BRM414 300 km Fuji, Wet and Windy Edition

On Saturday/Sunday I cycled in the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ NishiTokyo, like in the six previous years. Last year I set a personal best time of 18 hours 51 minutes, which is 1 hour 9 minutes under the 20 hour time limit. This year I was not so hopeful. As the day approached, the weather forecast had turned increasingly worse, finally predicting heavy rain and very strong winds on the course between midnight and about 10:00 on Sunday morning. As it turned out, that forecast was spot on!

I had done the 300 km Fuji brevet in the rain once before, in 2014 (see pictures here), but this time turned our far worse.

After getting a couple of hours of rest on Saturday afternoon, I cycled 28 km to Machida for the late night start (22:00). In 2014 I had taken the train there and it had already started raining on the way from Machida station to the event starting point. We then had the pre-ride briefing inside the Cherubim bike shop. This year the rain held off until almost 40 km into the brevet, on the way to Enoshima.

At the start

The crowd at the start was much smaller than usual. As it turned out, most signed-up would-be participants had chosen not to start (DNS) due to the weather conditions. I had cycled to the start in my rain wear, but took it off at a convenience store near the start because I was starting to sweat in it. Four years ago I had worn my Polaris rain jacket, which is even warmer. For fear of overheating I went with a lighter jacket this time.

At the briefing we were told about two of the bail-out options, should we chose to retire from the ride. Both Odawara and Gotemba have train stations, but by the time we were to arrive there, the last trains would have left. Nevertheless there would be places around the stations where we could take shelter from the weather until the first morning train.

After the bike inspection we set off. It was quite windy, but no rain yet. Up to Enoshima on the coast I rode more by myself than in a group.

A couple of km before we reached the coast the first rain drops started falling and it steadily picked up. The first check point was a 7-Eleven store about 2 km east of Enoshima. I got there about 10 minutes to midnight.

When I came out of the store again the wind was fierce, whipping up sand off the beach which hit our faces and got on our teeth and into the eyes. The road was narrowed for some roadworks, so being pushed around while cars were passing wasn’t pleasant.

I was worried I’d be cycling into a headwind on the way to Odawara, but the wind pattern wasn’t very consistent. Whichever way it shifted though, it did slow us down. Also, there was little chance for riding with others.

When I reached PC1 (point de controle) in Odawara, 72 km from the start and 100 km from home for me, it was 40 minutes later than last year. I knew I had to get well ahead of the 15 km/h average that dictates control closing times and the overall time limit while I was on the flat part of the course to make it to PC3 in time, after hours of climbing on the west side of Mt Fuji later in the day.

After Odawara I put on my do-it-yourself shoe covers, fashioned out of some plastic bags and tape, to keep my shoes and socks dry. Nevertheless, as I started climbing up to Gotemba, which sits on a saddle between the Fuji and Hakone volcanoes, gradually I was getting soaked more and more. My long sleeve jersey and my uniqlo long johns were absorbing cold rain that leaked through the rain gear. I think my Polaris rain jacket would have done a much better job at keeping me dry.

I cycled with another participant for the middle part of the climb, but then stopped at a convenience store for food and a toilet break. My eyes started getting irritated. Either the rain was washing sweat into my eyes, or it was sand stuck to my face since Enoshima that got washed into my eyes. Taking off my glasses and wiping my eyes with the back of my gloves or the fingers didn’t help much.

The climb leveled off near Gotemba but the wind and rain were still picking up in intensity. At this wind speed the rain drops felt like pin pricks to the skin. At dawn the atrocious weather and the near absence of people gave the scenery an almost apocalyptic feel. From here it was about 25 km downhill to Numazu, but with no prospect of the weather improving soon. This was perhaps the coldest part of the course due to of the combination of rain, early morning hours and wind chill while descending. I was already shivering with cold while alternating between closing my left and my right eye to avoid the burning feeling.

Checking my notes, I was now running about an hour behind my 2017 times. The lack of a time buffer already made it questionable if I could make it to PC3 in time even if I could make it to PC2 OK. On this course my time buffer usually decreases significantly from PC2 to PC3 due to the time loss on the long west Fuji climb.

More importantly, the combination of eye trouble, hypothermia symptoms and the strong wind made me think about the risks of continuing. Even if I could coast down to Numazu, if I had to abandon the ride after that I would have to climb back up to Gotemba to get back home or ride the full course. That’s when I, remembering the advice at the pre-ride briefing, decided to find shelter from the storm in Gotemba and to head back to Odawara once things had improved.

Two or three other cyclists passed after I turned around and I shouted out to one of them that I was retiring. I found a McDonald’s on Google Maps that was open 24h and not too far away. I locked up my bike outside and walked in with my front bag. I bought myself some breakfast with coffee and sat down in a corner. I could take off my rain jacket to let my jersey dry. After eating I took a nap. When I woke up again it was still raining hard. Around 08:00 I called the organizers and let them know I was retiring from the event and would cycle home by myself.

An hour later it looked like the rain had eased a bit. I cleared my table and headed outside again. It got warmer as I descended towards Odawara. I took pictures of the muddy, swollen rivers I passed.

After about another hour the rain stopped. The black and grey rain clouds against the sunlight at the coast were beautiful.

I joined the coastal road and headed east, past Enoshima to Kamakura.

There I crossed the mountains over to the Tokyo bay side of Miura peninsula, then up to Yokohama and Kawasaki. I got home about 24 hours after I had set off, with 283 km of cycling. I hadn’t caught a single glimpse (let alone taken a picture) of Mt Fuji, but I was glad to be home safely.

This definitely wasn’t the most fun bike ride I have done, but unlike other difficult rides I have done, I also didn’t get much of a feeling of achievement out of it — the first time in 7 years that I didn’t complete the Fuji loop. Perhaps this is one time I should have decided to stay home when I saw the consistently bad weather forecasts. It would have been the rational thing to do. But for me, long distance cycling is not that rational a thing to do. Much of it is a mental challenge as much as a physical one.

I do long rides because I love the views, but partly I also do long rides so I won’t be afraid of doing long rides. They can be intimidating. I can take on bigger challenges only because I have faced smaller challenges before. You overcome fear of being stranded in a strange place by venturing out there and facing the challenges. Sometimes I learn something about myself from the experiences. It can be a balancing act. I am never 100% committed to achieving my immediate goal, because there are more important objectives. To be able to continue doing long rides, I can’t get seriously injured or worse, so I need to decide what risks to take and when to cut my losses.

My next brevet will be BRM512 AJ NishiTokyo 400 km Fuji Big Loop (BRM512富士大回り400km), a course I also rode in 2015 and 2016. Hopefully with nicer weather than last weekend 🙂

Links:



Getting ready for BRM414 NishiTokyo 300 km Fuji

A week from now I’ll be riding BRM414 NishiTokyo 300km Fuji (BRM414西東京300km富士), a 300 km clockwise loop around Mt Fuji from Machida to Machida (Sat, 22:00 -> Sun, 18:00).

