Visiting C.S. Hirose

A highlight of my trips to Japan is visiting Cycle Store Hirose. It’s a truly special place.

I enjoy talking about bikes with Mr. Hirose. His knowledge is deep, and his ideas and thoughts never cease to surprise me. This time, I was proud to show him the Compass decaleur that licenses Hirose’s locking mechanism. He had seen prototypes before, but this was the first time that he saw the final production version. I was glad that he approved of the decaleurs.

My Japanese still is very limited, but fortunately, Natsuko and our friend Meisei are becoming expert translators! Meisei’s new bike was almost finished, and we took it outside to admire it. Mr. Hirose is much more than a framebuilder – there aren’t many parts on the bike that he didn’t make or modify in some way.

Meisei’s bike is equipped with Hirose’s own desmodromic rear derailleur. Inspired by the classic French Cyclo, it’s entirely hand-made and shifts very smoothly. Mr. Hirose is proud that the latest version is 10-speed compatible, but Meisei opted for just 8 cogs on the rear cassette.

Mr. Hirose also makes his own front derailleurs. The cages are custom-shaped for each rider, depending on how they pedal and shift. That is one reason why Hirose wants to meet each customer and see them ride before designing their bikes.

Meisei’s new machine is a beautiful bike, and I could have spent much time admiring it. The winter sun bathed the bike in a golden light, but the cold of this Tokyo winter day drove us back inside.

The shop is crammed with Hirose’s bikes, old and new. There are classic machines that he made decades ago, as well as brand-new customer bikes waiting to be picked up. Each is special in some way. Mr. Hirose loves to develop new solutions for old problems.

He prefers to equip his bikes with centerpull brakes. Many mountain roads in Japan are incredibly steep, which can tax the brakes of  tandem. Mr. Hirose has found a solution: old mountain bike U-brakes really are very beefy centerpulls!

Mr. Hirose attaches the front rack to the brake pivots for a fully integrated solution. This leads to an interesting juxtaposition of slender steel tubes and massive brakes, but most of all, I am sure the brakes perform well.

During every visit to the shop, I have admired this yellow bike. Now I finally realized why it seemed so familiar. I had seen a sister bike, almost identical except the color, in the very first book about Japanese custom bicycles that I had bought from a friend many years ago. The grainy B&W photos had impressed me very much back then. It was the first time I saw centerpull brakes with brazed-on pivots, custom stems and many other details. Unable to read the descriptions, I did not realize that the derailleurs also were custom-made, rather than just old French components.

But they are, and so are the shift levers. I love the simple, but elegant lugs on this machine, and for a moment, I thought of painting my Mule in the same yellow. Unfortunately, I don’t think my large frame would look as good in this bright color as this much smaller bike.

Koushou Kinugawa (of Helavna Cycles) joined us, and we discussed the next bike in the queue, built around Compass Naches Pass 26″ x 1.8″ tires.

Mr. Hirose showed us the new gauge labeled “343”. He uses these gauges to check the spacing of the bridges and fork crown from the axle center to make sure the fenders will fit perfectly. The many gauges show the great variety of bikes Mr. Hirose has built – each represent a tire and wheel size!

Time passed quickly, and suddenly, it was time to go. I love visiting great builders – there is so much to discover and learn.

Further reading:

  • Cycle Store Hirose was featured in Bicycle Quarterly 53. The issue also included a test of a Hirose Mini-Velo.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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36 Responses to Visiting C.S. Hirose

  1. Tim Potter says:

    Great article. Love the photos especially the last one.
    Would love to see more reviews of builder’s workshops around the world.
    BTW, translators work with written languages whereas interpreters work with spoken words. I’ve done both professionally and there is a difference between the terms.

    • As a former translator and interpreter myself, I know about the technical terms. However, colloquially, translater is common for both activities, and “interpreter” isn’t a term most people use. So I was liberal with the language to make the post easier to read.

      As to visits to builders workshops, Bicycle Quarterly has featured C. S. Hirose, Alex Singer, Toei, Iribe, Honjo, Nitto, Schmidt Maschinenbau and many others – plus the Builders Speak series where framebuilders shared their secrets…

  2. Steve Palincsar says:

    I would love to see hi-rez full size photos of that yellow Hirose. I can understand you not wanting to host such photos yourself, but would you consider putting them on Flickr? No matter how many or how large, you certainly wouldn’t make a significant increase to Flickr’s digital footprint.

    • When I posted this article, it was on purpose that I didn’t show all the details of Hirose’s bikes. His ideas have been copied a lot, and he is a little wary of it now. He was very happy when we licensed his decaleur locking pin for our Compass decaleurs. Not everybody has treated his intellectual property with the same respect.

      For the BQ articles, I visited his shop with the photos to make sure he was fine with publishing them. Now he trusts me to use my discretion, and I am very honored by that trust. Some day, I hope to take a few of his bikes to a photo studio, where we really could do them justice!

      • David says:

        Hirose-san definitly disearves a book of his own. And i don’t know many publishers / writers who would do it justice 😉

  3. sisyphus says:

    This post contains the aesthetics that warms the heart on an unusually cold March New England day. Good for the eyes and the soul. It also emphatically reminds us how far we have strayed in the aesthetics of our modern machines. I hope that you have another BQ Japanese feature on the horizon.

  4. Gugie says:

    On the seventh picture from the top, I noticed what at first was a Jo Routens design – helvenic stays, reverse cantilevers in the back, and through-the-seat tube cable routing. But then the twin top tubes! I’d be interested to see how the chain stays came up to meet them, but is that a NOS Ideale saddle on the front bike hiding that detail?

    I have a new job that has the potential for a business trip to Japan. If I can make that happen, I’ll definitely arrange a visit to Hirose-san!

