Handlebars: Wide vs. Narrow

One of the hardest parts of bike fit is the width of the handlebars. There are many recommendations, but not all make sense. For decades, racers have been told that handlebars should match the width of their shoulders – but nobody seems to agree how to measure shoulder width! Let’s look at what we know about handlebar width.

Historically, handlebar width has matched the handling of racing bikes. When bikes had slack head angles and much wheel flop (1920s), bars were very wide: 46–48 cm was common to provide the leverage required to keep the bike going straight. When low-trail geometries were popular (1940s), bars shrank to 38 cm – that was enough to guide the bikes with a light touch. Narrow tires made the bikes less stable again (1970s), and bars grew to 42 cm. I wrote about that in detail here, but even that is not the full story.

Bike Radar recently had a feature about one of the tallest riders in the professional peloton, Jan-Willem van Schip, who uses ultra-narrow Nitto handlebars – measuring just 38 cm. (Bike Radar‘s sensationalist number of 32 cm is measured at the top of the hoods.) Regardless of how we measure van Schip’s bars, they are very narrow. That raises the question: Why does such a tall rider use such narrow bars?

The answer is simple: aerodynamics. Being so tall, van Schip needs every advantage he can get. Other pros also use relatively narrow bars: 40 and 42 cm are the norm. That got me thinking about the advantages of narrow handlebars. Here are a few:

  • More aerodynamic: Bicycle Quarterly‘s wind tunnel tests found that lowering the stem by 2 cm reduced the rider’s wind resistance by 5%. Using handlebars that are 2 cm narrower probably has a similar effect – about twice the benefit of aero wheels (2-3%)!
  • Easier to thread through narrow spaces: That is why track racers use narrow handlebars, and why I prefer them when riding through forests and in crowded cyclocross races.
  • More comfortable for riders who bend their elbows: Your elbows can articulate inward, not outward, so (relatively) narrow handlebars work great for riders who bend their elbows to absorb shocks and guide their bikes with a light touch. Bars that are too wide can cause shoulder pains for these riders. Few riders need bars as narrow as Jan-Willem van Schip’s 38s, but 40–42 cm seems to work well for many riders. For me, 44 cm-wide bars are too wide for comfort on long rides.
  • Weight: It’s not just the 2 cm of extra aluminum tubing: A wider bar exerts extra leverage, so it needs to be stronger. Nitto makes Compass handlebars to our exclusive ‘Superlight’ specification from thinwall, heat-treated tubing. However, this tubing can only be used for handlebars up to 42 cm wide – it doesn’t pass fatigue tests if the bars are wider. So our wider handlebars are made to Nitto’s ‘Lightweight’ specification, which, while still lightweight, is a bit heavier.

How narrow can you go? At some point, you will no longer have enough leverage over the steering. Guiding the bike becomes less intuitive, and countering crosswinds and bumps will require too much force. The bike becomes less fun to ride. But as Jan-Willem van Schip shows, you can go quite narrow. In fact, I’d love to send him a set of Compass bars, which are much lighter than the Nittos he took off an old touring bike, but we don’t offer our bars that narrow!

Wide handlebars also have their place, and some riders and bikes are better with them. Here are their main advantages:

  • More leverage is good on high-trail bikes: Wide handlebars are almost a requirement on bikes with high-trail geometries, because there is so much wheel flop. With the extra leverage of wide handlebars, these bikes are easier to keep going straight. The wide bars also provide leverage in tight spaces off-road, when you want to turn the handlebars immediately, without first setting up the bike with subtle weight shifts.
  • More comfortable for riders who lock their elbows: Our upper arms connect to our shoulders at an angle, and if you lock your elbows, your entire arms splay outward slightly. If your handlebars are too narrow, your shoulders feel strained when riding in this position. Bars that are wider than your shoulders feel more natural if you ride with your elbows locked.

There is another consideration: If you use a handlebar bag, it needs to fit with room for your hands to hold onto the bars. Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag bags are designed to provide a perfect fit with 42 cm-wide Compass handlebars (above).

Most of all, the width of your handlebars is based on personal preference, and that’s why we offer our Compass handlebars in widths from 40 to 46 cm. This covers the range for most cyclists – except that we apparently need a 38 cm version made specially for ultra-tall professional racers!