In May 2012 this course was my introduction to randonneuring and I’ll be riding it for the 7th consecutive year.

This year the course has been updated in a couple of places. The checkpoint at Enoshima has moved from the public toilets near Katase-Enoshima station to a 7-11 further east. PC1 in Odawara has also been moved to a 7-11 with better toilets. PC2 in Shibakawa is in the same place, but has switched from being a Circle K to a Familymart. Around Kawaguchiko-Fujiyoshida the route has been moved from N139 to smaller roads nearer to the lake, avoiding some of the notoriously rough road surfaces there. The rest of the route is the same as last year.

The 22:00 start followed by 7 hours of riding through the night makes it essential to get plenty of sleep before the start. I’ll take a good nap in the afternoon before I ride 28 km to the start. Some rain is forecast for Saturday. Hopefully the ride itself will be dry, but I have once done this course with it raining for the first 150 km, which is not much fun (and it’s a pity if Mt Fuji is obscured by rain clouds).

This weekend I will be riding another century distance (160.9 km or more) as my last preparation ride before the event. This should make April my 68th consecutive month with at least one century ride.

2018BRM120 Miura Peninsula

I rode my third century of January and my first randonnée of the year on Sunday. After completing the 204 km ride (finished in 12:04) I rode home, for a total distance of 233 km. I had done the same event in 2015 – with only minor route changes – and almost the same time (12:06).

The main difference was that on Sunday it was not quite as chilly. Perhaps that was because it was overcast, which preserved more heat from the day before than if the night sky had been clear. It also meant that the sun wasn’t in our faces (and the faces of drivers coming up behind us) when we cycled towards Kawasaki around sunrise. I felt a lot safer because of that.

This brevet is the flattest by far of any events that AJ NishiTokyo (my local club) organizes. On the other hand, the first third and the last quarter had a fair number of traffic lights. Still, there was less pressure to make closing times than on any other brevet I rode.

I had to be at the start by about 5:20 to pick up the brevet card and attend the safety briefing, so the night before I rode 30 km from my home to a cheap hotel near the start where I spent the night. This I could still get almost 7 hours of sleep. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age 🙂

After passing by the Yokohama harbour near Chinatown, I took the optional route over the hills. This is where a lot of foreigners set up their homes when Japan opened to the world after the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. On the Yamate district up on a hill you see many western style villas, a great view of the harbour and the historic Foreign Cemetery.

From Kawasaki to Yokohama down to Yokosuka the roads were urban, with traffic lights slowing you down. Yokosuka is home to the US Seventh Fleet. Not far from it is where William Adams (the Miura Anjin of James Clavell’s “Shogun”) had his fief back in the 1600s. The peninsula turns rural thereafter.

It was too overcast to see the mountains of Boso peninsula in Chiba, on the opposite side of the mouth of Tokyo bay. At Kurihama I passed Perry Park, a memorial to Commodore Perry who landed here in July 1853.

Following the coastline the route passed through seaside towns and fishing villages. Miura peninsula is one of the vegetable gardens of Tokyo, with mainly cabbage and daikon (radish) being grown.

After PC2 in the southwest corner of the peninsula, the route headed up the west coast. This is my favourite part, particularly in the late afternoon, with the sunlight reflected in the ocean, or when it’s cloudy and the sky can be very atmospheric. We passed the Imperial villa at Hayama. Emperor Yoshihito, father of WW2-era emperor Hirohito, died here in 1926.

A couple of km to the north we passed by Kamakura, one of the 4 historic capitals of Japan (Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura and Edo/Tokyo). In summer it’s popular for its beach, but even in winter there are many windsurfers (see picture at the top).

The next major town was Enoshima, which offers great views of Mt Fuji when it’s sunny, but not that day. Before the mouth of the Sagami river we turned inland, heading up north to loop back to the start. About 5 km later we reached PC3, that final control before the goal.

By this time I was about 1:15 ahead of closing time, so I could have made it to the goal even with an average of 10 km/h. I still kept up the speed to cover as much distance as possible before the sun went down. I only rode about the last hour in darkness, plus the ride home after the event.

Due to business travel my February distance will be lower than my January distance, but I’ll try to get one century in on the first February weekend, weather permitting. Today it’s snowing here in Tokyo. Usually we only have a couple of days of snow a year and this makes CaM a lot easier here than in many other parts of the planet.

Twenty-Seven Centuries in one Year

By the end of this year I will have cycled just over 8,000 km, slightly less than in the last couple of years (I cycled about 9,000 km in 2013, 2014 and 2016 and topped 10,000 km in 2015).

At the same time, the number of century rides (rides of at least 160.9 km aka 100 miles in one day) has actually gone up. In 2012, my first season of century rides, I completed 11 of them. Both in 2013 and 2014 I rode 21. The next two years I managed 22 each. This year, with one week left to the end of the year, the total came to 27 centuries.

The biggest difference has been that I didn’t participate in any 400 or 600 km brevets this year due to my business travel schedule. Both in 2015 and 2016 I had signed up for one 400 km brevet (which I finished) and one 600 km (which I DNF’ed). Both years I also pre-rode the 400 km route on a personal long distance ride. So I missed some distance overall, but most months I managed to ride 2 or 3 centuries. It’s all about being consistent.

With my December rides I have extended my “A Century A Month” streak to 5 years and 4 months. To ensure that I can keep this up, I usually do a long ride on the first weekend of each calendar month. That way, if anything comes up later in the month, such as a typhoon hitting Japan or me having to travel abroad, I won’t have an issue.

One of the most important factors no doubt is to avoid injury. Many of my friends have been involved in road accidents. A broken collarbone or other severe injury could put you out of action for weeks or months. Any kind of road sport has risks, but I try to limit my exposure. I am not a very ambitious descender because with anything that happens at high speed, the negative effects will be magnified. I am not ambitious when cycling in a city either. Where I work hardest is on climbs, because I need to 🙂

I have been very pleased with my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer. Last year I converted it to 11 speed with a Sugino “compact plus” double crank and hydraulic brakes. It has been fun to ride and extremely reliable. The ride comfort from the 42 mm Compass tires is terrific and I have been without puncture for 20 months now. I still ride my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket as well and had its rear converted to a disc brake a couple of months ago.

The main attraction of long rides to me is the views I come across, at all times of day, in all kinds of weather and in all four seasons. I ride to see things, by myself or with friends.

Here are some pictures from one year of cycling:

January: BRM107 by Audax Japan Kanagawa – Zushi-Izukogen-Zushi 200 km

January: Doshi village on my Bike Friday

February: Boso Peninsula via Kurihama Ferry across Tokyo Bay (cycling to and from Miura peninsula)

March: Mt Dodaira in Saitama, visiting the observatory

March: BRM318 in West Izu, the hardest 200 km brevet I ever rode

April: BRM408 in Yamanashi, the 3rd 200 km brevet this year

May: Ome Temple Loop, a very mountainous course in Saitama that I normally only do once a year. I did it twice this year 🙂

May: BRM520 around Mt Fuji — my fastest ever finishing time on this 300 km brevet

June: Doshi village for coffee and cresson cake.

