Cycling in a new and interesting country is a special kind of riding. The possibility of experiencing something completely new really fuels the desire to get out on the road. With adventure travel and active weekends growing in popularity, getting a ride in whilst you’re away is becoming easier, and the chance to ride in an exotic and unfamiliar location should never be missed!
How you go about researching, planning and executing that ride, however, is just as important as where you go. If you’re on holiday and are planning just one or two days riding, then it’s even more important to get it right. Recently I travelled to Japan for a two week tour of the country, and never has the importance of good planning been more apparent.
Three days in Tokyo marked the end of the trip; the grand finale and the last chance to do some proper road cycling in this wonderful country. I had two full days set aside for riding so had meticulously planned my rides, and they could not of been more different! It wasn’t until half way through the second ride that I realised what the difference was, and why that ride, against the odds, was more enjoyable than the first.
Ride No. 1 — Cycling alone in the Tokyo Mountains
Not having Japanese maps on my Garmin meant that I was navigating old school — paper map in my pocket and town names written on my hand. As long as I followed the road signs (Tokyo is fantastically sign posted) then I would be fine. Granted, I did get lost a few times, but that was part of the fun! There was no reason to get back at a certain time or worry about getting lost; just a whole day to ride up into the mountains and around Miyagase Lake.
Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis around 3 times the size of London, so whilst getting out to the mountains takes a fair bit of time, it really is worth it. The mountain roads leading up to the lake are smooth and challenging with plenty of decent climbs. Miyagase Lake is the perfect cycling location — the roads wind around the lake, crossing the water over two bridges before disappearing through a series of short tunnels under the mountains, finally emerging into daylight with an incredible view of the Miyagase Dam. The descent back down the mountain was breathtaking, before meandering through the Tokyo suburbs into the city. Sounds perfect, right?
140km, 2,500 metres climbed and 9 hours of exploring some of the most incredible cycling I’ve experienced was an unforgettable day, but something was missing. The amazing roads, the massive climbs and the incredible views were great, but I had no one to share them with. Sitting at the top of the lake, marvelling at the view, I felt a bit sad without a friend to experience it with (and posting on Instagram doesn’t count!)
Cycling alone can be a great break; a few hours of alone time to unplug and destress is incredibly valuable. However it really struck me during the ride just how important it is to have some mates to ride with, especially when exploring a new area. No matter how perfect the route, you need someone else to share it with! That’s why I was so glad that I had arranged ride number two in advance.
Ride No. 2 — Rapha CC Tokyo Saturday Ride
Getting up at 6:30am wasn’t ideal, but I’d been looking forward to this ride for weeks, and wasn’t going to miss being led around the city by some local experts. The cafe was full when I arrived, with 2 rides going out that morning. I had booked onto the longer ride, with 12 others, all local RCCTYO members, bar myself and one other tourist.
Our ride leaders, Hiroki and Masataka, led us out of the city centre quickly and easily, a completely different and much better route than the one I had formulated for ride one. Where it had taken me around 2.5 hours the day before, they made sure we were out of the city and in the Tama Hills in no time; embarking on one of the craziest routes I’ve ever had the pleasure to cycle!
Even with a functioning Garmin, this route would’ve been very hard to follow! We twisted and turned through tiny winding streets; up short sharp climbs and down long winding descents. For the locals in the group this was normal; but the “oohs”, “ahhs” and “wows” continually being uttered by the tourists as we twisted, turned and climbed showed just how amazing this ride was! Complete faith in our ride leaders was easy as they corralled the group in Japanese and in English, attacking every climb and descent with massive smiles on their faces; infecting us with their enthusiasm.
Whilst Lake Miyagase may have been more spectacular area to cycle; the camaraderie and local route knowledge of ride two made it a much more enjoyable day. Learning Japanese cycling customs, chatting with the local cyclists and being shown their world was an invaluable experience.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the day was learning that cycling has a language of it’s own! Once we’d identified the usual hand signals and protocols, we fell immediately to chatting about bikes, rides, parts etc. My Japanese stretches to about 3 words, so the fact that these guys had a good grasp of English really helped. Whenever language did fail us, pointing at a cool component and giving a thumbs up always works!
So my advice is this — if you’re going on holiday or for a weekend away, and you intend to do some riding, find a group to ride with! The RCC is a great place to start if there is one in the area. You don’t have to join the club, but if you do then hiring a bike from them is really easy if you don’t want to travel with your own. In some countries (like Japan for instance) hiring a good road bike is not always easy, so joining the RCC eliminates that hassle.
If you’re not into Rapha, or there isn’t a club where you are going, then get on google and find a local ride group. There are usually plenty, and if you drop them an email in advance, they’re normally thrilled to have you along. Exploring a new area is always best in a group, and everyone knows that local knowledge trumps Strava every time. So join a ride group, and let the experts show you around their home town!