I used to think that souvenir meant something literal in French.
co-worker: "did you buy anything neat in Japan? Mikimoto pearls for the girlfriend? Sony Blu-Ray player?"
me: "I got a couple of tires."
co-worker: "... tires."
me: "They're really nice tires."
co-worker: "so, I imagine that if you went to Italy, instead of returning with olive oil and wine, you'd be talking about a new handlebar and bicycle seat, right?"
me: "Actually, if I wanted a new bicycle seat, I'd go to England instead."
The guidebooks say that Kyoto is an excellent city to explore by bike. The city lies on a largely flat river plain and its all grid and square blocks. Easy to navigate, chock-a-block with bike shops, copious bike parking, the city should be a two-wheel nirvana. Of course, what most of the guidebooks leave out is that Japanese cyclists are clearly insane. At least, that's what I was thinking as I watched an office lady weaving through a sidewalk crammed with pedestrians while texting on her cell phone. Everyone rides on the sidewalk here, and I'm not sure if that's merely a civic toleration or if it's actually illegal for most folks to ride with traffic, but it's unnerving to watch.
People tend to hold up Amsterdam as the apotheosis of a cyclist's society. Everyone rides there, and the usual equation gauging the ratio of two wheels to four is turned on its head. The mom porting groceries on an errand bike is the mainstream, and the minivan is the outlier. There are parking lots built for hundreds of bikes, and cyclists have their own separate distinct traffic lane. Japan has a similar deal going on, except without the separate but equal lane system, hence all of the sidewalk riding. Salarymen in full suits on little folding bikes. Moms on mama-charis porting two kids on front and rear child seats. Teenagers out on dates with the girl riding pillion on the rear cargo rack. It's neat to see, albeit a little harrowing.
The bikes themselves are mostly utility vehicles. Heavy, stainless steel frames. Double kickstands. Fully enclosed chainguards. They're not the fastest, fleetest rides in the world, but they'll help you do your errands and won't get you all messy and sweaty during the doing. Still, they're features that are anathema to the performance oriented American market, where folks obsess on grams of weight or attach unnecessary importance to having mountain bike shocks for an asphalt road. Lots of folks in North America still look at a bike as an exercise machine and cycling as a sport -- not a way of life.
The impression I had from my brevet summer, is that randoneers kind of straddle this divide. We love our bikes enough to use them for commuting or errands, but we want to push ourselves to ride as far as we can and what we can accomplish by that deed. That blurring between sport and life carries on into the common presence of retro enthusiasts. In their love for all things bicycle, there are a lot of folks in the randonneuring scene who would geek out on arcane tire sizes, strange drivetrains, and ersatz frame materials. If cyclists are like drivers, some of them love Formula One and drool over the next year's BMW, while these guys are the ones who trawl E-Bay looking for Volkswagen Karmann Ghias.
There's a newsletter that caters to this demographic, a journal called Vintage Bike Quarterly, published by Jan Heine, one of Seattle's more hardcore randonneurs. I read it for the exhaustive gear reviews and training tips; though the historical articles about guys who rode in the first Tour De France are nice to have. My devotion to all things classic only goes so far. I can appreciate the aesthetics, but I don't have the collecting bug. Nonetheless, the Fall 2006 issue of Vintage Bike Quarterly had a profile on Grand Bois, a Kyoto bike shop that specializes in restoring classic French racing bikes and building up custom rides styled on the venerable models that disappeared with the evolution of carbon fiber and bling. So, I figured, while I'm in the neighborhood ...
Finding the shop was a bit of a pain (cf. aforementioned bit about crazy Japanese addressing scheme) and our first try was a misadventure of night-time traffic and disorientation in Japanese suburbia. I tried to seek out the shop a couple of days later, and suceeded this time; bashfully nodding my greeting to the owner, Ikuo Tsuchiya, and his assistant. Then, as I removed my shoes before entering the shop, I stopped in my tracks and blinked in disbelief. Before me was a freshly bagged Grand Bois Cypres 700.
The other reason why Grand Bois gets mentioned in VBQ is the Cypres, their house tire. Because, apparently Mr. Tsuchiya isn't satisfied with just building and restoring bikes. He likes designing tires in his spare time, too. And, apparently, the Cypres is as close as one gets to being the perfect randoneering tire -- supple and comfortable but not so much that it sacrifices speed and handling. Unfortunately, according to general knowledge Cypres was only sold in one of those aforementioned arcane tire sizes -- 650B, an ancient French model that sits somewhere between modern road and mountain wheel sizes and thus doesn't fit on either.
Yet, now there was a Cypres in the 700 size, the size for a modern road bike. Brand new. This tire wouldn't be sold in the States until early 2007 and when it was, it would probably be selling for twice the price that was on the label in the shop. I immediately asked for two, but now that I think of it, I should've bought four.
Mr. Tsuchiya was in the middle of being consulted by a customer on a bike that he currently had in the repair stand, and I didn't want to bother them, but he still came over and thanked me after I bought the tires. I mentioned that I read about his shop in VBQ, which caused him to blush and half-bow shyly. I know that I'm not the first North American visitor in his shop, but he still seemed rather chuffed that people would travel across the ocean to visit.
The tires have been on my bike since we got back in November, and I have to say that while I'm generally leery of any product that's billed as a silver bullet, the Cypres are certainly nice tires. Most high performance tires are built narrow and stiff, filled with air of such high pressure that they're rock hard, and you can transfer power into every pedal stroke without losing too much energy to friction and gravity. They're great for shortish races and rides on a smooth, maintained track, less ideal for farther jaunts on roads of varying roughness, where the shocks of cracks and potholes can wear you down. So, endurance cyclists have to make these tradeoffs for themselves between comfort and speed efficiency. The Cypres are designed to run at slightly lower pressure, so they feel a little squishy and can absorb some road shock; but their groove pattern and weight is such that they can still roll rather quickly. They're definitely not the fastest or most comfortable tires in the world, but in the case where you want a little bit of both, they'll give you a little more of each. That's totally fine with me.
Yeah, they're not fabulously expensive pearls or bleeding edge electronics, but they do evoke images of Japan whenever I look down and see them rolling beneath me, and I believe that's most of what we could ever demand from our souvenirs.