July: Some hydrangea blossoms at a mountain ride in Hinohara with friends.

July: Tokyo/sea level – Mt Fuji 5th stage/2300 m – Odawara/sea level (first time in 4 years that I rode this course again)

August: First ride on Arima Toge in Saitama

September: First ride on Nokogiri Toge

October: A hunting falcon at Lake Okutama

November: Annual Chichibu Foliage Ride

December: West Izu Century (view from Kumomi Onsen towards Mt Fuji, 72 km away)

Disc brake pad and rotor wear

It looks like I get about 6,000 km of useful life out of the disc brake pads on the front of my main bicycle. That’s about 9 months for me (I ride all year round, about 8,000 to 10,000 km per year).

Two years ago I switched my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket to a disc brake on the front by replacing the fork and the front wheel. 1 1/2 years ago I received my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE), a low trail randonneur bike with disc brakes. 9 Months ago I switched the NFE from TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes with metallic pads to Shimano hydraulic brakes with resin pads. These pads had now worn out, see picture above.

Along with the brake pads I also replaced the front rotor, as the old one had worn quite thin.

Most of the 7,000 km that I had done on the TRP Spyre brakes I had been using metallic pads, as the factory resin pads wore extremely rapidly: I had to keep adjusting the brakes after each Saturday long ride (typically 130-200 km). The metallic pads needed less attention but were very noisy in the rain.

My experience with the Shimano BR-RS785 brakes was much better. As hydraulic brakes their pads were self adjusting. There weren’t any noise issues. Wear is quite acceptable: One set of resin pads every 9 months is not too bad and I expect the new brake rotor will last even longer than 13,000 km / 20 months now that I am only using resin pads. On top of that the modulation on the hydros is great and they need very little effort. I could not be happier!

It is good to have real-life figures from actual use as to how quickly parts will wear on the bike so you can do preventive maintenance. It is better to replace a worn out pad at home when you know that it will be due for replacement soon, rather than finding out on a mountain descent that suddenly you’ve got nothing left to stop you! 🙁

Likewise, I regularly replace shifter cables (about once a year), before they wear out enough to break inside the brifters during a ride away from home, as happened twice to me before I learnt that lesson.

In the past I have been quite easygoing about replacing worn out bicycle chains, but a chain that has “stretched” will wear out your chain rings or cassette more quickly. Chains do decrease in robustness with increasing numbers of gears (from 8 speed to 11 speed) as they increasingly become narrower, so I will probably be replacing my 11 speed chain annually too.

BRM520 300 km Mt Fuji

There is one cycling event I have ridden every year since I started long distance cycling five years ago, the 300 km brevet around Mt Fuji organised by AJ Nishitokyo. It was my introduction to randonneuring in 2012. This year I rode it for the sixth time, with unexpected results.

For the first four years I rode my Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, a folding road bike with 20″ (ETRTO 451) wheels. Last year I used my new adventure bike, the Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer, 650B randonneur bike with disk brakes. Most of my cycling friends expected the bigger wheels would make a big difference on the completion time: The event has a 20 hour time limit and I had always struggled to stay under the limit. The last two years on the Bike Friday I had finished with 11 minutes and 15 minutes spare. The first time on my NFE I finished in 19h 45m again – the same time to the minute as a year before! The Bike Friday really has been a great bike for me and if I had not been fast on it, that wasn’t because of the bike but because of the engine! 😉

Because this event starts at 22:00 at night, with the first 6 1/2 hours of riding through the night, getting enough sleep upfront is essential. I tried to avoid staying up much after midnight for the week before the ride and took short daytime naps on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday afternoon I went to bed at 15:00, planning to sleep until 18:00, but mostly rested. I don’t think I slept more than about the last hour.

I left home at 18:50 to cycle the 28 km to the start in Machida and was intending to ride home after the event too. So that’s 56 km on top of the 304 km of the event itself. I took it very easy, knowing I’d have plenty of time.

I bought bananas at a convenience store a few km before the start. The reception at a park near the Cherubim bike shop in Machida opened at 21:00. I saw many new faces, including younger riders.

It had been warm and sunny all day and the forecast for Sunday was the same, so I didn’t even wear a windbreaker at the start. Only for the early morning descent from Gotemba to Numazu did I bring my nylon rain pants, because that was going to be the coldest time of the night, before sunrise and going downhill for about 25 km.

The briefing started at 21:30. There aren’t any changes to the course from the year before, but temperatures would be quite different as last year’s event had been run about 8 weeks earlier in the year. Knowing it would get hot on the long climb on the opposite side of Mt Fuji, I decided to build up a decent time buffer until the morning, when it was still cool, so I would not risk overheating as much later in the day.

After the security inspection we started. The route to the untimed checkpoint in front of some public toilets in Enoshima (38.6 km), where we had to collect a signature on the brevet card from staff members, was pretty urban, with streetlights, cars and traffic lights all along. I made good time and arrived before midnight. It helped that I didn’t have to stop to take off a layer.

There was a large group motorbikes near the checkpoint. I came across groups of bikers throughout the ride, including several encounters with Bōsōzoku clubs making a racket on their two stroke bikes and weaving about on the road.

About half of the 35 km route from Enoshima to PC1 at Odawara I was drafting other cyclists, similar to last year. The Nitto Randonneur bars make it much easier to use my drops to get into a more aerodynamic position to save energy. I arrived at PC1 at 01:26, with 86 minutes spare, 5 minutes more than last year.

After Odawara the route starts climbing until it levels out at an elevation of about 400 m around Gotemba. I was still riding mostly with other cyclists. In Gotemba I put on my wind breaker and nylon pants for the descent. I rode down to Numazu with another cyclist, separated only temporarily when I stopped to take a shot of the first Mt Fuji view around 04:00, still about half an hour before sunrise. A waning moon hung in the eastern sky. It reminded me that we’re only three months away from the total solar eclipse in the western US on Aug 21, 2017.

Though I was yawning at times, I felt no urge to take a nap and continued on to Fuji city, maintaining my pace. I only stopped for a few quick photos of Fuji in the early morning light.

I counted down the distance to the Fujikawa bridge, where the road turns away the coast. I used the public toilets near the Tomei expressway entrance, so I could avoid queuing at PC2, only a couple of km up the road.

I tried to take pictures of Mt Fuji from the south-west, but the sun was behind it and the air was too hazy.

I made it to PC2 by 06:56, 132 minutes ahead of closing time. This was 26 minutes earlier than the year before.

It was still early in the morning, but it was already getting warm. From here it was about 36 km uphill, from close to sea level to about 1100 m. Some of the road was shaded under trees, but most of it was exposed to the sun.

