Since mid-August 2018, my family and I have lived in this huge, disciplined, and futuristic city. At the end of that month, my Giant Anyroad 1 arrived with my belongings from Mexico and as soon as possible, I began to explore the neighborhood area. A kilometer away I found the Komazawa Olympic Park, whose 2km bike path allowed continuous pedaling taking precautions with runners and walkers.
I also found secondary and tertiary roads in the area marked with bicycle signs, but they were not exclusive. By the way, very few like that. Although it was possible to pedal at a good speed and with certain security, everything was asphalt and traffic lights every certain distance. There was no continuity, preventing establishing a rhythm that would make you enjoy the bike and physically challenge you.
I knew that there were zones or routes to pedal freely since I had consulted on the Internet, but I needed time to get to them.
At the fourth exit on my Anyroad (one year later I bought my Giant Revolt), I decided to get to the Tama River, which is located 5 km from our house. I had not done it before because I wanted to know the area without haste.
The desired day arrived and, being a first timer, I reached an area of the river where there was a board that channels it and prevents it from seeing its splendor. Also, there was no ramp, just steps, so I got off the bike, put it on my shoulder and climbed on it.
Upon reaching the small summit I discovered its grandeur, in width and length, I expressed almost at the same time the very Mexican saying “¡hay güey!” (oh man!) followed by a “and it’s all for me!” I was amazed by what, at first glance, it offered to pedal. Coming from Mexico City, where finding this amplitude of natural spaces in the middle of the urban area is impossible (besides the two-three rivers are already cased), my dream had come true.
I immediately joined the paved bike path and started pedaling. I did it for about an hour only, as I had limited time. In the course I met cyclists and runners.
On the way home I kept reflecting on everything that river offers in terms of cycling; many kilometers and not only of paved bike path, but also gravel routes and trails, which I could see from a distance and located near the bike path or closer to the riverbed (see next image).
Tama River, 50kms to pedal freely … with gravel included!
The Tama River is one of the four rivers that cross Tokyo. The others are the Tone-Edo, Arakawa, and Sagami. If we consider the Tsurumi River that is in Yokohama, and is suburban, then there are five (nex image, source: The Tokyo Files).
In the almost two years that we have been in Tokyo, I have had the opportunity to have pedaled the Tama and Tsurumi completely and a large portion of the Arakawa. Since the Tsurumi offers practically no gravel and trails and the Arakawa is similar, I will focus on the Tama River.
I begin by noting that the distance of the bike path on the north side of the Tama is approximately 50km. After a certain point upstream, there is no longer a bike path, although the river continues to the mountains. You can get to the area where the river is born, however, you must pedal through the streets and then, at the end of the urban area, you continue along a road with good climbs and beautiful views, being the best in autumn. It is in this part of the territory of the prefecture of Tokyo where all the gears that the bicycle offers are used, but this is another story.
The gravel roads and trails of the Tama River are not continuous during the 50km of the north side of the river that can be pedaled (following image), that is, there are sectors in which you must retake the paved bike path since the gravel trail or path ends, for usually on bridges. I have not measured the distance of gravel and trails on the north side of the river with Strava, but I estimate it should be around 20 to 25km. They are not many but being in the middle of a megacity they are considerable and more than welcome if you like gravel cycling.
In addition, on the south side of the riverbank there are more paved bike paths and gravel roads, although it is less mileage for both types. I estimate about 10 or 15km. So, in the middle of the second largest metropolis in the world, you can do between 35 or 40km of urban gravel. Not bad.
During the weekends, the paved bike path has a high presence of road bike cyclists, as well as runners, so you should pedal carefully. There are sections where there are sports and family parks in which meeting children is common, and therefore speed should be reduced.
It depends on each cyclist, but my average speed has been 25km / hr. Another factor that impacts speed is whether you go upstream or downstream, as it is not the same due to the existing unevenness, although not very pronounced.
An additional and occasional factor is the wind. If you have it against it is really challenging. For this reason, on windy days, some cyclists prefer to get off the board where the paved bike path is and travel along the parallel street, which is at a lower level.
Returning to the gravel roads and trails offered by the Tama River, the experience of pedaling on them is a pleasant one, especially when you first ride them. Novelties of flora and fauna are discovered (mainly birds), infrastructure to channel and regulate the river, dams, hydraulic maintenance works and other details, all of which form a natural and economic ecosystem of utmost importance to the city.
The type of gravel is varied. There are gravel sections with small stone mixed with firm sand. Others of only firm gravel and even small parts of only firm sand. In these it seems that it passes through a glass (following photos). Given this profile of the terrain, it is not necessary to use wide tires or with large blocks to avoid getting stuck in the rainy season.