Further reading:

Posted in Bicycle Quarterly Back Issues, Handlebars | 44 Comments

Which Gilles Berthoud Saddle is Best for Me?

Compass Cycles is the exclusive North American distributor for Gilles Berthoud. We are especially excited about their saddles, which combine amazing comfort with modern design and superior durability.

All Berthoud saddle tops are cut in the grain direction of the leather, which means that they won’t sag or become lopsided. Unfortunately, most other saddle makers try instead to get as may saddles as possible out of each cowhide. That often turns into a false economy when the saddles wear out prematurely.

Berthoud forms their saddle tops in CNC-machined molds to create a very consistent quality. With consistent leather grain and shape, it’s not the luck of the draw whether you get a good one or a bad one – they all are excellent.

The undercarriages are made from composite, which is more durable than steel and better at absorbing shocks. It’s one of the key reasons why these saddles are so comfortable.

The saddles are assembled with custom bolts rather than rivets, so they are easy to rebuild. Each saddle’s serial number is engraved on the nose bolt. Berthoud saddles come in three shapes for different riding styles:

The Galibier is Berthoud’s lightest saddle, weighing just 346 g thanks to its minimalist shape and titanium rails. It’s a great saddle for riders with a low, performance-oriented position, who prefer a relatively narrow saddle. That said, the Galibier is still a bit wider than modern ‘racing’ saddles for long-distance comfort.

The Aspin and Aravis have slightly wider rears, making them perfect for a more relaxed riding position. The Aspin has steel rails, while the Aravis’s titanium rails save 50 grams. The ti rails also add comfort, because titanium is more flexible than steel.

The Marie-Blanque (steel) and Agnel (ti) are women’s saddles with shorter noses than the other models. The names of Berthoud saddles are taken from mountain passes: Saddles with steel rails are named after cols in the Pyrenees, while titanium-railed saddles carry the names of passes in the Alps.

All Berthoud saddles – except the superlight Galibier – are also available in ‘Open’ versions with a cutout to relieve pressure. I usually don’t like saddles with cutouts, because the edges tend to chafe. I was surprised when I tried the Berthoud ‘Open saddle: The shape of this cutout disappeared completely, and the saddle was comfortable from the first ride. If you are concerned about pressure, this is probably the most comfortable saddle you’ll ever find.

Why isn’t the Galibier available with a cutout? Its minimalist shape simply doesn’t have enough leather to remove material from the center without losing its strength.

All Berthoud saddles – except, once again, the Galibier – can be equipped with a KlickFix attachment to easily mount saddlebags, whether Berthoud’s or those from other manufacturers. Two screws attach the KlickFix attaches to the saddle frame, and the bag just klicks into it. This provides a stable connection – the bag won’t sway or come off, even on the roughest terrain. Alternatively, for riders who prefer to carry a traditional British saddlebag, two saddlebag loops are integrated into the frame.

Berthoud saddles are totally serviceable. This means that you can change a worn-out top, or even change your saddle top from a ‘Standard’ to an ‘Open’ (or vice versa). If you want to save weight, you can replace steel rails with titanium. We keep all spare parts in stock.

With all these choices, plus four different colors (tan, brown, black and the cool ‘cork’), most riders will find their perfect saddle in the Berthoud program. Having ridden them all, it’s hard to pick a favorite, because they all work so well. Berthoud saddles really are a cut above the rest.

Click here for more information about Berthoud saddles.

 

Posted in Saddles | 16 Comments

Myth 8: Modern Components are Lighter

To celebrate Bicycle Quarterly‘s 15th anniversary, we are looking at myths in cycling – things we all used to believe, but which we’ve since found out not to be true. During these 15 years we’ve learned a lot, and perhaps the most intriguing discovery is that modern parts aren’t as light as some classics. In some cases, there are functional reasons why modern parts are heavier. At other times, modern parts really could be lighter.

When Bicycle Quarterly and Peter Weigle entered a the bike in the French Concours de Machines, many were surprised that a fully equipped bike (above) could be so light: 9.1 kg (20.0 lb) with fenders, rack, lights, wide tires, pedals, even a pump and a bell. And yet we didn’t compromise everyday usability or durability in the quest for light weight: The bike is equipped with a SON Wide-Body generator hub, not a minimalist (and noisy) sidewall generator. We used 28 spokes for the wheels, which have stayed true for thousands of miles. A Gilles Berthoud leather saddle ensures comfort for long-distance riding. It’s a no-compromise bike.

