Racer-turned-mechanic makes top-grade bikes

by Hiroshi Harada

Kyodo

Yoshiaki Nagasawa has a list of customers who favor bicycles handmade for them, including Koichi Nakano, a former professional bicycle racer and 10-time world champion track sprinter.

While bicycles made by Nagasawa cost ¥200,000 to ¥300,000, he says, “I don’t think even ¥500,000 is expensive because I make bicycles you can ride for life.”

Born in Asahi, Chiba Prefecture, Nagasawa represented the prefecture in a bicycle race at the National Sports Festival when he was a third-year student at a local high school. As a freshman at Nihon University, he finished fourth in the Japan National Championships Road Race, and later was chosen as a hopeful to race for Japan at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

But after colliding with a bus while training the year before the 1968 Games, he retired from competition when an exam found evidence of abnormal brain wave activity.

So Nagasawa decided to become a mechanic for bicycle racing. After graduating from university in 1970, he went to Italy to learn necessary skills, working as long as 15 hours a day at plants including De Rosa, a globally known bicycle producer in Milan.

In 1975, Nagasawa made arrangements for Yoshikazu Cho to practice and race in Italy. The experience helped Cho to finish sixth in the sprint race in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at the time the best result ever by a Japanese in Olympic cycling.

Nagasawa returned to Japan in January 1976 and established his plant, Nagasawa Racing Cycle, in Kashiwara, Osaka Prefecture.

Nakano debuted in the track world championships that same year, losing to fellow Japanese cyclist Yoshikazu Sugata in the bronze medal race. Recognizing that the frame of Sugata’s bicycle was made by Nagasawa, Nakano asked him to produce a frame for his bicycle.

After starting to ride the Nagasawa frame bike in April 1977, Nakano won an unprecedented 10 consecutive professional sprint gold medals at the world track cycling championships from that year to 1986.

Nagasawa had been amazed by Nakano’s explosive acceleration power, a strength developed while training as a sprinter before turning to bicycle racing. Recalling that Nakano’s sprint was “the best in the world,” Nagasawa said he made a “hard frame” for Nakano to enable that sprinter’s power to be converted fully into propelling force.

Nakano thoroughly entrusted the production of his bicycles to Nagasawa.

“When I was about to say something, Nagasawa told me to do nothing but ride,” Nakano says.

“We reached the same wavelength,” Nakano adds. “When I wanted to practice, he was ready before I said so.”

Now 66, Nagasawa must contend with diminished eyesight, gout and high blood pressure. He can now produce no more than 20 bikes per month, down from up to 40 when he was younger.

As numbness in his hands has made it impossible to hold a gas burner for long periods of time, he has had to change his welding method.

Yet Nagasawa is still invited to races as a mechanic. He says he is welcomed by cyclists who need to have their bicycles repaired — but not by bike-makers wishing to sell their products to the cyclists.

Producing bicycles for both professional racers and amateurs, Nagasawa says, “I feel happy when people say they enjoy riding bikes I made.”