Having done this brevet before, I knew this part of the ride was both rewarding for its views of Mt Fuji and green landscapes, but also tough for the relentlessly climbing road where I was pedaling in the heat. I had also done it on a rainy day, with only a few degrees above freezing, that wasn’t much fun either.

Until the climbing started I had consoled myself that even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the elevation (adiabatic cooling) would somehow make it bearable. Somebody forgot to pass that message to my Navi2coach GPS, whose thermometer displayed as high as 39 C at one point.

The air may have been cooler over the meadows and forests I was passing, but the south-tilted dark asphalt of the prefectural road 71 soaked up just as much sunshine at elevation as it would have at sea level. I was like riding on top of a barbecue. I stopped a couple of times for views and pictures and that made it easier to continue.

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I made it to the top around 10:30 and pulled into a parking area and view point overlooking Motosuko (Lake Motosu).

I took a couple of pictures, ate a banana and got back on the bike again. After a bit of rolling terrain the road descended. The forest surrounding it is called Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), also known as the Suicide Forest for the number of people who picked it to take their own lives there.

At the bottom of the descent, the minor road joined major Rt139, which is usually crowded with cars. Some of it’s surface is very rough, especially around Fujiyoshia. This is where the wide tires of my NFE really helped. They give me the confidence to descend faster even where the road surface is far from perfect.

After Fujiyoshida came a 25 km fast descent down to Tsuru. I didn’t have to pedal much and trusted my tires to deal with the bumps and cracks at speed, with several other cyclists in trail, none of whom ever tried to overtake me until after the road leveled out. It was till before noon and heating up more and more.

At 12:20 three of us pulled into PC3 at Tsuru. That was 92 minutes ahead of closing time. I knew I had previous made here with only 35 minutes spare. I was now 47 minutes ahead of last year’s result. But it was still going to get hotter for another hour or more from here.

The final 66 km from Tsuru to Machida were the hottest part of the ride. I used my lightest gear a lot, climbing slowly to avoid overheating. I am not usually someone who worries much about heat stroke. I drink sufficient water and keep the effort down when I feel it’s getting too hot out there, but this time I was starting to worry. Three or four of us stayed together more or less continually for the last leg of the trip, nobody willing to go any faster in this heat. I counted down the distances to the top of each climb.

Finally we made it to Doushi road (National route 413), for a lengthy descent. we stopped at a convenience store where AJ Nishitokyo staff met with us. Some ice cream cooled me down a bit. Based on the remaining distance it looked like I could finish before 17:00, with more than an hours pare. That would be my best result ever.

I felt relieved when I crossed the last major bridge, where I crossed back into the urban area of Sagamihara and counted down the final kilometers to Machida.

At 16:51 I pulled up in front of the Cherubim bike shop, together with one of the other participants. I had finished 54 minutes faster than in 2015 and 2016.

I’m very happy to have made it safely. I thanked the AJ Nishitokyo staff. As always they took good care of everyone. The route is difficult, but rewarding. I often incorporate large parts of it into other long distance rides that I do privately.

As to why I finished so much quicker this year, I am not sure. Looking at the elapsed times between PCs both years, I gained 21 minutes between PC1-PC2, another 21 minutes between PC2-PC3 and 7 minutes even from the last PC to the goal, in the heat. So I was pretty consistently faster. The first 73 km to PC1 is where I gained the least relative to last year (5 minutes), probably because I was already working hard there last year. Overall I took about a 100 photographs on both rides, so it wasn’t that I stopped less for pictures.

Perhaps my two recent rides of the Oume temple loop, with 2500-2700 m of elevation gain on 180+ km of cycling each time, helped prepare me for the amount of climbing 🙂 Whatever it was, I’m happy!

Oh, and I did ride 28 km back to Tokyo after the brevet, tired and sleepy, but I made it safely. I won’t be able to ride AJ Nishitokyo’s 400 km brevet this year due to business trips and I’m not sure yet if I’ll attempt the 600 km brevet in September again – I have DNF’ed (did not finish) it three times so far. Finishing it is a bit like riding a 400 km brevet, then finish this 300 km brevet starting from the bottom of the big climb at PC2… Pretty insane!

What I enjoy about these brevets is not just the scenery and the challenge, but also the camaraderie and shared love of cycling among randonneurs. We all have this same passion.

Elephant Bikes NFE Goes 11 Speed (with OX601D and hydraulic brakes)

It’s been almost 8 months since I started riding my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE). See the original build report here. Since then I have made several significant changes. Here is my bike as I was taking a box full of bike parts to GS Astuto, my local bike shop, to do the upgrade:

In May I switched from Compass Babyshoe Pass EL tyres with Schwalbe tubes to regular Compass Babyshoe Pass (non-EL) set up tubeless. In November I switched back to the original setup. Basically, it wasn’t worth the hassle. The front tyre started leaking through its side walls and no amount of sealant added would stop the leakage. The valves got pretty badly clogged by sealant foam injected through the valve. And finally I found that when switching back to the BSP EL tyres remounting them was trivially easy, quite unlike my experience when I had the first puncture, probably because I had since learnt how to properly mount a tyre on tubeless ready rims (hint: push the beads towards the centre channel of the rim to create enough slack).

The second change was to get rid of the Honcho Turtle 58 mudguards and replacing them with SKS plastic mudguards. The Honcho mudguards were beautiful, made from hammered aluminium. They gave the bike a classic look that drew many admiring glances. Trouble is, they were too tight. Even though they were advertised for 650B tyres as wide as 42 mm, I would not recommend them for anything beyond 38 mm. If either the mudguard or the wheel was not exactly centered I would sometimes get wheel rub, which really scared me: I do not want the mudguard to wear through the tyre sidewall.

I bought some SKS Bluemels (SKS-K-BM65-26-21-235) for 5700 yen instead. These 65 mm wide mudguards are designed for 26″ MTB wheels with tyre withs of 2.1-2.35 inches, but they work great for 650B. There’s plenty of clearance with 42 mm tyres and I may even get away with 47 m if wanted to go that way. The only difficult part of the installation was trimming the fairly beefy steel stays to the appropriate length.

The third change was the biggest: I replaced the crank set, chain, cassette, derailleurs, shifters and brakes. I had been unhappy with the shift quality on my TD-2 touring triple, which was nothing like what I was used to from my Shimano 5703 triple. I ended up with dropped chains, chains that slide between the middle and the inner ring, upshifts and downshifts that overshoot, upshifts that require immediate counter-trimming, etc. I don’t know if the culprit were the chain rings or if it was the front derailleur, but I finally decided to replace the triple with a Sugino “Compact Plus” small double. I could have stayed with a 10 speed setup, but I wasn’t so happy with my TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes either. If I switched to 11 speed I had the option of installing Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. So that’s what I ended up doing.

