Chichibu by Bridgestone Moulton

At BoA I met Jack Yamaguchi, the author of the article on the development of the Bridgestone Moulton, which my wife and I translated from Japanese into English. Mentioning that I would be in Japan in October, I asked whether he knew where I might hire a Bridgestone Moulton. Jack kindly offered to lend me his – I hadn’t known that he owned one – so one day we arranged to meet at Sangubashi station, Tokyo, which is not far from my son’s apartment where I was staying. Jack appeared on a gleaming dark green BM, speeding down the hill to the station entrance, and handed over the bike complete with a lock.

As it was lunchtime, I bought a sandwich and a drink in an adjacent convenience store, of which there are many in Japan these days. They sell a wide range of goods and services and are open 24 hours, 7 days a week. I thought I might go into the nearby Yoyogi Park to eat, but this turned out to be one of the very few places where bikes are not permitted. In Japan cyclists are regarded as pedestrians on wheels, and can ride freely wherever one can walk. Since pedestrians (and hence cyclists on the sidewalk) have the right of way over both emerging and entering traffic at junctions, this makes ‘utility’ cycling very convenient. Indeed every supermarket and station has hundreds of bikes parked outside, sometimes in multi-storey bike parks. Alternatively you can cycle on the road as vehicle, even against one-way traffic or on the wrong side of the road. Coupled with the fact that few cyclists use lights at night, and street lights are few and far between, this can make driving a car at night quite difficult, as I subsequently discovered in Kyoto when it was also raining hard!

Cyclists are often observed carrying absurd loads: I have seen mothers with a child on each end of a bike, plus the shopping, and even carrying an umbrella in the rain – though not simultaneously using a mobile phone as some do! The avoidance skills of both cyclists and pedestrians are quite amazing; I dread to think what the accident rate must be, though I must admit I have never seen an occurrence.

The purpose of borrowing the BM was to go cycling in the countryside outside Tokyo with my son, who owns a mountain bike. As he had recently bought a car, we decided to go north west one Saturday to a place called Chichibu, about 100km away. The BM fitted easily in the boot after splitting, a moment’s work with the beautifully engineered joint, while the mountain bike went across the back seat after removal of the wheels. We left at 7.00 and arrived at 10.30, thanks to the infamous congestion both in Tokyo and on the highway. Having found a local government office with an empty car park (parking on the road is forbidden), we assembled the bikes and set off. The plan was to follow a route in a book entitled ‘Cycling in Japan’. We suffered some confusion in starting off from the station, as apparently there are two and we chose the wrong one! However, we eventually got under way, climbing gently out of the town. Another convenience store to buy some energy drinks, then we started a stronger climb over a lowish mountain pass.

I was finding the BM felt a bit small; although I am only 5ft 8in in height, I still tower above many Japanese, but the younger generation is getting much taller. The bars are narrow in width, as is the range of nine gears (38 to 78 inches I believe) [the test bikes at BoA in September were fitted with wider gearing to suit British tastes – MFH], so I was soon down to bottom gear, but the bike was going well. The tyres certainly seem to roll freely; not quite as good as my NS, but better than most bikes. On the downhill stretches it freewheeled very effectively, I could easily outrun my son’s mountain bike. We eventually reached a river which runs through a gorge. Where the road went through a tunnel (very common in Japan), there was a path round it above the river, on which kayaks and passenger craft were being swept downstream. We eventually crossed the river and turned back along the opposite bank to a hotel in Nagatoro, where we stopped for lunch in a room overlooking the river. It was fine, warm day, about 25C, not as humid as it can get in the summer months fortunately. After lunch we wandered down to the river shore where the passenger boats departed from and many people were enjoying a picnic on the rocks, before we resumed our ride along a riverside path.

The path eventually came to a main road, where our route was supposed to be along Route 54, but there was only a 37 and a 44. We chose the 44, which started to climb, climb, and climb until it was clear that we ascending a full size mountain. Obviously we had gone wrong, but were reluctant to return, so continued on an ever steepening, single width mountain road through a couple of villages. At one point we came to a sign to a waterfall, so we locked the bikes and walked to the waterfall in the shade of the pine trees. Resuming our ride, the road continued upwards, and by now I was finding the restricted gearing a problem, and I had to walk a couple of steep hairpin bends. I tried standing on the pedals, but the narrow bars made this quite difficult and I gave up.

At last we reached the summit village, and the view across the top of the mountains was revealed. I haven’t been able to find a map with the heights marked, but I would guess we had climbed the best part of a couple of thousand feet. The ride down was wonderful, after donning my windproof top and gloves, as it was quite cold in the shade at that height and speed. Speed was limited by the fact that it was single track road with bends and occasional gravel, but the bike handled beautifully and the brakes are really excellent. We had more difficulty navigating through the township at the bottom, but eventually found our way to Route 299. This we crossed as instructed to take a roundabout quiet road back to Chichibu, but somehow we found ourselves back on the busy 299 direct to Chichibu. This had a couple of minor climbs, but fortunately there paths we could use to keep out of the traffic on those. We reached Chichibu by about 4pm, having covered some 40 miles, and had a snack at a roadside family diner before the sun set at around 5pm, and we arrived back in Tokyo before 8pm.

So how was the BM? At about 1100 pounds in Japan, it seems very expensive for an urban cycle, especially as you can buy a serviceable utility bike for a tenth of that. On the other hand, after riding it in the mountains, I concluded that it offers about 75-80% of what my NS does at a fraction of the price, so from that point of view it is perhaps a bargain. The suspension performs well with no apparent deficiencies, not quite as good as an NS but better than an AM/APB. With a widened gear range, a different handlebar stem, and longer seat post (I had it at its maximum height), it would be a fine all-purpose bike.

Keith Hales, with thanks to Jack Yamaguchi for the loan of the bike.

Please note that as yet (October 2001) the Bridgestone Moulton is NOT available outside Japan, so don’t pester your dealer, or the Moulton factory, to try to get one. As soon as there is any more information on availability here, we will let you know via The Moultoneer, The Moulton Flyer and the web pages.