Bicycle Adventure and Dodging Typhoons in Japan

Words by Peter Georgallou. Photos by Peter and Andrew Denham.

I’ve had a little more time recently to stay home and organise my life, frame building business and stockpile of old bike parts. This has been an opportune time to reflect on the last few years and how privileged I feel to be able to work in an industry that’s so challenging, inspiring and which forms the basis of such close friendships and working relationships. One of the things I’ve been working on is editing footage of last year’s trip to Japan with Andrew for Grinduro, which transported me back to those dreamy days of riding bikes in the sunshine with my friends, making me look forward to their return.

Confronted with the idyllic prospect of cycling through Japan's picturesque countryside on our own handmade bikes, our wild ambition propelled us. Andrew Denham of The Bicycle Academy was tasked with teaching a brazing workshop at the first ever Grinduro Japan. With a full program at the Frome-based frame building school, and with no staff to spare, I was recruited to accompany him. My duties as a sidekick were to help with the workshop and document the journey as a short film. With very little time to prepare, I acted instinctively and prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime trip the only way I know how: by building a frame. 

I’d built a bike for Grinduro two years previously, which was amazing but it definitely wasn’t designed around the rigors of life on the road while carrying camping equipment and film gear. I used some parts I had from previous builds to get it together, and Ritchey stepped in at the last minute to fill in the blanks with some Kyote bars, a seatpost and some super nice WCS XC pedals.

After a short and frantic week of prepping, having never even fully assembled the bike I was taking on the trip and a brutal 24 hours of travel, we landed in Tokyo. Arriving in Tokyo was a baptism of fire in the practicalities of traveling in Japan with bikes in boxes, which led us to believe that our idyllic plans for picking great routes here and there, and linking them together with trains, wouldn’t be the seamless and relaxing experience we’d dreamed up. Having lost two days to bike assembly and seafood-induced delirium in Tokyo, the utopia of stretching our legs through the endless network of well-organised cycle paths out of town punctuated by roadside ramen to the warm glow of a 4:00 p.m. sunset, became a reality.

Cycling through this first jet-lagged night that had come unexpectedly early in the day, we pulled over to investigate some cultural sounds that seemed to be coming from behind some low scrubby bushes. As we rounded the corner off the main road, some kind of open pagoda style temple with a little car park and a kind of festival stage came into view.

We put our bikes on the ground with all the elegance of a wandering albatross landing after a year spent at sea, doing our best not to disrupt the ceremony, but in-avertedly alerting several of its spectators to our arrival. In spite of what growing up watching Fawlty Towers would have me believe, speaking English slowly and loudly, while gesticulating wildly is no match for Google Translate. And as I didn’t have a working phone on the trip, I left the practical aspects of navigation and communication to Andrew while I watched the ceremony and imagined facts about it.

The ceremony itself consisted of a group of ancient men in traditional Japanese garb surrounded by gold ornaments, fresh flowers and paper lanterns. Led by a man with a big drum, they took it in turns to chant, while a second group of men sat watching from a back room at sunken tables under the greenish glow of florescent lights - loudly gobbling a takeaway and chugging massive beers. I enjoyed this dichotomy in Japanese culture - a focal point of uncompromising ceremony, steeped in tradition and sitting comfortably alongside a humble and practical, everyday approach to living. It was incredibly rigid but somehow not precious or stifling.

I took some pictures and after I had immerged from the trance of observation, Andrew shared with me his findings from the broken Google-translated conversation he’d been having with a couple of the revellers. There was a big typhoon on its way and the monks were saying a prayer for everybody to be safe in the storm. They explained that we would not be safe camping in the storm and should seek shelter indoors, specifically within new concrete buildings as older and more lightweight traditional structures might not be OK.

We’d heard about the typhoon in Tokyo but hadn’t taken the warnings seriously. There was no wind and the cold and drizzle that had greeted us in Tokyo had subsided - the evening was positively balmy. We cycled on to pitch our hammocks for the night a few miles further into the foothills by a river.

The following morning, I woke up feeling rested for the first time since we arrived; it was picturesque and pristine, the previous day's cycling had left us feeling positive and refreshed in spite of the monks' warning. We bathed, ate and set off into the mountains. The sun set early again so much of the ascent was ridden by the cool LED light of our head torches, snaking and weaving ahead of us. Andrew reached the summit way ahead of me owing to his lighter bike, harder gearing and functional lungs. He complained about his sore knees and not being able to ride at a reasonable cadence. I lied and told him I felt fine.

It had become apparent that the journey we were on wasn’t going to go the way we’d hoped. With some encouragement from some local whisky-soaked used car salesmen, we made plans to cheat the next mountain ascent. This left us with just two days, an epic gravel descent and one little mountain between us and our destination. Although on paper this was easy, the descent took the whole of the next day’s daylight hours, even with an early start owing to the harsh terrain.

With leaf suspension, wide, sweepy bars, low pressure, high volume, semi-slick tyres, and a handful of Dynaplugs, those hours were among the finest I’ve spent on a bike. Some more luxury camping on what turned out to be a roundabout outside a primary school (it was dark and the only green bit on the map in a town) and some tough ups and downs later, we were finally approaching our destination, Grinduro. As we approached so did the typhoon. Feeling like we’d stored up all the adventure we needed, and in the interest of teaching the brazing workshop a day early in case it wasn’t possible to do so later, we got a lift from the organisers for the last few windy, rainy miles to the event.

The event itself was both mad and magnificent. It was a miracle we managed to get any riding in, bearing in mind much bigger events like the Rugby World Cup that was being held in Tokyo to the south (which was hit much worse than we were by the typhoon) were cancelled. The riding we did do was messy, muddy and mental. It was pure joy and dictionary-defined adventure laced with great people and unexpected energy foodss. The journey there bore no resemblance to our expectations, and after two days marooned in a luxury hotel for lack of transport, in which to reflect and replenish, we were glad to be heading home - a sign of a truly fulfilling and thoroughly enjoyable trip.