The new crank set is a Sugino OX601D. It is very similar to its more upmarket siblings, the OX801D and OX901D, which basically work exactly the same, but look more refined and come with different chain ring options. It’s a two piece crank (the old triple was a square taper three piece design), much like modern Shimano cranks. With both a 110 mm and 74 mm bolt circle, it can fit an outer of 40-50T and an inner of 24-36T. Inner rings of 24T-32T are 74 mm BCD (Sugino bolt set B) while 34-36 share the 110 mm BCD with the outer ring (Sugino bolt set A). The crank set offers a narrow Q-factor of 145 mm and a standard double chainline of 43.5 mm. I am using a Sugino PE110S-42T as my outer and a Sugino 74J-26T as my inner. Combined with a rear cassette of 11-32 I get gearing all the way from 21 to 100 gear inches. That means climbing as slow as 6 km/h at 60 rpm in the lowest gear or descending as fast as 47 km/h at 100 rpm and all without huge cadence jumps on rear shifts.

I went for ST-RS685 shifters, which are Ultegra grade. The 105-level ST-RS505 would have worked too. For the rear derailleur I went with the medium cage Ultegra RD-6800 GS — 105 RD-5800 GS would have been fine too. The new front derailleur is a FD-CX70, Shimano’s 10 speed Ultegra grade top-pull cyclocross derailleur. Shimano does not yet offer a top-pull derailleur for 11 speed road groups, but the 10 speed part works fine. There’s supposed to be a difference in cable pull, but it doesn’t really matter.

The new shifters and cables shift lighter than the previous Ultegra 6700 ones. The front shift is just as trouble free as on my Shimano 105 triple on my Bike Friday. Since the distance in gear ratios on the double front rings is wider than with the triple, I need to countershift three clicks instead of one on a front shift, but that’s easy.

I love the new disc brakes. The BR-RS785 calipers offer very light action with great modulation and plenty of bite when you mean business. On top of that they are self-adjusting. I basically won’t have to touch them until the pads wear out.

Cycling to the Nippara Limestone Caves

On Saturday I visited the Nippara limestone caves near Lake Okutama. A distance of over 200 km and temperatures as high as 33 C (91 F) in the high humidity of Tokyo summers didn’t make for an easy ride, but I got up at 04:15 and left home sat 05:10 to get up into the mountains as early as possible. The first 80 km took me from near sea level to around 1100 m at Kazahari Toge overlooking the lake.

On the way I met up with two friends in front of Musashiitsukaichi train station who were heading to a different destination. We chatted for half an hour and then rode 10 km together until where our ways parted at the Hinohara t-junction.

On the climb to the pass I came across three English cyclists. We met again at the Tomin no Mori trail head at 900 m, where I stopped for a break with coffee, ice cream and sansai (mountain vegetable) pizza. We talked about favourite routes and other bike related stuff. It turned out that one of them had participated in Race Across America (RAAM) in a team twice!

From the pass it was a great descent for about 12 km down to the lake. The water level is extremely low this year as the winter snow had been weak and the rainy season in June/July, though it lasted much longer than usual, did very little to top up the reservoirs. It was the same at a dam in Chichibu the previous weakend. Droughts are very unusual for Japan, but unless the typhoon season brings more rain than usual we may be heading for one 🙁

I followed the road around the lake shore towards Okutama station. It’s a route I normally avoid, in fact I normally climb back up again to Kazahari Toge to catch some evening views from high up. But this time I was interested in the Nippara caves that I had seen on the map when I checked out the area for hiking to the shrine on Mt Mitake with my wife a week ago. According to the signs the caves were 12 km from the station, up a remote valley. Okutama station is the end of its railway line. It hosts the last convenience store for many km as you head out this way from Tokyo.

When I came out from a public restroom at the station where I had refilled both my bidons from the tap, a local was admiring my Elephant NFE leaning against the wall. He commented how unusual it was to see a Randonneur bike with disk brakes and asked if he could take a picture. I explained that I was doing a lot of long distance riding and the weather was not always predictable, so being able to brake reliably in the rain was important to me. I asked what the road to Nippara was like. He said it was very narrow and I should be careful, there was not much space for cars to pass and there might be dump trucks too, but at least it was mostly flat. I thanked him, got some food and drinks at that last convenience store and headed up the road.

Flat the route wasn’t, but 275 m of elevation gain over 12 km wasn’t too steep. There was one long tunnel (1100 m), but with a wide side walk for pedestrians and cyclists. The sides of the valley were extremely steep, with the boulder strewn river often far below the road. It was very picturesque. In the last village with its bus stop I saw many hikers returning from the cave. There was a big queue of cars waiting for space in the limited size car park, which I could pass on my bicycle.


I put on my wind breaker against the chill inside the cave. Admission was 700 yen (about US$7). It was 11 C (52 F) inside and what I first mistook for steam on the river in front of the entrance (was there a volcanic hot spring nearby?) turned out to be fog from the mix of cold cave air with the outside moist summer air.

Though the stalagmites and stalactites were not as impressive as in some of caves in the Bavarian Jura region where I come from or in the “Franconian Switzerland” region near Nuremberg, the cave has also been venerated as a Shinto shrine since the early Edo period (~1600-1868), with various religious statues visited by pilgrims from afar deep inside the cave. I explored the corridors, rooms and tall stairs for about half an hour before I re-emerged into the daylight.

I was glad the return back to Okutama was mostly downhill, same about the road from there to Oume station. From there it was another 3 hours or so of mostly flat urban roads back to my home in Tokyo.

My total came to over 200 km (125 mi) with 1700 m (5600 ft) of climbing. This makes August my 48th month in a row with at least one century ride a month.

The Joy of Six Hundred (revisited)

The Elephant NFE at the start

I’m back from my longest ride of the year, BRM604, a 600 km randonneuring event from Machida to Lake Suwa (Suwako) in Nagano and back. Had I successfully completed it under the 40 hour time limit I would have made Super Randonneur (SR), the feat of completing brevet distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km in one season. As it were I dropped out after the halfway point and cycled back to Tokyo at my own pace. The total came to 580 km with 4561 m of elevation gain. This makes June my 46th month in a row with at least one ride of 160 km or more.

In 2013 AJ NishiTokyo organized a trial run for a new 600 km brevet course (2013BRMpre921) which I joined. You can read the report I wrote about it here. Not even having successfully completed a 400 km brevet at the time, it was not entirely surprising that I DNF’ed (Did Not Finish) that ride. The experience did not discourage me from trying again in 2014 (2014BRM621) and 2015 (2015BRM530).

I did complete 400 km rides in both 2015 and 2016, the latter on my new Elephant NFE randonneur bike. With more experience I planned better this year, but in many ways the outcome was remarkably similar to that very first attempt.

On my first attempt my biggest problem was the huge spread in temperatures between daytime in Shizuoka and night time in Nagano. In 2014 I cycled a lot of the distance in the rain.

This year I prepared by wearing or carrying clothes for hot, cold and wet weather including shorts and trousers, short and long underwear, a wind breaker, a rain jacket and full fingered gloves.