Perhaps the most surprising part was that the bike featured almost no carbon parts. How could a ‘classic’ bike be so light?

We saved weight by using downtube shift levers. Not only are the levers lighter, but most of all, they eliminate the heavy cable housing to the handlebars.

The Rene Herse cantilever brakes also are superlight, due to a combination of minimalist design and the fact that, like all cantilever brakes, they attach to the fork blades. Most racing brakes still attach to the fork crown, even though they no longer pivot around a ‘center bolt.’ Reaching around the tire and transmitting all the forces to the top requires extra material…

Most of our competitors used disc brakes, which add further weight, because they use a second rotor, when the wheel rim already is available for that job. (Disc brakes have some advantages, but light weight isn’t one of them.)

Modern cranks also tend to be heavier than necessary. Until recently, they used five spider arms, even though three are enough – provided you can make the chainrings to very close manufacturing tolerances, so they don’t wobble. Now most component makers have gone to four arms. Three arms, as used on our Rene Herse cranks, are the logical next step…

The weight savings aren’t just in the arms, but also the rings. And with only three chainring bolts, we can make them from strong steel, yet they weigh no more than five titanium bolts. Steel bolts allow higher tightening moments, which increases the friction between crank spider and chainrings that transmits the torque.

We could have used a lighter derailleur – the Campagnolo derailleur on the bike weighs 198 g, or 50% more than a 1970s Huret Jubilee (132 g; above and top photo).

The Jubilee isn’t a flimsy featherweight: I’ve covered more than 80,000 km (50,000 miles) on the used Jubilee that came with my Alex Singer, and I can report that it shifts great, even after all those miles. The light weight of the Jubilee derailleur is even more surprising when you realize that all the bolts are made from steel. There are even locknuts that allow adjusting the play in the derailleur pivots (something few other derailleurs have). And there are real, adjustable ball bearings in the pulleys.

Why are modern derailleurs so much heavier? One reason is that they have to swing farther to cover 11 cogs. Longer parallelogram arms weigh more, and a longer parallelogram has more leverage, so the derailleur needs to be stronger. Even so, it seems that modern derailleurs could be lighter – the latest Campy Super Record is made almost entirely from carbon fiber, yet it still weighs 166 g.

One could start with this 1950s Cyclo derailleur – it’s already lighter than the Campagnolo on the Concours bike, plus it eliminates the cable housing to save further weight. And since its desmodromic action uses the cable to move the derailleur in both directions, it doesn’t have a return spring. This means the shift lever can be lighter, too, since it doesn’t need friction to counter the spring tension. It makes for a delightfully lightweight shifting action, too – a perfect match for the light action of modern brakes.

The Cyclo’s design has some drawbacks (it doesn’t handle mud well), but it shows that derailleurs don’t all have to look like copies of the 1949 Campagnolo Gran Sport, with just a few carbon fiber parts replacing steel in the quest for light weight.

Classic rims often were lighter than modern ones, too. The Fiamme Ergal weighed just 290 g. I raced on these rims for years without problems. And the Ergal wasn’t even the lightest rim. The Scheeren Weltmeister was a true flyweight, at 220 grams. It used tiny wooden blocks under the spoke nipples to keep the thinwall aluminum extrusion from collapsing.

You can’t use rims this light on modern rear wheels, because with 8 or more cassette cogs, you get a lot of dish in the wheel, which in turn requires ultra-high spoke tension. Superlight rims aren’t strong enough for that.

But how about a superlight rim for the front wheel only? Wide tires greatly reduce the stresses on the wheel. A 200 g front rim should be all you need, especially since disc brakes have eliminated the need for extra material that wears off as you brake.

Of course, these were tubular rims, and few of us ride tubulars any longer. In the end, most cyclists are willing to trade a little extra weight for the convenience of clincher tires, of more gears, and of indexed shifting.

And yet, when you look at the history of the Concours de Machines, you realize how light a bike could be. René Herse’s 1938 bike (above) weighed just 17.5 lb (7.94 kg), fully equipped. Take off the lights, fenders, rack and pump, and that bike would be skirting the UCI weight limit of 6.8 kg, even with its wide clincher tires, steel frame and leather saddle. That is truly impressive, especially since that bike then was ridden at speed for hundreds of miles across rough, unpaved mountain roads, loaded with heavy bags. And it didn’t break.

