Biwakoguma: Osaka to Tokyo

Riding a handmade bicycle is something special; riding a steel frame made with your own hands takes things to an entirely different level. Tsuyoshi Ishizu, Japanese frame builder, rode from Osaka to Tokyo with his 10-year-old son to test one of his latest creations.

When I first met Tsuyoshi Ishizu I knew very little about his handmade bike project, Biwakoguma. His introduction to steel frame building, I later discovered, was partially circumstantial due to skills he already possessed as an artist working with metal.

Four years ago he decided to return to cycling after a long absence, signing up to the Mount Hiei hill climb race before he even had a bike to begin training. While waiting for a bespoke frame to be made, he was told it wouldn’t be ready in time for the race, so it was suggested that he build the frame himself.

Igniting a new passion for cycling, this experience formed the beginnings of team Biwakoguma, which is made up of local cyclists who all ride frames built with their own hands at Tsuyoshi’s workshop. The bikes definitely have a classic appearance, which is down to Tsuyoshi’s personal taste. He also prefers down tube shifters for their connection to the physical mechanics of changing gear, especially for his son. It’s his belief that by beginning with this classic gearing method, young riders have a stronger connection to how things work, important at an early age when you could easily be bamboozled by the convenience of modern shifters.

Over the summer Tsuyoshi planned to cycle from Osaka to Tokyo with his ten year old son Tetsutaro (meaning, ‘steel boy’). Beginning at Rapha’s Osaka Clubhouse the pair’s adventure would take them close to 650 kilometres across Japan, with 6,000 meters of climbing. Preferring the experience of traveling light while cycling, they brought the bare minimum: a single change of clothes, basic tools, a phone, and money. Road riding gives you a feeling of lightness and freedom to escape, so why burden yourself with a heavy load.

The immediate goal was to get off the urban roads as soon as possible: the constant lights and continuous traffic aren’t ideal conditions when you’re riding with a ten year old. After a series of back streets and underpasses, it wasn’t long before we were rolling along the Yodogawa River, passing early morning fishermen and school children just beginning football practice.

Midway through the first day arriving at the south shore of Lake Biwa, we stopped for a short bento lunch at the roadside in Ōtsu. Both riders looked like there was little left in their tanks, and I was concerned whether they would make it through the hot afternoon. The temperature made the continuous slog close to unbearable.

The second day was longer and higher — 160 kilometres with 1,542 meters of climbing. It was obvious in their faces this was no easy ride, and as they climbed to higher altitudes it was still violently hot. The forest helped abate a little of the sun’s heat as it danced through the leaves — more so than the countless open rice fields we passed earlier that morning when leaving Maibara. As night slowly approached, the quieter back roads that would lead to their beds were almost silent now, only occasionally illuminated by seemingly random streetlights.

The third days ride toward to Nobeyama through the Yatsugatake mountain range was the most punishing by far. It’s a truly devastating landscape punctuated by fields of incredible vegetables that follows part of the Prestige route, with over 2,200 meters of climbing including the challenging Shiojiri pass — immortalised in so many Ukiyo-e prints. At this point my respect for Tetsutaro reached new heights, the sheer grit of a 10 year old progressing through this kind of landscape on two wheels is inspiring. From the shy boy I met in Osaka to what was becoming a hardened rider after just a few days who would just as easily grimace or smile at me depending on the gradient, the camera just wasn’t a concern anymore. Suffering certainly changes your perspective on life and 6000 meters of climbing will do that to most.

This wasn’t the first time Tsuyoshi had cycled to Tokyo. Since building his first frame, he’s ridden the distance as a test with each new bike, spending time with his creations, feeling the life in the material, and trying to understand it. This time was different — although he was riding something new, the journey was also about riding together with his son. This was both an adventure and a learning experience for Testutaro, and an important memory for both of them.

The final day was planned to be a slightly easier route, covering 80 kilometres from Chichibu to Tokyo. As the green trees and expansive agrarian landscape gives way to concrete, miniature tea farms, and other small holdings sandwiched between main roads and highway bridges, it gradually becomes clear that you’re entering the edges of a city. For me it was a welcome return home, but for Tetsutaro — his first time cycling into the capital after such a major experience in his life — it was monumental — climbing the hill that intersects Yoyogi park towards Harajuku station, passing Kenzo Tange’s iconic National Gymnasium we were close now, the pace relaxed as they made their way towards the Tokyo Clubhouse. I’m not sure if it was the emotion of completing such a ride, but the pressure of arriving seemed a little too much for the small boy, who seemed more at home on his bike in the mountains. So many emotions in such a short space of time: suffering, exhilaration, fear, pleasure and pain.

This story was originally published by rapha.cc