I also addressed the sleep deprivation by getting as much sleep as possible upfront. I avoided staying up late several days before the event. On Friday I checked into a hotel in Sagamihara at 19:00, with lights out by 20:00 to get up at 03:00 for the 05:00 start from Machida. With all the extra clothes I found my bike quite heavy on the Onekansen climbs to Machida. My legs did not feel in shape. I finished my early convenience store dinner in my hotel room and went to bed as early as I could.

At the ride reception

Takeru Daijo's bike

There were 38 people at the start. A couple more had signed up but chose not to start, perhaps due to the weather forecast, which included a high chance of rain on the second day. This is already the tsuyu season (rainy season), with hydrangeas in full bloom everywhere.

Hydrangeas in bloom

On the way to Enoshima, most participants already passed me. I was the last but one participant to get his brevet card signed at the untimed check point in Enoshima. I reasoned that at a 600 km brevet perhaps the mix is biased more towards the stronger sort of rider than it is at shorter distances.

Enoshima manned check

Unlike at the 300 km Mt Fuji brevet in March that takes the same route as far as Odawara I had very little chance of drafting anyone on the flattish first part. Still, I was over an hour ahead of schedule by then, based on the 15 km/h average used for checkpoint closing times. I took very few pictures and did not even stop for gorgeous Fuji views all the way from Enoshima to Odawara, as I wanted to put as much time as possible into the “time bank”. I knew I would need it for the big climbs and for having any chance at sleep later in the ride.

Atami castle

The weather started out as clear and sunny, getting pretty warm early on. Not until the afternoon did it get overcast and a bit cooler. I ended up drinking plenty of water throughout the ride, both when it was hot and later when temperatures dropped.

Once the coastal road started getting hilly as we crossed into Izu I could not really extend my time savings much, but at least the heat did not wear me out and I felt better than on the ride out to Machida the night before. I enjoyed the fast descent towards Shuzenji after the pass on Rt12 from the coast at Ito. Descending was definitely a strength for the Elephant NFE, as its wide 650B tyres float over uneven roads. At PC1, a Lawson conbini 141 km from the start I was about 1:15 ahead of the cutoff time, which is not a great amount, but not terrible either.

Near Shuzenji, Izu

From here to PC2, a Ministop conbini in Fujikawa 184 km from the start, the road was mostly flat so I was hoping to increase my time buffer. From Mishima to Fuji city the road is urban. The sky had become overcast and Mt Fuji was fully obscured by dense clouds. I was counting down distance to the river crossing, where the route turns away from the coast and becomes rural again. By PC2 my time buffer had only increased to about 1:20.

Railway bridge under construction

The next check point was 74 km after that was PC3, a Lawson in Minami Alps. The route became hilly, following the Minobu railway line before joining Rt52 and other flat roads again. It was more or less the same as the 400 km brevet, except clockwise around Mt Fuji instead of counterclockwise.

Evening approached in Yamanashi and with it a slow drizzle started. I put on my wind breaker and continued.

Between Izu and PC3 I only came across two other cyclists still on the same part of the course, meeting or leapfrogging each other at conbini stops.

When I rolled up to PC3 after 22:00, I was down to a single hour spare before cutoff time. The summit near Fujimi before Suwako was about 40 km away, almost all of it uphill.

Standing outside the Lawson in the rain, I made a phone call to the organiser, Mr H. at PC4 at Suwako. I told him where I was and how little time buffer I had left. I figured I might not make it to PC4 by the cut-off time and did not want to keep him waiting there, but he reassured me he would wait until the closing time and I should go for it.

I changed into my long underwear, winter trousers and rain jacket and headed towards Suwako. With the minimal time buffer, even if I made the next PC, I wouldn’t have much time to sleep before the next PCs. I figured I needed to be at PC6 at least 2 hours before closing time. From there it was a 30 km climb to a pass above Lake Motosu (Motosuko), which was the part I least liked about the 300 km AJ NishiTokyo brevet. Without that time buffer I couldn’t make it to PC7 at Yamanakako. So realistically, there was no chance I would complete the 600 and make SR this year. But I could still go for it and do better near Suwako than I had done the first time, to avenge my defeat by the cold temperatures then.

By this time the roads were pretty deserted, except for the occasional truck roaring past. The rain was pretty steady. The temperature was down to 13° C. Getting closer to Fujimi, I came across cyclists heading the other way, already past the halfway point and we waved or shouted encouragement at each other.

I arrived at PC4 with half an hour spare. Mr H. was sitting outside with one other cyclist. I bought food and drinks and got my receipt, then sat with them and talked. I said I was going to head on to PC5, which I had never made it to before. After the rest, Mr H. started packing up his chairs while the other cyclist and I headed back on the road.

It was now over 23 hours since I had got up and the need to get some sleep was starting to catch up with me. I did better sleep-wise than at any previous attempt, but once I climbed to Fujimi toge it became pretty clear I needed a nap. I couldn’t find any conbini with a cafe corner with chairs inside, so I stretched out right in front of another one in the parking lot, still sheltered by the roof of the building, with my spare clothes bag as a pillow. When I woke up again I felt better and headed on.

I then decided to give up PC5 and head back to Tokyo the same way I had done in 2013. Without a train option, my return would extend into Monday morning anyway, so it made sense to keep the route as direct as possible.

Passing a whisky distillery

From Fujimi to Minami Alps the route was almost exclusively downhill. My TRP Spyre disk brakes with sintered pads were effective in the rain but boy, are they noisy when wet! I hope I didn’t wake up any sleeping locals.

Anticipating the longest/fastest/most expensive underground (subway) in the world - the Chuo Maglev train

For the first time on any of my rides that passed through Minami Alps city I could not see Mt Fuji from the Yamanashi side — it was too cloudy.

As I headed south on Rt52 (Minobu michi) the views were very atmospheric: Low clouds on the mountains and steam rising from the forests.

I crossed the Fujikawa bridge for Rt9. The road heads up a rural valley, then climbs to a tunnel over to the adjacent valley to join Rt300 (Motosu michi).

The rain appeared to stop and I swapped my rain jacket for the wind breaker, but it soon resumed again.

By then sitting on the saddle got painful, as my bottom felt pretty sore now. Throughout the ride I had stood up as much as possible to give it some relief, but it didn’t help much.

Motosu climb

I also got sleepy again. Not quite halfway up the 650 m elevation gain from the base of the climb I decided to take another nap. I picked a small spot only about a meter from the road, where the guard rails formed an angle away from the road. A car would basically have to be crashing through them to hit me here. Again the spare clothes bag formed an excellent pillow.

The view from Motosu michi

The higher I climbed, the better the views got and the rain did eventually stop. I made a lot less progress than I had anticipated, especially with the nap, but I felt much better for it. Without any time limits I could take my time for pictures and to enjoy the views. I had enough bananas and water. If it wasn’t for my difficulty of sitting, it would have been great.

