I’ve been in Japan with the family for the past couple weeks. We come here to visit family and friends, talk bikes, and help the kids practice their Japanese. Most of our time is spent around Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto and then during each trip we do some traveling to other regions. This is my fourth visit of three to four weeks each so I’ve now seen quite a bit of Japan. I enjoy my time here but don’t claim to understand much at all of what’s going on around me. It’s not just the language barrier; Japanese society is just enormously different from anything else I’m familiar with. It’s also quite private and discrete making it even harder to learn about why people do things the ways they do and why the country is put together the way it is.
Cyclists and pedestrians mix it up on the sidewalk in Osaka while at least eight lanes of cars drive by.
The cycling infrastructure here is a good example of this phenomenon. There are a lot of transportation cyclists in Japan, perhaps more than any other developed country with the obvious exceptions of the Netherlands and Denmark. But the epic terribleness of the cycling infrastructure here and resulting behavior of cyclists is staggering. Bicyclists are basically treated as and act like pedestrians here. In urban areas there will often be some bike signage… on the sidewalks. Bicyclists either paddle along with their seat in the lowest position and feet flat on the ground, or weave between the many pedestrians sharing the same space. Pedestrians and cyclists cross streets together in a great crisscrossing mayhem at (sometimes huge) crosswalks. Near misses and little bumps are a moment to moment occurrence. A few daring, young urban warriors ditch the sidewalks and compete with the cars, taxis and trucks on the six or even eight lane wide per direction urban streets. No, lack of space for bike lanes isn’t always the issue here.
Cycling in Japan would probably be just as popular as in the Netherlands if they only built some safe and convenient bike lanes. I’ve asked dozens of Japanese about this and pretty much only get shrugged shoulders. It’s as if the most high-tech society in the world just wants to collectively ignore the fact that the humble bicycle is a practical answer to many transportation questions. I’ve written about this strange phenomenon in Japan earlier here:
Japan: A Land I Love but Just Don’t Understand
The runbike story is another example of just how different things are here than elsewhere. While searching for activities for the kids Kyoko’s mom read about a runbike competition at a park near her atelier. What a coincidence, we figured, that the race happens while we’re there, and so close by too. Three and a half year old P1 hasn’t ridden the runbike much in the last year since he’s fanatical about his pedal bike but the little runbike was handy to bring along. With the handlebar and stem removed it fits in our suitcase and P1 can then be endlessly entertained by riding through strange cities. We did the same in New York last year and then left that bike behind as a gift for his cousin.
Sure enough it’s worked out great; he’s ridden his stickered up Micro G-Bike all over Osaka and Hiroshima, through malls, subways, parks, wherever possible. Only a couple times has anybody requested that he not ride, for example in a department store. During our first week and a half in Japan, mostly out and about in cities, we didn’t see a single other runbike. Everywhere we go people point and comment as if they’ve never seen such a a thing before. How can they have a race if people here don’t even know runbikes yet?
Those who follow this blog and my photos on Flickr know that P1 is a remarkably handy bike rider for his age. He rides his tiny BMX bike in the dirt, sliding it through slippery mud, races down steep hills, rides smoothly with one hand, one foot, standing etc etc. He rides with the poise and smoothness of an adult. We figured he’d surely be a total “ringer” in some little runbike race!
The race was at a lovely park and camping area called Mitsugi Green Park in Onomichi-chi, about a hour’s drive to the east from Hiroshima. We made a little holiday within a holiday of the visit, staying in the most beautiful camping bungalow I’ve ever seen… Japanese style of course, entirely in wood with with tatami mat seating/sleeping areas and shoji sliding screens. As gifts for our early reservation we were given a case of beer and a runbike!
As you might imagine the free runbike was not of great quality. It had, however, big wheels and was new and bright yellow thus P1 lost interest in his quite excellent and well tuned Micro G-bike. After dropping our bags at the bungalow we went down to check out the track before dinner. They’d prepared a pair of really nice mini BMX style tracks for the event. They were sandy dirt with bermed turns and bumps and rollers big enough to separate the big little kids from the little little kids. There were no other competitors there yet and P1 eagerly did practice laps until we dragged him away to eat. The race organizer was there and told us that the fastest three year olds rode with times in the low 30 second range. P1 was doing it in 39-43 seconds so he’d have to go a lot faster to be competitive. Where were these kids though? We hadn’t seen another runbike since we arrived.
We stayed at Mitsugi for two nights so the following day we just relaxed. We rode the model choo-choo train that runs through the park, played in the playground, rode the silly bike contraptions and of course let P1 practice riding the race course in the afternoon. I suggested better lines through the corners, taught him to push against the starting gate and adjusted and repaired his “new” bike. He rode slightly faster but mostly just became more consistent at 41-42 seconds. He would have continued training until morning had we not pried him away after a heated negotiation.
