Tour chaotic Tokyo by bike and survive the trip
Cycling in Tokyo, whether for the buzz of riding out on a high-end road bike or simply for getting around on a rattling mama-chari, has long been popular -- that we know. Recently, and somewhat surprisingly, the number of two-wheelers has grown due, at least in part, to an upsurge in interest after the March 11 earthquake.
Quite why that should be, or how long it will last, we can only guess, but there’s no denying that cycling remains one of the easiest, most-accessible ways to explore Tokyo and get a little fitter at the same time. Which begs the question, who best to get velocipedal with?
While cycling solo is a good way to keep healthy and have fun, doing it with a bunch of laid-back friends is even better, according to Half-Fast cycling club member Mike Sims-Williams.
The 42-year-old Briton has been a bicycle enthusiast since 2005, when a little incident on his way to work left him temporarily without his prized BMW motorbike. “I could have taken a combination of buses and trains,” Sims-Williams says, “but that wasn’t appealing at all.
“So I dusted-off my mountain bike and tried cycling the 20 kilometers from my home in Kawasaki to my office in Chiyoda-ku. It felt so good that to this day I still commute to work by bicycle almost every day and even maintain a modest fleet of bikes.”
Sims-Williams’ love for biking got even stronger when, a few months later, he was introduced to Half-Fast, an international club that American journalist and film critic Don Morton had founded in 2003.
Six years and 70,000 kilometers later, he is the club's Deputy Benevolent Dictator and Webmaestro. “When Don is travelling abroad I take over the (dis)organization of club rides and monthly meetings,” he says.
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Speaking of organization, Half-Fast is a very flexible club that tries to be as open to everybody as possible, regardless of cycling experience or ability. The club operates primarily in English, but there are many Japanese members as well.
“There are no membership fees or participation fees,” Sims-Williams points out. “We have around 500 members registered on the mailing list, and each ride attracts between five and 50 people.
“We're non-competitive and non-threatening. The most important thing we do is offer shorter rides for beginners, allowing them to build up some confidence in riding further than the nearest convenience store or train station.
Getting into it
“Our beginners are so happy when they finish their first ever 30-kilometer loop ride, and realize that cycling is a fun and relaxing sport they can easily keep up for the rest of their lives.”
Most of Half-Fast’s standard rides begin in front of the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills, at around 11 a.m. on weekend mornings. Apart from the required helmet, members wear whatever they want, even though many of them sport the club jersey that Sims-Williams designed.
“We have two standard beginners' routes, one to the beachfront at Odaiba and one to a park near Haneda Airport. Apart from a few bridges these routes are completely flat, and new riders often see more of Tokyo than they have ever seen before -- even if they've lived here their whole lives.”
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Once riders have developed the confidence to ride 30 kilometers in a group, they usually want to stretch their legs even more. At the next level the club offers a 55-kilometer ride taking in a section of the Tama River Cycle Path -- the Tamagawa Loop.
“A bonus of this ride,” Sims-Williams adds, “is that it finishes in the same way as the Haneda ride so folks find themselves in familiar territory.”
Stepping up again, the Half-Fasters head north and east for a 70-kilometer-plus ride taking in the Arakawa cycle path, Kasai Seaside Park, and finishing off with the second half of the Odaiba ride.
“We also arrange some very special rides -- a 45-kilometer trip roughly following the JR Yamanote Line on New Year's Day, in celebration of the almost complete absence of traffic in central Tokyo, and a night ride to Odaiba to watch the Tokyo Bay Fireworks display each August.”
Taking it further
Once in a while, the club goes away for a weekend, in which case the leader for the day has to arrange lodgings and check the train schedules –- or the ferry schedule, like when they go to Oshima, a small island 100 kilometers south of Tokyo.
“Of course, in this case you need to remove the front wheel and carry your bike in a special cycle bag,” Sims-Williams says.
"With the recent booming popularity of cycling, train station staff have become much more strict. While it's still possible to make an 'emergency bike bag' from garbage bags and sticky tape, you need to make sure the bike is completely covered otherwise they might not let you on the train at all.”
Any kind of bicycle is admitted (even a mama-chari) although the Half-Fasters suggest people buy a road bike -- possibly with a carbon-fiber frame -- not just for its superior performance but because it’s much lighter to carry around on trains. Aluminum bikes are also very good and lightweight.
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You can buy a serviceable road bike for about ¥60,000, but the club recommends you don’t spend any less than ¥100,000 on an entry-level bicycle.
“The frames are about the same but the gears and the wheels make a very real difference, both to your riding experience and the longevity of your steed,” Sims-Williams says.
"Also include in your shopping budget the cost of accessories including helmet, gloves, water bottle and more. We're happy to help with shopping, and we even have a "Bike Shop Hop" ride that visits several of our favorite retailers so newcomers will know where to go.”