When I learned about the superlight bikes made by René Herse and other mid-century constructeurs, it got me thinking about how modern bikes could be improved. I am not saying that we should all equip our bikes with ancient Cyclo derailleurs and cut off the ends of our handlebars (as Herse did in his quest for light weight). But given a choice, I prefer a lightweight bike, especially if it doesn’t affect function or durability. Instead of replacing hardware with questionable aluminum bolts (as is done on many modern superlight bikes), at Compass Cycles, we try to think outside the box to make parts that are smart, durable and light.

Further reading:

Posted in A Journey of Discovery, Testing and Tech | 41 Comments

Join the Swift Campout!

At Compass Cycles, we are excited to sponsor the 2018 Swift Campout, a global call to go bike camping. On the weekend of the summer solstice (June 23 & 24), take your bike on an overnight trip – alone, with friends, or with one of the groups organized as part of the Campout. There are no rules and no fees; just go!

We love riding our bikes to the end of the road, pitching a tent and spending the night under the stars, then continuing to ride the next day. These overnighters are our most memorable rides, but they also can seem difficult to make happen. That is why we love the Campout – it inspires cyclists to make it happen and go on that bike camping trip they’ve only dreamed about!

As part of the Campout, Compass Cycles will sponsor a photo contest for the most evocative, inspirational, and just plain amazing photos that show cyclotouring off the beaten path. Details will be announced soon…

Now is the time to dream and make plans. Most of the BQ Team‘s rides start with a call or message: “I was looking at a map, and I noticed this road that we haven’t checked out yet…” From there, we brainstorm and string together new roads and old favorites, come up with plans,  change them, and envision a great trip… The preparations are almost as much fun as the ride itself, and they heighten the anticipation. And then, when we finally are on the road, it always turns out even better than we thought. I can’t think of a single trip that we’ve regretted!

Why don’t you call or message your friends and start making plans, too? Click here for more information about the Swift Campout.

Need more inspiration? Here are some of my favorite trips from past issues of Bicycle Quarterly:

  • ‘Volcano High Pass Super Randonnée’ was an epic 39-hour adventure of non-stop mountain riding on gravel roads (BQ 45).
  • ‘Search for the Secret Passes’ took us on uncharted roads in the heart of the Cascades (BQ 47).
  • ‘To the end of the road on Carbon Glacier’ saw us leave work on Friday night and camp under the stars of Mount Rainier just five hours later (BQ 53).
  • ‘Cyclotouring the Volcano High Pass Route’ took in some of the most amazing roads of the Cascades at a leisurely pace (BQ 55).

To inspire you for your own Campout, we now offer these Bicycle Quarterlies as a convenient four-pack. Click here for more information.

 

Posted in Rides

Compass Introduces Quintuple Cranks

Seattle, April 1, 2018: Compass Cycles is proud to introduce the new René Herse quadruple and quintuple cranks. We are one of the few manufacturers of triple cranks with a wide selection of chainrings, and we’ve received requests for even more choices.

There is a historic precedent for this: Alex Singer showed a bike with quadruple cranks at the 1973 Salon de Cycle in Paris (above). The idea never caught on – back then, cyclists were conservative and unwilling to try new things. Now, I feel that the time has come to go beyond three chainrings…

But why stop at four? In addition to quadruple Rene Herse cranks, we’ll offer quintuple configurations, too. (In the photo above, the chainring teeth reflect in the polished surfaces, making it look like there are even more chainrings!)

As always with our cranks, you can freely choose their chainrings between 52 and 24 teeth. Converting existing cranks is easy, too: All you need are extra spacers and longer chainring bolts. A bit more difficult is fitting the cranks on your bike: You’ll need a longer bottom bracket spindle and a front derailleur that moves further outward to span the four or five chainrings. Both these essential components are under development – the photos show prototypes.

We have tested the quintuple cranks for many thousands of miles on several bikes. How do they ride?

