Bringing Gunma together, one cabbage at a time.

‘Serious’ Cycling in Japan

You know that phrase “just like riding a bike?” I suppose the creator of this phrase found riding bikes to be the most natural thing in the world; even after not riding their bike for a long time, he or she could remember everything the second they started pedaling. Well, I envy them.

I inherited my first and (at the time) only mode of transportation last September from my predecessor, who informed me that she had inherited it from her predecessor, whom had inherited it from her predecessor. Some basic math revealed that the bike was over 10 years old and it showed. The thing was a black, rusted disaster, with horrible squeaking brakes and enough weight to rival a sumo wrestler. Imagine my distress when I found out that I needed to re-learn how to ride a bike with it. I even borrowed a friend’s helmet despite ridicule from my host families and supporters. I always thought helmets were necessary when riding, but in Japan your adult role models will be the ones making fun of you. At the time I thought “better to be safe than sorry!”

At the same time that I learned how to bike all over again (and no, it was not “just like riding a bike”) I shopped around for a brand new mamachari.  As the name implies it’s a style of bike with mama’s level of coolness; a basket attached in front, tinkling bell, etc. One of my Principles informed me of a bicycle shop called “Shigeta Cycle” located just outside of my neighborhood. I decided to check them out right after work. I was not in the least bit interested in bikes and wanted to spend as little money as possible so I wasn’t quite convinced when they offered a nice-looking, rust-proof one with Bridgestone tires and an oh-so-smooth ride. I said to the older couple “Let me check out ‘Cycle World’ down the street and get back to you in 10.” I asked the manager at CW who informed me that their bikes were NOT rust resistant; the tires NOT puncture protected and just as expensive. So I went right back down to Shigeta Cycle and paid 150 bucks for my sweet new ride.

At that moment the slight drizzle turned into a downpour, preventing me from returning home even though I was 8 minutes away (5 with my new mamachari!) I chatted for a while with the two owners and a handsome customer, trying to educate myself as much as possible while I had the opportunity. I guess they found me interesting (despite my cycling ignorance) because they invited me to a drinking party that Saturday! Little did I know that the party was a secret introduction to the Tonerin Cycling Club from which there would be no escape. Drinking with this group of people was like signing a blood pact. It was all arranged: I would borrow Shigeta-san’s wife’s cross bike, meet the Tonerin Club at this place and this time in two weeks and attempt my first Hill Climb: Haruna mountain.lakeharuna

A cross bike is quite a few levels up from a mamachari. It’s easy to recognize a cross bike because of the distinct straight-across handlebar, medium weight and smooth tires with a thickness somewhere between those of a mamachari and a road bike. However, unlike a mamachari these bikes can be adjusted in many ways to match your exact body specifications. It’s a good thing I was unaware of this during my first hill climb because it might have discouraged me to know just how much of a disadvantage I had! The uphill distance, the bike being adjusted to Shigeta-san’s wife instead of me, the heat, the wind and every unknown made Haruna (at the time) the most physically challenging thing I had ever done. But if you love the thrill of a challenge like I do, you’ll be so excited after reaching the top that you might even join “the crazy group” and bike all the way to the surreal, Princess Mononoke-esque lake nearby despite being thoroughly exhausted.

It was beautiful by the way. But the most beautiful thing for me was earning enough trust to borrow one of Tonerin Club’s cross bikes; one to call my very own while I’m in Japan. Long story short, I also came into possession of my own road bike three months after that!

Modifications on both bikes began immediately after their acquisition, and there are still ongoing modifications. As Willy Wonka once said, “So much time and so little to do!” I’m sure you can walk into any bike shop and they’ll take your measurements for you for free. A new catalogue is released every year which gives bike riders recommendations on bike settings based on the ‘inside’ length of your leg, (i.e. from crotch to instep.) You wouldn’t believe how many minute changes can be made to a cross bike, and there’s even more that can be done with a road bike. Things like raising, lowering, forwarding, backing or tilting the seat, changing out the pedals, tires and handle stem, adding or removing height to the handlebar and generally anything you can think of! And a small change can make a big difference; occasionally someone notices my seat needs to be raised up one more centimeter, or that my handlebars are .5 centimeters too far away. After its modified I feel like a whole new cyclist all over again!

