Dropping Cycle Snobbery and Riding a Brompton around Japan - Total Women's Cycling

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Dropping Cycle Snobbery and Riding a Brompton around Japan

Sometimes it's good to step out of your cycling boundaries...

Have you ever found yourself placing you and your bike riding in a box, never to cross over to another style or discipline? Have you ever looked on at a cyclist of another tribe, with disapproval? 

Die hard road cyclist and creator of plus women’s clothing brand ‘Wheel Women’ (from sizes 6-24) Tina McCarthy put aside her preconceptions when she bought a folding bike to ride around Japan. Here’s what she learnt…  

Can Anybody who Cycles Call Themselves a Cyclist?

“What about taking some folding bikes,” he said.

“Well, if you do that you know I will divorce you…instantly. Like, don’t even think about it okay!” was my response.

“To this road rider, folding bike riders are a bit like train spotters.”

He wasn’t quite sure if I was serious or joking. Oh I was deadly serious. You see, to this road rider, folding bike riders are a bit like train spotters. They live in their own obsessed little world of obscure, mechanical nuances and multi-tasking improvisations. For me they have always seemed like the dull uncle who just wanted to talk to you about his very exciting 1953 hand made auto shirt-folder for hours on end when you were just twitching for that game of backyard cricket.

So when I slipped out of the store with a black folder for him and a cherry blossom pink for me, I did contemplate whether or not I should wait until dark so nobody would see me.

We were headed to Japan – in fact, this would be my fifth visit. I know how it works. Travelling in Japan with a bike comes with challenges. There are rules and regulations about carrying bikes and Japan is definitely a place where rules are followed. In Japan bikes need to be bagged up and covered when travelling on a train. Carrying a standard sized road bike, in my case my Specialized Ruby Expert with 700cc wheels and drop handlebars, means removing wheels, handlebars and fork before packaging into a bag for rail transport. Obviously this proves difficult and time consuming at both ends of the journey.

Our destinations included the Shimanami Kaido, Tobishima Kaido, the island of Shikoku and Osaka… the extremes of remote country to crazy city all in two weeks. So the folding bike was probably a pretty good idea. I just had to get over my pride. We are great at placing cyclists into pigeon holes – bearded recumbent blokes, fanatical folding bike fans, lycra louts on road bikes and the commuter army on their beaten up steeds. So the idea of riding what I’d always seen as a geeky kind of bike meant I had to place all those stereotypes aside and forget about my ill-informed opinions of who rode these little origami wonders.

Being precious about the way we ride and what we ride is a big mistake. After all, we are all cyclists aren’t we – two wheels, three wheels, one wheel. Our method of transport is human powered, has wheels and we all study the wind forecasts in every detail. Segregating ourselves into the pigeonholes that supposedly define us, it was a challenge to forget that we were ‘road riders’…no, this time we were CYCLISTS.

“I was reminded that being precious about the way we ride and what we ride is a big mistake. After all, we are all cyclists aren’t we?”

Japan’s Shimanami Kaido and the Tobishima Kaido in the Hiroshima Prefecture would offer the perfect scenario to experiment with our rides – minus road bikes. This would be the third time we had cycled the Shimanami route and it allowed us the opportunity to try a familiar route with a different focus. Located not far from Hiroshima and traversing the Seto Inland Sea from Onomichi to Imabari. The route involves crossing 9 iconic bridges between 7 islands – the 75km route means you can take it slow, or whip through it in a day.

The Tobishima Kaido, still located on the Seto Sea is smaller at 35km on the ‘recommended’ route. In the Japanese opinion, the Shimanami route is really the ride for less experienced riders, while the Tobishima offers something for more experienced with a few good climbs thrown in. Less bridges, more hills – we covered 50km with a vertical gain of 600metres. Not excessive, but when you are riding a folding steel cherry blossom loaded with 12kg of gear and sitting in a rather regal upright position, those hills became mountains!

Neither route is what you would classify as difficult riding, especially on a road bike. But transfer that to a fully laden Brompton we’d owned for just 2 days prior to departure for Japan, and we faced a steep learning curve! We had gone from travelling in Japan with one bag and rental bikes, to a case and bike bag each. We had gone from being well under the luggage limit to wondering how we would ever get home without needing to purchase ‘excess baggage’ and we’d gone from being road riders with over inflated egos to ‘bike geeks’! It was the last part I found the hardest to deal with…

“We’d gone from being road riders with over inflated egos to ‘bike geeks’”

First lesson: get over it! It’s a bike dammit and it will take me places. Next lesson: remember how to fold the darn thing up so we could store them (easy when you know how) and then remember how to remove a hub-gear-with-derailleur rear wheel in case of puncture.