Obviously, the appeal isn’t to have 55 gears (if you use a modern 11-speed drivetrain), because nobody needs that many… The advantage of multiple chainrings is that you can always ride in the middle of the cassette. If your speed changes due to terrain or wind, simply shift a few cogs on the rear to keep your cadence in its optimal range. And if you do need to make a front shift, the steps between chainrings are small – no need to ‘compensate’ on the rear, just shift and keep going. And with the chainrings spanning a huge gear range, you can use a closely-spaced cassette with very small steps between gears. After riding them for a few months now, I have to say, quintuple cranks are a gearhead’s nirvana.

I set up my prototype with a 50-44-38-32-26 combination, because the evenly spaced chainrings really highlight the beauty of the Rene Herse cranks. On the road, the 50-tooth chainring is perfect for those jam sessions on a slight downhill with a tailwind. Instead of being at the bottom end of my cassette (with a 46-tooth ring), I now can accelerate at will, knowing I’ll always have a bigger gear if I need it. The 44-tooth is perfect for fast ‘normal’ riding at 18-22 mph. The 38T is for days when I feel a bit less sprightly. The 32T gets me up most hills, and the 26T is for those really steep ones that I encounter only rarely, but where I used to walk my bike.

Drawbacks? Apart from the need for a custom BB spindle and front derailleur, quintuple chainrings add a little weight. This isn’t the crank to use for the Concours de Machines! Fortunately, the basic design of the Rene Herse cranks is so light that even the quintuple configuration weighs only 603 g – not much more than most 1980s mountain bike cranks.

The Q factor is a bit wider, but at 177 mm, it’s no worse than many modern ‘gravel’ cranks. Chainline can be a concern, but realistically, you’ll use the bigger chainrings with the smaller cogs of the cassette, the middle with the middle, and so on. It helps to use a tandem-spec rear hub with 145 mm spacing, as that moves the chainline outward to match the crank.

When can you get one? Testing of the prototypes is complete, and the longer BB spindles and chainring bolts are in production. We are now working on 11-speed compatible chainrings with ramps and pins to make the shifts even smoother. Front derailleurs are in the works – in the mean time, you can ask your builder to make a custom one, or just move the chain by hand. If you want to use brifters, we are working with Wolf Tooth on an adapter that will get four and five clicks out of a standard STI, Ergopower or DoubleTap lever. If you prefer electronic shifting, it’s easy to reprogram the software to offer more steps.

Quadruple and quintuple chainrings are fun. Why don’t you try them on your bike? And if you don’t like them, you can always convert them to a triple or double – that’s the beauty of Rene Herse’s timeless design.

Click here for more information about Rene Herse cranks.

Posted in Uncategorized | 40 Comments

Tubesets for Our Bikes: Oversized

In addition to individual Kaisei frame tubes, Compass Cycles offers three complete tubesets: Superlight, ‘Mule’ and Oversize. Each tubeset is based on bikes that we have found to work extremely well. The Superlight set is the lightest steel tubeset available today, great for riders who prefer a flexible frame. The ‘Mule’ set uses an oversized down tube for a little firmer feel. It’s also better for carrying a front camping load.

The Oversize tubeset is made from thinwall oversized tubing to offer the ultimate performance for those who prefer a somewhat stiffer frame. BQ contributor and constructeur Hahn Rossman’s heavier build is accompanied by a higher power output, and he builds his own bikes with oversized tubing, both his randonneur bikes (above) and the cyclocross bikes he races with panache and passion.

The oversize top tube with ultra-thin 0.7-0.4-0.7 mm walls adds stiffness to the frame without detracting from its lively feel. Kaisei keeps the ‘belly’ of the down tube to a slightly more conservative 0.5 mm, instead of the ultra-thin 0.4 mm, because the large-diameter tubes dent too easily when they are too thin. (Down tubes are larger than top tubes, making them less convex and easier to dent.) Since our tubes are available with longer ‘bellies,’ they are still lighter than other tubes with thinner-wall, but shorter, bellies.

How does a bike made with the Oversize tubeset ride? I’ve ridden Hahn’s bikes – we share the same bike fit – and they feel subtly different from mine. They still ‘plane’ – by most standards, this tubeset is very light and still has flex in the right places – but they do have a more planted feel. For me, they work best with a higher power output and a slightly lower cadence.

Interestingly, descending feels the same on all our bikes, regardless of the tubes used in the frame. We’ve found that frame stiffness makes little difference in how a bike handles – which makes sense when you consider that there are no significant side loads on a frame when you aren’t pedaling.

