Many years ago we lived in a one-room home. The whole interior was a little more than ten tatami mats, or about 178 square feet. That probably sounds small until I tell you that six of us lived there, including one squalling infant. We were building a house on the other side of Utsunomiya, and my wife’s grandfather had allowed us to stay in one of his rental units until the house was finished. Our furnishings consisted of a small TV and low table. We lived there for eight months, but I don’t remember ever being cramped.
What I remember is the morning ride to kindergarten.
I had the biggest Bridgestone commuter bike that they sold at the local bike shop, a 55cm monster that, even with the seat jacked all the way up, was much too small. It had fenders, 30mm all-beef commuting tires, and a kickstand, but the piece of resistance was the add-on that they installed at the time of purchase: a kiddy seat.
The kiddy seat was a wire basket contraption with two flimsy cushions, foot pegs, and leg guards to keep the passenger’s legs out of the spokes. It mounted onto the rear bike rack and had a fixed handlebar so that the kiddy could grip in the event that circumstances became rough or unstable. There was no seatbelt of any kind.
Rough and unstable circumstances
My eldest daughter was in kindergarten, and due to our temporary location I had to pedal her across town every morning, a solid 20-minute commute in heavy traffic. They say that a child’s personality is formed at birth, and whether that’s true or not, it’s definitely formed after your first trip to kindergarten in a wire basket on the back of my commuter bike.
Ours was no normal commute, either, because of the Tobu Hill. This was a very short, steep, 200m downhill that swooped under the Tobu train line and flattened out at the traffic light on Heisei Dori. The road was narrow and even had a segregated bike path, but you couldn’t get any speed on the bike path so my daughter and I always opted for the lane. Well, she never opted for anything. She just hunkered low in the basket and gripped the bars survival tight.
The beauty of that little drop was that you could get a good head of steam, and if you got lucky and hit the traffic light green or mostly yellow and there was no oncoming traffic you could take the wide slightly cambered right-hander out into a clean 4-lane road. A full-speed sprint down the hill and a lucky light meant that we could sweep through the turn at a solid 35+, the bike in full lean, the tires at the limit of their grip, and the taste of fear dry and exhilarating and bitter roiling at the back of my tongue.
My daughter never complained, never cried, and never asked me not to do it, although upon reflection she never asked me to do it, either. She wore the cutest of kindergarten outfits, Japanese cute, a cuteness that only generations skilled in the art of tiny and cute could ever produce, and part of the uniform was a hat with a drawstring. At 35mph in full lean, the drawstring wasn’t strong enough to keep the hat on her head, of course. The times I looked back at her, usually after reaching terminal velocity but before hitting the hopefully green light, she always looked the same.
She would be staring calmly ahead, tilted in the seat so that she could see around me, a faint smile on her face, with one hand holding the handlebar in a vicegrip and the other mashing her hat onto her head so that the wind didn’t carry it away. If there was fear in her eyes as she pondered the onrushing and immediate future, it never showed.
Neither of us, of course, wore a helmet.
The great Utsunomiya World Championship Road Race
One morning we were sitting in traffic. As the light turned green and we began to move, a fancy road rider whizzed by. “Good morning!” I said, but he ignored us.
I looked back at my daughter. “That rude bastard,” I said. “Let’s catch him!”
She didn’t agree, but she didn’t disagree, either. She only peered around me to get a better look at our quarry, casually took one hand off the handlebar and clamped her palm to her hat. She knew that whatever was going to happen next it would involve high winds and turbulence.
The Bridgestone was a solid 30 pounds and Sakura was another 35 or 40, and I happened to only be wearing flip flops, so the bike wasn’t exactly quick off the line. However, once you got that giant lump of chromoly up to speed, it had momentum, and lots of it.
Packed in the middle of tight traffic I was able use the cars to draft my way up to about 30mph. Inches off the bumpers of car death I went faster and faster until my legs really started to burn and my breathing became painful and my body had to viciously sway from side to side to beat the pedals hard enough to keep up the speed. I could feel her weight shifting behind me as the bike rocked side to side.
The speed picked up and I hunkered down in the draft. Through the car’s windshield I could see the roadie up ahead as well as the car’s speedometer. We were over 35mph and the bike was starting to shimmy. My legs tore at the pedals and I was buried in the red. We approached a giant traffic intersection, and our draft was the last car that was going to make the light, which had turned yellow. The roadie had already come to a stop.
The Toyota I was drafting gunned it and got me up to forty before he pulled away. The bike was in full shimmy. Braking was not an option as I prepared to sail out into the intersection. I turned my head and stopped pedaling in preparation for the moment we’d shoot past the stopped roadie. Buzzing as close to him as I could, I said, “Good morning again!” and we rocketed by as if we’d been discharged from a Soviet work camp.
Judging from his gape, he’d never been passed by a dude in flip flops on a bike with a kickstand hauling a kid in a basket. At forty miles an hour. I’m sure the fact that I wasn’t pedaling added to the mysterious nature of the public humiliation.
My daughter is twenty-five and she still rides a bicycle, though her smile is wider and, you know, she wears a helmet.