But what’s even more important than your bike specifications is how you ride. There are a million things I wish I knew on that first day climbing Mt. Haruna, but over time and dozens of practices I finally got the hang on cycling technique 101. Equipment also plays an important role in reaching your true potential as a cyclist so I’ll talk about technique and equipment in conjuncture.

You might assume that you know how to pedal a bike. But have you ever seen a road bike’s pedals? Or a serious cyclist’s shoes? Did Lance Armstrong wear Nike sneakers at the Tour De France? Nope. The reason is that there are special shoes, with a small locking mechanism, designed to prevent your feet from slipping off the pedals.

shoesMA cycling specific shoe also has a rigid sole, which means greater power transfer from your thighs to the bike, so you can go faster with less energy! Before transitioning to my road bike full time I had Shigeta-san change the pedals on my cross bike to locking on the top side and flatbed pedals on the bottom side! That way I could still ride my bike to school, and I could practice with my new cycling shoes.


Shigeta-san propped my bike up on a stand so I could learn how to lock and unlock my feet inside the store. I thought I had it! But when I rode my bike out of the store and came to a stop at the road, well, my feet just didn’t want to come off the bike. I’ve fallen a few times since then, but the pedals aren’t scary at all anymore. Because there is always a possibility of falling it’s most important to learn to dismount on the left. That way if you fall over at least you’re not falling into traffic!

After learning how to unattach my feet from the bike, I had to learn how to pedal again. Most people are used to pushing the pedals down with their whole weight to get the bike moving. Actually it’s just the opposite with locking pedals! Try to keep your foot rigid and pull the pedal upward with just your thigh muscles; it’s much friendlier on your knees and keeps your energy use efficient! Efficient energy use is certainly handy when you’re pushing your limit on mountains like Akagi and Haruna. When you first start learning you can repeat this mantra to yourself to help you remember that pushing down is off limits: “ageru ageru ageru ageru…” (“lift lift lift lift..”)

Next, about your hands: on a cross bike your hand positions are limited since the handlebar is straight across. You can only modify how close your hands are to the handle stem, really. I added a modification that allowed me to rest my hands on the side of the handlebars as well as the tops.cross handles

The key word here is “rest.” Try not to grip the handlebars tightly; you want to be able to change positions on the handlebar and signal that you’re stopping or turning to your comrades easily. Especially on a road bike where there are many options for hand positions, keep your grips flexible and light. I recommend that you stick with the ‘hood grip’ so that you have access to your brakes, obviously brake access is essential when biking on the road or where pedestrians might be nearby. You can also try resting your hands on the tops of the handlebar or (rarely) on the “drops” themselves.

This is the “hood” position

hood grip

You can use the drop position during steep downhill portions because you can apply much more pressure to the brakes from this position, but it does take getting used to as your head will be pitched forward very far, seeing as your seat will already be above the handlebars anyways.

I don’t recommend resting your hands like below often because your hands are very close to the stem compared to a cross bike, making balance an issue. Also, no brakes!

road handles

The easiest way to insure that you keep your grip light is to have a good sitting posture. I know your mom always told you to sit up straight, but this is one time where that advice should be ignored! You’ll want to create a half moon shape with your back so that that shock of any bump is absorbed properly. Over time if the stress of your ride is absorbed into a straight back, you’re going to have a lot of back problems. Be mindful of using your abs to support your back in this position, while keeping your arms and hands light.

You can try out this position in your office chair: keep your lower back against the lumbar, but slump everything else forward, even your head. Now, pretend you have a pair of scissors on your neck; don’t raise your neck up, only your face (because seeing what’s in front of you is important when cycling). Now, raise your arms up via your back and shoulders, trying to keep as much tension out of them as possible. Remember to keep the very base of your spine tucked in and voila! This is the standard cycling position

bad posture

These people shouldn’t be smiling because they all have terrible cycling posture! Rigid, extended arms, (a result of relying on the shoulders to hold yourself up instead of your core), flat backs and a total shape that resembles a triangle…

good posture

Now look at this pro who’s got it going on. Relaxed arms, half moon shaped back and using that core like a champ! It may take time to build enough core and back muscles to make this position effortless, but it will really save you in the long run. Getting used to the hard seat may also take some time, so don’t worry if your butt hurts at first. Good luck with cycling everyone!!

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