The Oversize tubeset is a great choice if you want or need a little more stiffness in your frame than our other Kaisei tubesets offer. That makes it perfect for tall, heavy and/or strong riders. This is also the tubeset I’d chose for a camping bike that carries rear panniers in addition to a front load.

Of the three tubesets we offer, which is best for you really depends on your build, riding style, preference, and intended use of the bike. They all offer excellent performance that comes with a carefully designed balance of frame stiffness. As a Compass exclusive, we offer the Kaisei tubesets in two lengths, so you can get tubes optimized for your frame size. All tubes we sell feature Kaisei’s unmatched quality and experience that comes from supplying the tubes for the frames of thousands of professional Keirin racers. We import these tubes because we feel that there are no better tubes anywhere.

Further reading:

Posted in Framebuilding supplies | 16 Comments

Guest Post: Cyclotouring Reunion in Hokkaido

In this guest post, Bicycle Quarterly editor Natsuko Hirose takes you on a cyclotouring reunion in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Translated from Natsuko’s blog Touge to Onsen:

I like bicycles and cyclotouring, but I especially like traveling. When I think about where I want to go next, my heart skips a beat with excitement. Passhunting, visiting Onsen hot springs, eating good meals… During my busy life, it’s easy to forget the small things that make this world so beautiful. When I go cyclotouring, I notice them all the more.

During the last few years, I’ve lived both in Seattle and Tokyo. As I spend more time away from Japan, I notice its beauty even more than I did in the past. This time, I visited the Soya area of Hokkaido, where Ms. K, a friend since college, now lives with her family. For a long time, I’ve wanted to visit her, but the opportunity didn’t present itself.

I use 1:50,000 scale topo maps and the ‘Mapple’ motorcycle atlas to plan my trips.

Last autumn, I went to lunch with my best friend, Mr. Y, and we talked about her. He immediately concurred: “Yes, let’s go!” We send a message to Ms. K, and she replied almost immediately: “Anytime! Please come and visit!” It felt like our university days – so easy to make plans.

Our plan quickly grew in scope. While we were in Hokkaido, we should go cyclotouring! So Mr. Y decided to bring his bike as well.

My bike travels in its lightweight Ostrich Rinko bag.

Our schedules didn’t allow traveling together, so we met in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost town. I flew from Tokyo. Japan’s baggage handlers are reasonably careful, so I just packed my bike in its lightweight Rinko bag. Mr. Y came by overnight bus.

Our plan was simple: “Let’s meet at 8 a.m. at a small intersection in Wakkanai.” When we were in college, we often met at city parks or railway stations to start our trips. In the early morning, I received a message: “My bus is getting close to the intersection now.” So I left my hotel and cycled over to the meeting point.

Mr. Y was already there. Even though Wakkanai is almost 1000 km (640 miles) north of Tokyo, it was as easy as meeting somewhere in Tokyo. It was a giddy feeling to see him so far from home. I thought how much I appreciate cyclotouring and good friends.

Mr. Y already had put together his custom-built Toyo. Every time I see it, I marvel at the clearcoated frame that shows the brass of the fillet-brazing. It’s neat!

Mr. Y cycles along the Ororon Line road on the shore of the Sea of Japan. The clouds portend rain.

After saying “Hello,” we mount our bikes and cycle on the famous Ororon Line road along the Sea of Japan. Later, we’ll turn inland to Toyotomi town in the interior of the Soya region. Toyotomi is famous for its Onsen hot springs with black water that smells of petroleum. When I cycled around Hokkaido as a student, I just rode through the town. Now I am looking forward to staying here and enjoying the hot springs.

Minutes before a downpour… Mr. Y’s Toyo is on the left, with my Hirose on the right.

As we ride along, it suddenly starts raining incredibly hard. There is no time to put on my jacket, my rain pants, my saddle cover, nor even take a photo… Within seconds, I am completely soaked.

Fortunately, we reach Bakkai station just in time to escape from the rain. This train station is famous as the setting of the 1983 movie Nankyoku Monogatari. The story of the movie and its Disney remake Eight Below is famous in Japan, but too long to tell here.