The Benefits of a Brompton 

Then came the gears – I love my Specialized Ruby with 22 gears and a 32 on the rear end. But now I had just 6 gears to play with! However, the lowest gear on my cherry blossom folder actually came pretty close to what I was familiar with on the Ruby. But what threw me most were the leaps between each gear – that really took some practice.

Then came the climbs. With most rises to the bridges on both routes presenting roughly a 5 per cent gradient they weren’t too much trouble. It wasn’t until we took a few detours that we knew we were in for some 10-17 per cent climbs – steel, loaded with luggage, 6 gears. Yes, I found it hard…really hard. But on the upside, the downhills were like sitting on a mini rocket!

The Japanese really know how to create a great cycling route – the paths are mostly segregated from traffic, and when you are on a shared section drivers are incredibly courteous and patient. The climbs to each bridge are ‘bikes only’ and offer spectacular views, while the bridges themselves provide totally separate bike lanes. The Shimanami and Tobishima are both distant enough from the throngs of major cities that the locals love to wave and smile as you ride by. The routes are dotted with ‘trust’ boxes offering local citrus for those in need of some mid-ride refreshment in return for a few yen.

Despite having breezed through the route previously on a road bike, on the Brompton it was a different story. The local oranges and mandarins left roadside by locals were a welcome and refreshing excuse for stops. The slower riding on our heavier, touring Bromptons meant taking in the sweet smell of the ripening citrus orchards and admire the breathtaking views across the Seto Inland Sea was mandatory.

Folding bikes are pretty much dime a dozen in Japan, but it seems not many actually fold them up! When we pulled in at local cafes locals were intrigued – you mean you can ride AND fold it up? They also thought we were incredibly COOL – that’s not something my partner and I have really mastered on our road bikes, so we were chuffed. That was of course until we met up with our road bike buddies from Japan at the start of the Tobishima route.

10 Reasons to go Touring 

They looked at us, looked at the bikes and laughed. ‘Really?’ was their only comment. They would drag us the distance of the Tobishima and judging by their fast and excited discussions, and much gesturing and pointing at ride start we figured they might well have made a quick change of the intended route.

They chose well; a few gloriously flat sections on empty roads following the coast, with a few inland climbs in the rain. While Aki and Mari took turns at leading, Gon-san sat on my tail on every hill guiding me up. “Okonau koto ga dekimasu” (“you can do it”) he would say smiling, and I’m sure secretly laughing.

There was no doubt I found the Brompton tougher on the hills. The downhill’s provided the thrill factor but the total convenience of the bikes blew us away. Post Shimanami and Tobishima we’d arrive in a hotel room, and before we knew it we were unfolding and ready to rip through the cities. It was a joy to feel so unbridled and free of the constraints of a carbon road bike.

Our final bridge on the Tobishima was within site. The rain had been setting in and the pre-winter chill moving in as the light dimmed. Aki, Mari, Hiroko and Gon promised to escort us over the last bridge before we parted ways. It had been a ride experience I will never forget – it was cycling for cycling’s sake, meeting friends even though we had little of each other’s language, and being cyclists together regardless of the type of wheels underneath us.

As we drew close to the end of our ride Gon-san turned to me and in broken English he apologized. ‘Tina-san. So sorry…one more hill!’ We laughed but as we stood in the rain after a fabulous day despite our language barriers, we knew we had gone from road riders to CYCLISTS…adventure on a bike!


Tips for touring on a Brompton

  • purchase your bike well before setting off – 2 days before was not ideal!
  • be sure to practice carrying your bike and luggage around your own city first as a practice run
  • make sure you choose a bike bag to suit you – I found mine tough going because of my height and straps in a different position would have been easier
  • learn how to adjust your own gears!
  • lighten the load – if you think you need it, you probably don’t!
  • connect with people who already ride a bike like the one you purchase – the Brompton community back home proved to be brilliant source of support on social media during the ride
  • be prepared to change your mindset

Travel Tips for Cycling in Japan

  • book accommodation well in advance for the Shimanami Kaido
  • choose the ryokans if you can – they are great fun and lying on the floor is excellent after a days ride
  • learn some key Japanese phrases – you will find there isn’t as much English in the more rural areas so knowing how to ask for the toilet is good
  • be cheery and wave to the locals…they always wave back with a smile
  • take chamois cream…you want to ask for that in Japanese!

Read about Tina’s clothing brand Wheel Women and her women’s cycling community here. 


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