The maze of buildings and streets that surrounds Yokota Air Base seems a world away from the rugged trails favored by mountain bikers.
But a number of airmen have discovered some of the most challenging trails imaginable right outside the doorstep of the base on the western fringe of Tokyo’s urban sprawl.
On weekends, they meet near the main gate and saddle up. Half an hour’s pedaling through busy streets takes them to the edge of a seemingly endless expanse of forest-covered mountains where the trails are tough enough to pique the interest of even the most experienced riders.
One of Yokota’s most avid cyclists is Senior Master Sgt. Kelly Morast, 43, of Hettinger, N.D., who hits the trail on weekends and most other days off. He rode BMX bikes as a kid and got into mountain biking here to stay in shape.
When Morast arrived six years ago, another airman gave him some Japanese hiking path maps that he used to find places to ride. Now he posts all his rides on a Yokota mountain bike Facebook page and indicates which are suitable for beginners, who can rent mountain bikes from the base’s Outdoor Recreation facility.
About 80 riders are involved in the sport at Yokota, including airmen of all ranks, doctors, school teachers and Japanese nationals.
“It is a great way to network on the base,” Morast said.
They hit eight to 10 trails regularly, but there are an infinite number of paths that can be navigated near the base, he said.
The “fenceline” series of trails, leading to the summit of a 1,000-foot peak between the towns of Ome and Hanode, is a good place to take beginners or ride in the rain.
On a recent ride at a place called Sengen, near Okutama, Morast and half a dozen other airmen spent an hour or more slogging to the top of a mountain high above Tokyo, then zoomed down a jagged path over tree roots and drainage ditches that threatened to throw them into the surrounding forest.
Master Sgt. Michael Kilgore, 38, of Jackson, Mich., who took up mountain biking last year after road biking since 2007, said the Yokota riders go out for three to four hours, starting around 8 a.m. in winter and 6 a.m. in summer so that they can get home by lunchtime.
Mountain biking keeps the airmen in shape for their physical training tests, and it’s a great way to relieve stress, he said.
“You don’t think about anything but staying on the bike when you are riding,” he said.
It’s not for everyone, though. On occasion, new riders get so tired riding up the massive hills that they give up and head back down alone, he said.
The trails are shared with Japanese hikers, often fitted out like they are heading into the Himalayas. The locals are always excited to see the cyclists, often shouting “Gambate!” — “Try your best!” — when they pass, Kilgore said.
“We give them the right of way, but nine times out of 10, they step out of our way,” Kilgore said.
So far, the Yokota riders haven’t had any serious crashes, although falling off is par for the course with the sport.
“In mountain biking, you are going to wreck,” Kilgore said. “It is not a matter of if, it’s when.”
Experienced riders watch beginners carefully and warn them if they are taking excessive risks, he said.
Japanese mountain bikers who also use the trails normally have high-quality bikes and equipment, and that pays off on the steep, rugged riding around Yokota.
“When the Japanese do something, they do it 100 percent,” Kilgore said. “They don’t skimp on anything.”
Master Sgt. Robert Poole, 38, of Thayer, Mo., who took up mountain biking a few years ago after 10 years riding motocross, pointed out that many so-called mountain bikes are labeled with warnings that they are really not for off-road use. They can break down under serious stress.
A good used hard-tail can be found online for as little as $500, while new models with rear shocks can run thousands.
It also pays to have the right protective gear, such as a decent helmet, gloves and eye protection.
Poole said he was riding the same trail for a year at Yokota before he linked up with the club.
“I really only thought here was one trail here,” he said. ”Then we started going all over the place. I couldn’t believe how many trails there are.”