I also had to screw that cheap bike together well enough to get him through race day. The bike looks like the popular Strider but it’s actually a Chinese made knock-off made to the lowest standards. The seat had been slipping, down the handlebars twisting in the fork and it seemed to ride like a crab walks. I flopped it upside down on the picnic table and got to work. It was much worse than I expected; the entire frame was hugely crooked, the rear wheel tracking both a couple cm off the front and the wheels, head tube and seat tube were all in their own planes. I checked out the rental bikes and they all seemed about as bad so asking for an exchange wasn’t an option. There was no way I could align the large diameter frame tubes without tools so a crooked bike it would remain. I just did my best to align the wheels in the fork ends to minimize the misalignment. While I was at it I loosened the wheel bearings until they spun freely. The wheels now wobbled a little but that’s better than not spinning. Then I cut up a beer can with our kitchen knife to make shims for the seat post and handlebar and lubricated the crudely threaded bolts with our sesame cooking oil to tighten them harder with the stamped “wrench” that came in the box. The last major issue was the wheels with almost a centimeter of vertical wobble, like one of those clown bikes with eccentrically spoked wheels. The tires were soft (and slippery) foam so I just cut the high spots off with our kitchen knife, took some more off the sides to make it round again and roughed up the tread surface with a rock. A crude solution but they were much better than before.
The morning of the event the other 60 or so little competitors appeared and sure enough many were clearly experienced and very fast. There were even a couple teams in attendance, with matching outfits and all. Their bikes, all with Strider frames, were tricked out, their bike setup, starting and cornering techniques were honed. We were up and breakfasted nice and early so P1 had time fore more practice and play. P1 seemed a little intimidated but was relaxed and in the mood to learn anything he could to go faster. Of course the kids just wanted to race so around the course they “raced” again and again. Their faces alternated between intense grimaces and beaming smiles. P1 was riding on par with what we guessed to be the fastest three year olds so so I timed a random lap: 34 seconds, 8 sec faster than his average yesterday. Aha, maybe a three year old needs some external motivation to do his best!
Having ridden the course a few dozen times and seeing that he was one of the fast kids boosted P1′s confidence. He was ready to race. The event began with the two year olds’ races which were just ridiculously cute. The qualification and repechage heats were run on a straight course with smaller bumps. Then they did the semifinal and final rounds on the bigger, BMX style track. One little boy changed his mind at the starting line and refused to start, twice. In one semifinal heat the leader fell from the top of a bump back into the earlier part of the track. Then most of the other kids followed leading to mayhem on the course and the crowd doubling over in laughter. In fact the only bad parent behavior we saw the whole day was one dad who clearly showed his 2 year old daughter that he was disappointed in her “poor performance”. They left immediately after her last race while everybody else stuck around to watch, picnic and socialize. All in all the parents and kids were taking the competition seriously but having a lot of fun on and off the track.
From the other parents at the event we learned that runbike racing has recently become popular here in Japan. There are events all over the country, sometimes attracting huge fields. In the fall 600 little racers showed up for an event in Yokohama! Yet, more than three weeks in Japan now and we still haven’t seen another child on a runbike in the wild. It’s the same as with the “avid cyclists” here who don’t generally ride on roads. Instead they go to special cycling parks where they ride in groups or events. In my four or so total months all over Japan I have only twice ever seen a roadie riding on a road. But last week we visited a special cycling park near Hiroshima with a hilly and carless 12km course around the airport. We have such things in the Netherlands as well, but our courses are just used for club racing. It appears that in Japan this is where they actually drive to ride their bikes much like many mountain bikers now drive to the trails.
Back at the races P1 was having the time of his short life and doing really well too. He was third in his qualifying heat, great but only the first two went directly to the semifinal. The rest went into a series of repechage heats from which only the winners would advance. We explained that he really needed to win this one in order to race more today and that was all the motivation he needed. He rode that bike like he stole it and won the repechage by a good margin. He then took second in the semifinal putting him into the finale. P1 couldn’t start as fast as the more experienced riders and got outmaneuvered in the scramble through the first corner. Gaining a place back after that was hard in any race and even more so against these speedy kids so he cruised home a couple bike lengths behind in fourth place and beamed with pride.
It wasn’t so much our son’s race results that impressed us as his composure, maturity and just how much fun he had with the whole experience. We really weren’t sure what to expect. There was no doubt about his physical abilities; He’s always one of the fastest running, highest climbing etc of his peers. But P1 is also shy so maybe he’d be afraid to perform in front of a crowd or just sense tension and be difficult as a three year old so often is. To the contrary he rose to the occasion; He practiced and listened, tried different techniques, got a good night’s sleep and woke up happy and ready. At the starting line of each race he gave a big, proud “Hai!” (“Yes”) when his name was called and then mixed it up elbow to elbow with the other racers on the course. We were obviously incredibly proud of him and are now thinking about how to offer him more opportunities of this sort. There are no runbike races in the Netherlands yet so for bicycle racing he’ll have to wait until he’s five and can join the local BMX development program. Two years is a long ways off for a three year old so maybe another sport to have fun with first? Gymnastics, judo, swimming…? To be investigated when we return.