The 1000 yen shot

Finally I got to the tunnel that took me over to the lake shore. As I exited it, a stunning view of almost cloudless, almost snow free Mt Fuji behind Motosuko awaited me. I stopped for pictures. This is the scenic view depicted on the 1000 yen banknote, except that by June Mt Fuji has less snow on it than on that image.

An Elephant at Motosko

The road along the lake shore too me back to the main road to Kawaguchiko and Fujiyoshia, Rt139. On the climb I had already noted some difficulties cleating in with my right shoe. Not long after I got on Rt139 I encountered the opposite problem: I couldn’t disengage the foot from the SPD pedal. In the end I had to slip out of the shoe and stood by the road side in my sock, inspecting the pedal mechanism. It turned out that one of the two bolts attaching the cleat to the sole of the shoe had come undone. Consequently the cleat stayed locked to the pedal even when the shoe was twisted sideways to disengage it. Fortunately the loose bold had not dropped out yet, as the cleat mechanism of the pedal still held it in place. I got out my Allen keys, undid the other bolt and checked out all the parts. Then I but both bolts in place again, carefully matching the layout on my left shoe, whose bolt tension I also checked. After that I could ride on without problems.

Near Kawaguchiko I met Sebastian, a cyclotourist from Chile who had been riding from Fukuoka in Kyushu towards Tokyo. He greatly enjoyed his cycling experience in Japan. he was going to stay at a camp site near Mt Fuji for the night before heading on towards Tokyo the next day. We discussed routes and cycling in general in Japan.

Sebastian from Chile

The major roads around Kawaguchiko are in a notoriously bad state, but to my surprise I found that one major section heading into town had recently been renovated with smooth new asphalt. Hopefully the other direction and other parts will follow soon.

Maybe it was due to the rain in the morning, but instead of the bad traffic jams around Rt139 that I’m used to the roads were virtually empty — unheard of on a Sunday afternoon. I think traffic was the most quiet of any of my trips around the Fuji Five Lakes area. It was really enjoyable. Oh, and those Mt Fuji views! It only got better 🙂

After the climb from Fujiyoshida towards Yamanakako I could coast downhill a bit. At the traffic light on the lake shore I crossed over to the cycling path that runs around the east side of the lake. The sky was blue, Mt Fuji sat there in the evening light like on a picture postcard, the air was fresh and I had the cycling path virtually to myself. It was like the heavens were trying to make up for soaking us with rain the night before and the morning.

Mt Fuji sunset

I cycled to the convenience store next to the turnoff for Rt413 (Doshi michi) and took a break there. I enjoyed some coffee and warm food, then changed into warmer clothes again for the night ride on Doshi michi. The pass to Doshi was actually at the highest elevation of the entire course.

The climb from the lake to the pass felt steep as I got closer to the top, but it’s relatively short. After that comes a long fast descent to Doshi village and beyond. Again I felt very confident with the NFE’s tyres and brakes.

Beyond Doshi the road keeps going up and down, so I had to work again. During the daytime the nice views of the mountain valley will distract you, so somehow at night the road feels steeper and comes across as more work to ride on. Eventually I crossed from Yamanashi into Kanagawa prefecture and into Sagamihara.

Near the Rt76 intersection I again stopped for some sleep. I lay down for almost an hour. When I woke up again, I felt pretty disoriented, almost as bad as on that first 600 km ride. I felt like I was in a dream and had to force myself to accept that, no, this was reality. I couldn’t just go back to sleep and wake up at home — I was really out here in the mountains where it was cold and night time and I really had to cycle every single meter home to Setagaya before I could sleep in a warm bed.

Another thing the sleep deprivation does to me is that the “people detector”, the part of our brain that helps us pick out humans and their faces from all kinds of surroundings (something developed by evolution to help us survive in dangerous environments), seemed turned up to high gain or had its “false positive” filter turned off. Many a tree by the roadside started to look like a person standing there. It was really weird, but not the first time I experienced that.

At least that wasn’t dangerous and it didn’t scare me. On the other hand I was pretty determined that, should I get sleepy again I would not struggle on drowsy and risk falling asleep on the bike. I would stop wherever necessary and sleep some more. As it turned out I could make it home all the way to Tokyo with that Sagamihara nap.

It was a little after 04:00 on Monday morning when I finally reached my front door. The birds were already singing and it was only half an hour to sunrise, some 48 hours after I had arrived at the start for the registration desk and the safety briefing before the ride.

I took my bags off the bike, changed out of my cycling clothes, took a shower and went to bed. I did not get up again until 7 hours later, at noon 🙂

What worked and what didn’t

I had very few issues with my equipment. There wasn’t anything I was really missing, though some items could have been replaced with something more suited to the job.

My camera, my phones, navigation using a GPX breadcrumb trail on the Navi2Coach and Google MyMaps on the phone, charging my device on the ride — all these things worked flawlessly like on other rides before.

I had no issues with the tubeless setup of the Compass Babyshoe Pass tyres. I just added a bit of air on the second day (the third day since I left home), over 400 km into the ride.

My feeding routine worked too – about half my calories came from bananas, the rest split between liquid food (cocoa, sweetened milk tea) and various breads. I brought along figs, raisins and nuts and finished all of those.

I have a Swift Ozette XL randonneuring bag on order, which is supposed to arrive later this month. With that I wouldn’t have to split items between my small front bag, a clothes sack and a drawstring rucksack I mostly kept on top of the front bag. Chances are, I also wouldn’t have dropped my wallet on the road once (I quickly retrieved it) or have dropped a bunch of bananas another time (ditto). The Ozette XL will be very welcome.

The cleat failure on my Shimano SH-M088LE shoes could have been prevented with maintenance, but honest – who ever checks bolt tension on cycling shoes? Well, not me at least. The left shoe is gradually tearing up, perhaps as a late result of damaged suffered in a crash last November. In case case it looks like I’ll have to order a new pair soon, after something like two years and 20,000 km.

The flaky performance of the Wahoo speed and cadence sensor on this ride came as a disappointment. I’ve already taken it off the bike and instead installed the Garmin magnetless speed and cadence sensor set, which has been getting good reviews. This was one of the cases where trying to save money ended up costing even more money.

I didn’t use to have problems with my Brooks saddles, but I do now. Neither the current saddle on my Bike Friday nor on my NFE works as well as the first Brooks I had. I don’t know if it’s me getting older or if the saddles have changed, but we don’t get along as well as we used to.

The rain wear bag that I used to hold other spare clothes besides the rain wear itself turned out not to be rain proof. Duh, stupid me for making that assumption! Next time I’ll wrap my warm trousers into a separate bag, if I carry it like that. Riding in damp clothes made the night time ride a bit chillier. I’m happy with my Polaris rain jacket, but still looking for better rain trousers and some covers to keep my shoes drier. I could also do with a mudflap on the front mudguard to reduce water splashing onto the shoes when I ride through puddles.

My Honjo Turtle 58 mudguards worked OK, but the clearance is very tight on the front wheel. I’m still not 100% happy about that. I may still switch to something wider.

