.
After a final sprint to the top, I finished in 54 minutes and a few seconds. The winner was an impressive 4 minutes faster. When I arrived, he and the second-place finisher already were eating Oden soup that the organizer had cooked on a camping stove. Makio-san on his Toei hillclimber came fourth.
One by one, the riders arrived. We enjoyed gorgeous views and lively conversation. Unlike most “real” races, this unsanctioned event had a great mix of competition and camaraderie.
To cool down, I went across the pass. The other side was in the shade, and there, I did encounter snow and ice. Now I believed the stories of running through the snow, cyclocross-style, on the upper reaches of the climb.
There was a brief awards ceremony – Natsuko was the fastest (and only) woman, while my third place made the fastest member of the club. Clouds were covering the sun, and it was getting chilly so high up in the mountains, so we headed back down.
Only then did I realize how steep this road really was. The descent was twisty, technical, very fast, and great fun. When we reassembled at the bottom, everybody agreed that it had been a great day. I can’t wait until next year. Hopefully, I’ll be in Tokyo again for the race. Now that I know the course, perhaps I can improve my time?