Bakkai station is also famous among railroad enthusiasts, because it’s the northernmost wooden railway station in Japan. After waiting out the rain for two hours, we restart our ride. Fortunately, we are not in a rush today!

We haven’t planned our route in detail – just go south, then turn inland. We cycle on small, empty farm roads that meander through the fields.

The Sea of Japan is famous for its beautiful sunsets, so we decide to stay on the coast and watch the sunset. The Sarobetsu Wetlands form one of the largest meadows in Japan. The large scale of Hokkaido’s landscape really sinks in here – so different from the steep mountains and deep valleys that make up the rest of Japan. It’s Japan’s ‘Big Sky Country.’

When we arrive, the sun is already setting. There are no tourists at this late hour, and we enjoy the wooden walkways that lead across the meadows. The quiet magnificence makes our visit an almost spiritual experience.

We recall our college antics and jump in the air. When we look at the photos, we laugh: We don’t jump as high as we used to!

The sun vanishes into the Sea of Japan and illuminates Rishiri Island, a 1700 m (5600 ft) volcano that seems to float on the sea. I decide that, some day, I’ll climb Mt. Rishiri!

The sunset is beautiful, but it also reminds us that we must hurry to our hotel. There are no streetlights in rural Hokkaido! We enjoy half an hour of night riding before arriving at our hotel in complete darkness. (We have good lights.) We head to the Onsen hot bath with its pungent, black water. Even though the reputation of this Onsen is well known, we are surprised how strong the smell and how dark the water really is. Even though I love Onsen, I cannot stay in the water very long. But it is fun!

The next morning, we continue our inland ride until we have crossed over to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Once again, we don’t have a set route. We check the map and pick small roads toward Sarufutsu village, where our friend Ms. K lives. How about trying some gravel roads? We don’t know how rough the gravel will be… If it’s no fun, we can return to the main road. Today, we have time for exploring.

We find a wide farm road that is remarkably smooth, and we follow it for 17 km (10 miles).

Another detour takes us to the North Okhotsk cyclepath. In some parts, this paved path is bumpier than the gravel road we rode on earlier! As a former railroad grade, this path is very flat. My mind wanders, and I imagine old B&W photos of steam trains chugging along this route. Even on this sunny and bright day, I feel nostalgic.

Adding to our collection of roads is the Esanuka Line, which is famous among cyclists and motorbike riders because it spears in a straight line across a totally flat landscape, with not even a power line interrupting its ‘horizontalness.’ For Japanese, riding in a straight line beyond the horizon is very remarkable. For 30 minutes, it feels almost like the famous Route 66 across the American West.

Moving closer to the sea, we find a narrow road paved with white gravel. We can smell the ocean as the stones crunch under our tires. Suddenly, we realize that the road is not paved with stones at all – we are riding on crushed seashells!

Small paths lead to the water. We look over the sea on one side and the landscape of Soya on the other, and we talk about how this region’s great variety and unique feel make it a perfect destination for cyclotourists.

Our cycling trip ends as we pull up at Ms. K’s house. It’s fun to arrive by bike, as if we just had ridden across Tokyo to visit a friend. But nobody is home!

We call Ms. K, and learn that she is waiting on the main road, wanting to surprise us and take our photo as we arrive. But we took a backroad and reached her house from the other side. We laugh about this ‘mishap’ – again, it feels just like our college days.

Sarufutsu is famous for its ‘free-range’ scallops. For dinner, Ms. K teaches us the different ways to cook the fresh mollusks that have been harvested only this morning. We make sashimi, we fry them, and we sautée them with butter. Accompanied by lively conversation, we enjoy our private reunion.

For our last day on Hokkaido, we’ve planned to go sightseeing with Ms. K and her family, but the hard rain keeps us in the car. We talk about our school days, our present lives and our plans for the future – just like we’ve always done when we meet.

I am very happy. Visiting Ms. K together has made the trip even more special. In the past, Mr. Y or I have visited her alone and sent photos, which made the other all the more envious. Now we can all share the fun.

That afternoon, we say goodbye at Wakkanai Airport. Mr. Y has to return to Tokyo, while I will cycle around Hokkaido for another week. This trip has been filled with small adventures and exciting discoveries, and I look forward to more…

This and other stories are available in Japanese on Natsuko’s blog, Touge to Onsen (From Mountain Pass to Hot Spring).

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