  5. Owen says:

    I say go for it and paint the Mule yellow–that frame color reminds me of Jobst Brandt!

  6. Stephen Bamford says:

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing. Great story!

  7. Teamdarb says:

    Random question: Is there a “how to” guide /article about purchasing the style of vintage bikes you focus on? EBay scares me.

    • Mike C. says:

      Subscribe to Bicycle Quarterly. In addition, join Reddit if you haven’t already. They have a randonneur and bicycle touring subreddit that are fairly active with readers.

      • Gugie says:

        BQ is the epicenter of this, as Mike C. attests. Bikeforums.net has a Classic and Vintage section. 650b randonneur and bicycle touring are active subjects, and is well represented through the US, with several contributors from Europe, and some from Asia.

  8. Mike C. says:

    Any chance you could post higher resolution versions of these pictures somewhere? I’d like to get a better view of some of the tooling and odd bits around the workshop. I would also like to understand better how the 343 and other gauges actually work. Finally, the racks seem to be a mix of chrome and electroless nickel plating. I wonder if these represent current production or if the has been a shift away from chrome for environmental reasons?

  9. Mike C. says:

    Looking at the Google street view of the C.S. Hirose shop, it’s quite small by US standards. It seems like quite a safe area but I don’t see locks on any of the bikes, is bike theft a concern in Japan? I can’t imagine there’s room for a paint booth. Does Hirose send his work out or is this done on site? Finally, does Hirose-san live above his shop?

    • I am sure Hirose-san has a way to prevent theft. Japan is interesting: There is little crime, because everybody is very vigilant and doesn’t allow opportunities. You are right, the shop is quite small. Just big enough for one man to make amazing bikes.

      Most Japanese builders have specialists paint their bikes, so there is no paint booth at Hirose, nor at Toei or Iribe…

      • Gugie says:

        Small shops are the best! I’d rather peruse Peter Weigle’s atelier than any big box shop anywhere…Jitensha in Berkeley is accessible in the US.

  10. marmotte27 says:

    Great post yet again…
    And again (even though you explained last time round why you don’t do it anymore) one would just love to zoom into those pictures, like on J.P. Weigle’s flickr page, to discover all the fascinating details. I love looking at workshops and those bikes are truly special.
    I’d also like to see the front low rider on the yellow bike up close, to see what take C.S. Hirose has on the Herse design. This one seems to be attached above the dropouts, doesn’t it?
    I still have the project to build such a lowrider myself, so I’m interested in those details

  11. Conrad says:

    Thanks for posting more, I really enjoyed the feature article in BQ. I wonder what tire is beneath the U brake? I just picked up an old Rodriguez mountain bike with a U brake in back that works great and clears a rat trap pass tire. I wish they had put one on the front too.

  12. Frédéric says:

    Can find a lot of videos on YouTube showing mister Hirose at work.

  13. Doug L. says:

    Refreshing to see the work of a man that enjoys life while building great bikes. Thanks for sharing your visit. Looking forward more in the future.

  14. Thanks for the insight. I enjoyed reading this great article.

  15. Noel Hoffmann says:

    The Japanese seem to do this sort of thing exceptionally well. I look forward to future articles on the topic.

  16. sisyphus says:

    Someone mentioned Ideale saddles that had me pause. There was a murmur about a resurrection. Any additional information about status?

    • I haven’t had any news lately. It always was intended as a very small-scale project. I hope that suddenly, the first production saddles show up. Bicycle Quarterly was promised a sample for testing, so we’ll know when this happens.

    • marmotte27 says:

      There have been a few delays, but It’s about to happen just now. For the latest infos and to get into the queue, write to him here: http://www.sellesideale.fr/

      Thanks Jan for the advice with th videos about CS Hirose. There seem to be so many that I’m not sure I’ll manage to find that particular yellow bike in them, but they’re going to be a great help nerevtheless as there are others with front lowriders, many details are visible, you can watch him work… Amazing.

  17. Bill Lindsay says:

    In the close-up photo of the desmodromic rear der, we can see a pin brazed to the drive-side chainstay that points straight down. It looks like a chain hanger or pump peg, but clearly is intended for another purpose in that location.

    Could it be a retention hook for the derailleur spring? You unhook that long spring from the derailleur, hook it on the pin, and now the chain is slack for rear wheel removal? Is that how it works? I’d love to see a few youtubes of the rear derailleur in action, the front derailleur in action, and a video of removing a rear wheel in this arrangement.

    Bill Lindsay
    El Cerrito, CA

    • Bill, good reasoning. That is exactly how it works. When you Rinko this bike, you first hook the derailleur spring onto the pin, so the derailleur isn’t tensioned (which makes it stick straight out the back and would prevent the bike from being able to stand on its dropouts and saddle).

  18. HeikoS69 says:

    The “sister bike” of the yellow bike is in “Special made Cycle” 1993, page 198 – 203?

      • HeikoS69 says:

        Indeed!
        Sadly there is no englisch book on this topic. So I’m hopefully waiting for Natsuko Hiroses first book on japansese ランドナー、キャンピング and スポルティフ (co-author Jan Heine). It would be the logically consistant sequel to your Rene Herse book as the japanese story began with one single Rene Herse Cyclotouriste bicycle in 1954, just when the french story started to decline. I would be happy to learn more about the background of this starting point and the following decades as well as about japanese frame and bicycle builders and Herses and Singers build for japanese clients.

  19. Anon says:

    If the u brake clears the rattrap (with fenders?) and has adequate power (does it modulate well?) then…. Is Mr Hirose’s straddle cable length optimal and would he allow you a test ride? The u brake might look good with modern chunky carbon forks no?

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