The route does not offer steep ascents or descents, except occasionally when you join the paved bike path or change from a gravel road to a single track. Therefore, driving the Tama does not require a large sprocket or cassette in the transmission of the bicycle.
Gravel cycling is still not common in this area of the capital of Japan and the reason may be obvious. Almost the entire perimeter of Tokyo is paved, limiting the urban gravel areas in the Tama and Arakawa rivers, although in this last river the gravel route is not as extensive.
Another fact in which I support my statement is the little movement of the gravel bicycles exhibited in the four cycling stores that are in this district and in conversations with collaborators. Weeks go by and I see the only Giant Revolt 2 in the Giant store filling up with dust or the Checkpoints ALR4 and ALR5 at a Trek dealer, tired of waiting for a customer. The same in other stores with the Mérida Silex or the Jamis Renegade
Due to the above, the number of “gravelistas” that I encountered on my tours of the Tama River are very few; some 10 in two years. I remember an encounter with a couple of them on a path in the lower part of the river. In the distance they both looked at me with initial surprise and when we crossed paths, we expressed a slight smile as saying, “we are not the only ones rare on gravel bikes”.
My fondness for this type of cycling (I admit it is not old) means that when I travel by train through the region or others nearby, I am always looking for gravel roads. However, 99.9% of them are asphalted and those that I find appear to be short.
The setting is different in mountainous and less urbanized areas of Japan such as Kyoto and Nagano. I know this because on Instagram I follow groups of cyclists who organize gravel pedaling in such regions, although I do not know if they are long distances. Also, remember that Japan is a somewhat small country (378,000 km2) and highly developed, so its gravel roads are not as far from those in the US. USA, Australia, Mexico, Argentina or even Spain.
Like any circuit that you get to know in depth when following it, the Tama River in its gravel sections and trails also has its limits of emotions. So sometimes it is often tedious, a fact that you try to eliminate by competing against yourself to improve your own times.
Now, I have not gotten tired of pedaling through these sections and I do not think that will happen. Finally, all cyclists, even those who live in regions with gravel roads and long-distance trails, often have a repetitive route to practice. But I confess that I would add “more flavor to the broth” if a greater number of gravel cyclists were present in the Tama river.
In the absence of gravel … asphalt
The Tokyo metropolitan area is huge. It is the second largest in the world with 39.9 million inhabitants, after Canton, China, with 45.6 million. In urbanized surface it is also gigantic. From Haneda airport to Ome, following the Tama River, there are 56.8km of houses, buildings, warehouses, bridges, courts, and any kind of physical infrastructure that you can think of.
This urban grandeur naturally offers countless streets and roads, which is one of the necessary inputs to pedal through the city. In the vast majority you can ride a bicycle (obvious at different rates), except in the primary or fast roads, which is prohibited.
And the lack of gravel is cured with asphalt. I already mentioned how there are paved bike lanes on the riverbanks, but there are also routes that you can configure to pedal, like in any city.
Personally, I keep putting together new ones and sometimes I have repeated. One of these is the route to Hinohara (following map, all gray is urbanized area), which takes me to one of the mountainous areas of the metropolis, where forest-type vegetation abounds, along with rivers and dams.
As it could be seen in the previous map, and on that route, I have barely entered that mountainous area, but in that part, I could visualize small semi-asphalted roads and trails that can also be pedaled.
The possibilities of exploration, both inside and outside the urban area, are immense and in these almost two years of stay in Tokyo, I have hardly pedaled a part. The following map shows with stars and a yellow balloon the areas that I have visited by bicycle. The flags in green balloons indicate some of the places that I hope to pedal soon or a route that I must follow to get to some point. Some of them located in downtown Tokyo are other points of interest not related to bicycles.
Being in the second largest metropolis in the world, having around 40km of gravel and trails within the urban area is not bad. There are metropolises that have much less or perhaps no kilometer of gravel (if the latter is your reality, then I feel sorry for you). In addition, pedaling these roads is a luxury that only “gravelistas” (or MTB bikers, there are few around here) can give us.
I admit that on the cycling issue my only desire for these lands is to have more opportunities to pedal in gravel. I do not aspire for something at the Kansas state level in the US. USA (famous for the 200-mile Dirty Kanza gravel challenge route) or my home state (Coahuila, Mexico), but it is somewhat more varied than what I currently own. For this I will have to travel by train and surely, I will organize some trips.
But in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy what the Tama River offers me and the hundreds of kilometers of asphalt that are in the beautiful mountains that surround this great city, as well as its streets and long avenues. I will also continue to enjoy ramen, my favorite dish in Japan, and beer, which is as good as the one they make in Mexico.
See you on Strava (Jaime Villasana Dávila) and don’t forget to follow TodoGravel on Instagram.