Don’t worry. Everything is fine. I just thought it was time to give an update on how Bertha is doing. Yesterday she had her third flat tire of the trip. I’m staying in a small apartment in the Bunkyō ward of Tokyo. Bunkyō is a very unique part of Tokyo because many traditional Japanese homes here survived World War II and the numerous earthquakes that have shaken this city over the years. The houses and apartments in Bunkyō are two or three stories high and are clustered tightly together amid a labyrinth of narrow alleyways where bikes, potted plants, and curious cats can be found.
Yesterday, looking up from the alleyway I see small decks where drying racks are full of clean, wrinkled clothes, small tables, and miniature laundry machines. Space is so limited here. The residents of the apartment I’m temporarily calling home store their bikes under a concrete stairwell. There are about five other bikes nestled together in this little alcove. I grip my seat and guide my bike out from under the stairs, and I hear the defeated sound of a flat rubber tire. I sigh, but really it’s lucky that I got the flat while I was still at the apartment. I run upstairs and get an extra tube and my pump and change the flat in just a few minutes. Less than a year ago I didn’t know how to change a flat. My friend Sarah had to teach me on the side of a bike path somewhere east of Renton. Now I always think of Sarah while I’m working the tire back into place. I decide to adjust the breaks and clean my chain after I fix the flat. My fingertips get covered in black grease. I’m enjoying myself. I thought I didn’t like bike maintenance.
Bertha has racked up a few scars on this trip. The brown paint on the frame is chipped in several places and there’s rust forming on the pannier racks. I’ve locked her up hundreds of times on this trip—to street sign poles, fences, stairway banisters, small trees, and even my tent one night. I’ve negotiated on dear Betha’s behalf dozens of times. “Please can I bring my bike into my room?!” “Could she fit in the luggage room?” “The laundry room will do–I just don’t want it (her) on the street.”
Bertha makes a good travel companion. I know she’s just a bike, but without her I’d only have myself to worry about. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night on this trip not knowing where I was, but instead of trying to place what country or town I was in I’d first try to remember where I’d locked Bertha up that night. My mind, thick with sleep, would slowly rewind until I could visualize where I’d left her for the night. Then I’d go back to sleep. One night while I was in the Netherlands I snuck her up a flight of fire exit stairs and into my room. I’d received explicit instructions that I was not allowed to bring my bike inside, but with everything I’d heard about bike theft in Dutch cities I just couldn’t risk it. It was pouring rain that night and as I lifted her up the grated metal stairs I felt incredibly defiant—but in a very silly way. I snuck her back down the fire exit stairs in the morning without notice from the hostel staff and felt smug for the rest of the day.
While I was biking up the coast of England I was approached by a man at one of the campsites I stayed at and he wanted to talk bikes. He was interested in buying a Kona Sutra (that’s what Bertha is), but his local bike shop didn’t carry Konas and he’d have to pay for the bike before they’d order one. He said he really didn’t want to order one until he’d gone for a test ride. I got the hint, unlocked my bike, and told him to take a test ride. He was so pleased that he’d found an American with the American bike he’d been researching on bike blogs. Dozens of people—from friends to strangers—have made meals for me, opened their homes to me, answered my questions, taught me, listened to me, and helped me get my bike on and off trains. I’ve experienced a profound amount of generosity over the last few months and it felt good to finally have something to offer—something this man so clearly was grateful for. He was gone for a while test driving Bertha, but I wasn’t worried. He came back energized and with many questions. I felt like I was working at a bike shop trying to make the sell. In early September Bertha received a clean bill of health—and her only proper tune-up of the trip—from Spencer Paxson, a Kona-sponsored professional mountain biker. This tune-up happened to occur less than 24 hours before Spencer competed in the mountain-biking World Championships in Champéry, Switzerland.
So, this was no ordinary tune up. I felt like I owed it to Spencer to sell at least one person on a Kona—and I think I was successful. The Englishman told me he was going to pull the trigger and order a Sutra.
Last week, the afternoon before my flight to Tokyo, I looked up a YouTube video about how to disassemble and pack your bike into a cardboard box for airplane travel. The first recommendation the narrator offers is that you should not wait until the afternoon before your flight to begin disassembling your bike. Oh no. To my credit, I’d already picked up a free cardboard bike box from a shop in Edinburgh and it was still early afternoon. I ran to the hardware store to get packing tape and foam and stopped by the bike shop again to have them take my pedals off because I don’t have a pedal wrench. The rest of the disassembly and packing process went smoothly, but I didn’t like seeing Bertha in pieces before I taped the box up.
I’ve heard horror stories about how bikes can get beat up on planes, but I took comfort knowing that I was flying KLM—a Dutch, bike-loving airline. KLM (usually) doesn’t charge extra for bikes as long as it’s your only piece of checked luggage, but it all really depends on the weight of the bike and the whims of the agent checking your luggage in. I had a layover in Amsterdam and during our decent to the Schiphol Airport I looked down and could see cycle tracks next to the busy roads near the airport. Big, fat, safe cycle tracks. I pined for that flat, bike utopia.
Soon, though, I found myself in a new bike utopia. Tokyo. Utility bike culture is alive and well here. Women with thick eyeliner, pencil skirts, and heels ride bikes. Hurried men in crisp suits jump out of the saddle the second the lights turn green, eager to get where they need to be. Mothers and fathers carry multiple children on bikes. Leeks poke out of bags full of groceries that have been tucked into front and rear baskets. Old ladies with loose floral blouses and plastic sun visors pedal slowly down the sidewalks. Bikes are parked everywhere, usually unlocked or secured only with a O-lock preventing the back wheel from moving.
Navigating the Tokyo Metro system with a bike box and all the other trappings of my nomadic life wasn’t nearly as difficult as I was anticipating.
Japanese addresses, however, are incredibly hard to decipher and when I arrived in the small neighborhood where the apartment I’m staying at is I accidentally knocked on the wrong door. A skinny Japanese man with a sun splotched face who looked to be about 90 opened the door. I was looking for a twenty-something Brazilian University of Tokyo architecture student, so I was quite certain I was in the wrong place. “Maira?” I asked him, hoping he knew his neighbors. We had a funny dialog for a few minutes where he spoke to me in Japanese and I spoke to him in English. I kept showing him the address, but it didn’t seem to mean anything to him. He motioned to me to leave my bike box on his porch and his wife came outside and looped a purple ribbon through the handholds of the bike box and around the metal gate of the porch. She tied a bow. This was a security measure, I believe. The old man walked me down the street to a payphone. I tried calling Maria multiple times, but I just kept getting an error message in Japanese. The old man asked some other people if they knew where the address was, but no one seemed to know. We walked back to his house. My bike was still tied up with the purple ribbon. The old man wished me well, I think, and went back into his house. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. I walked up and down the little alleyway and looked at the address. The apartment had to be tucked in here somewhere. Finally, I started yelling Maria’s name. This was a desperate measure, but about 30 seconds later I saw a woman with a curly bob of jet-black hair hang her upper body over the deck railing of one of the top apartments. “Christine?” she said, laughing.
Maria made me green tea and within an hour or so Bertha was out of the box and reassembled. Maria took me to the local ramen place and then gave me a bike tour of the neighborhood.
Bertha and I had made it to Tokyo.