Things I could do with near my stem (but the Ozette may partly take care of that):

1) A battery holder for recharging the GPS and phone with a short cable. Keeping the battery in the front bag worked but required careful positioning of the battery to make the cable reach where it needed to.

2) A rainproof camera holder to make it quick to take pictures. I used two small pockets inside the front back, but it took a bit too much fiddling to reach for the camera and the Nexus 6P phone for pictures.

3) Some kind of food holder (for bananas, trail mix, etc) on the handlebar.

Not ready for Paris-Brest-Paris yet!

Having struggled even with 300 km brevets, being able to finish a 400 km one last year was kind of unexpected. But this year I was able to repeat that feat, completing 3 out of 4 events necessary for SR status, or for qualifying for Paris-Prest-Paris in 2019 (if I do the 200-300-400-600 then).

Right now, finishing a 600 under the time limit seems as remote from finishing a 400 as the 400 looked after finishing a 200 km years ago. I reckon I would have to somehow make it to Suwako at least two hours earlier to have any chance of finishing the event. That means I’d have to ride about 2 km/h faster on average through the first half of event, and the difference would have to be even greater in the second half compared to my post-DNF ride home. How likely is that? It doesn’t sound totally impossible, but it is still a big step.

Ultimately, I know I enjoy untimed events more than brevets, with the chance to take pictures, to enjoy different kinds of food, with leisure to talk to people you meet on the road.

But brevets also add a challenge and are a chance to meet other cyclists with different levels of experience. They take me further away from Tokyo.

Being able to participate in PBP is gradually becoming a bucket list idea for me, something unique I would like to try once in a lifetime, just like this 600 km is something crazy I only do once a year. Though partly through the ride I swore to myself I wouldn’t do this again, I am sure I will be back again next year and give it a good try again.

Compass Babyshoe Pass tyres tubeless on my Elephant NFE

Last Saturday I converted my Elephant Bikes National Forest Explorer (NFE) to tubeless. My main motivation was the puncture I had suffered 16 km from the goal of BRM423, a 400 km brevet I rode last month.

While a tubeless setup with sealant will not prevent all punctures, it will handle most of them. Only when a cut is too large will I have to still install a spare tube into the tyre as I also would with a puncture in a non-tubeless (standard) setup.

For the first 2,500+ km I had been running my NFE on Compass Babyshoe Pass Extralight (BSP EL) 650bx42 tyres. They are wonderfully supple, with very low rolling resistance, but their sidewalls are really thin.

The existing BSP EL tyres weren’t showing much wear yet. I am confident they would last well beyond 5,000 km, maybe as much as 10,000 km

Neither the BSP EL nor the standard BSP is certified for tubeless use by Compass. So far only the most recently released Compass tyres are officially tubeless compatible:

  • 26″ x 54 – Rat Trap Pass
  • 26? x 1.25 – Elk Pass
  • 650Bx48 – Switchback Hill Pass
  • 700Cx35 – Bon Jon Pass

However, other Compass customers had successfully used the Babyshoe Pass and even the Grand Bois Hetre tubeless, with varying results depending on the sealant used and the type of tyre.

Veteran NFE owner Fred Blasdel reported that even the BSP EL survived for thousands of rough miles off-road for him before he finally shredded a sidewall on some rocks. He found the standard BSP more suitable, as the slightly more robust sidewalls lend the tyre more support during cornering without having to resort to high pressures. In Fred’s opinion, having tubeless-compatible rims is a more critical element than having tubeless compatible tyre. This makes sense: It’s the high shoulders of tubeless-compatible rims that ensure a tyre can not easily come off the rim if deflated. The tubeless specific bead shape of tubeless compatible tyres will help to seal air inside, but if you’re using sealant then ultimately the sealant will take care of that.

In any case, I’m relatively light weight at under 70 kg / 155 lbs, so I will never have to run the tyres at anywhere near 4 bar / 60 psi, the maximum pressures specified for Compass tires when run tubeless. Consequently I’m not particularly worried about blowing the tyres off the rims just because their bead is not tubeless-optimized.

So I went ahead and ordered some tyres from Compass, including two pairs of standard BSP tyres: one to install and one as a spare spare set if the first set gets damaged or wears out. The non-EL version is supposed to be slightly less supple, but losing the tube should compensate for that.

Installing the tyres tubeless

I took the bike to Tim at GS Astuto, my wheel builder here in Tokyo.

First we removed the tyres, tubes (Schwalbe) and rim tape (Tioga). Then Tim installed the Effetto Mariposa Caffélatex tubeless tape and tubeless valve set and mounted the tyres. As expected the beads would not seat with a floor pump alone, the air would simply escape without popping the tyre if there was no sealant.

Tim removed the valve core and injected 50 ml of Caffélatex sealant into the tyre and reinstalled the valve core. After that he hooked up a can of Caffélatex Espresso to the valve and started spraying from the can. These cans rapidly fill the tube with latex foam, providing sealant and gas at the same time. The tyre started bleeding foam around the beads which he smeared around to help seal. After the 75 ml can was used up, I switched to the floor pump and started pumping like mad.

On the first tyre we inflated, the bead popped into place from the spray can alone. While it still foamed it finally sealed after some manual pumping. I inflated the tyre up to 4.1 bar / 60 psi, the maximum permitted for tubeless use. On the second tyre, after we finished spraying I could not keep up with pumping because by then my arms were too exhausted. Tim took over and finished the job. We spun the wheels around vertically and horizontally to distribute the sealant and to expose the sidewalls to it.

I was glad to see that both tyres held their pressure, without leaks. Soon after that I rode home 10 km without any problems. I left the tyres inflated at the maximum pressure over night to help seal the tyres.

As for just getting the tyre on to the rim, it was really much easier to install without tube than with tube. However, for a major puncture or tyre damage that the sealant won’t take care of on its own, I will still have to install a tube since installing a spare tyre tubeless is simply not practical by the roadside i.e. without access to a compressor, pressurized sealant cans or sufficient CO2.

The proof of the pudding

I left the Elephant NFE on the bike rack for 48 hours, just spinning the wheels around once or twice a day. I didn’t ride on Sunday but went out with family.

On Monday, before I took the bike out for a ride I checked the pressure to see how well the tyres are holding air. Pressure had dropped from 4+ bar / 60+ psi to about 3.5 bar / 42 psi, which is more than enough.

I could not see any sealant bleeding through anywhere on the tyres, though the valves were a bit sticky. I opened and closed them a few times to clean them. I also loosened the retaining nut on the valve, so I would be able to remove the valve with my fingers if I ever had to install a tube. Tim had tightened it very well.

I dropped the pressure further to 2.7 bar front / 3.0 bar rear before heading out for a 50+ km ride to Onekansen (tank road), one one my favourite sub-3 hour exercise loops. I came back with a few personal records on Strava and the best times in 3 years on several other climbs.

The Babyshoe Pass tubeless is fantastic! 🙂