Mo’s Fixed Gear Ride: From Berlin to Tokyo
Mortimer (Mo) just wrapped up an 11-country, 9,500 kilometer trip from Berlin to Tokyo, all on a fixed gear bike. Here’s a little about Mo and his trip, including details about the bike and gear he brought along, and some photos from the 22 rolls of film he shot along the way…
After closing the door of his beloved Berlin shop, Keirin Cycle Culture Café, Mortimer (Mo), aka @keirinberlin, set out on an 11-country, 9,500-kilometer trip from Berlin to Tokyo, all with just one gear, zero freewheel, and no brakes. We caught up with Mo mid-trip as he was passing through Tbilisi, Georgia, took some photos, and asked him a few questions…
First off, tell us a little about you and Keirin Cycle Culture Café.
I started racing BMX when I was 10 years old, and when I was 20 I started messengering. It took me all over the world, as I messengered not only in Berlin, I went to London for a bit, and also Toronto and DC. In 1998 I got stuck in NYC for five years and also started riding a track bike. I rode with a friend from Tokyo to Bangkok in 2001 on a Cannondale track bike, and afterwards worked for long summer in Budapest before returning to NYC.
I left in 2003 and continued messlife in Berlin, in the meantime me and a good friend opened KEIRIN cycle culture cafe in April 2004 in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood maybe comparable to Bushwick or Brixton. It was dirt cheap and we got some sort of community support and payed only half the rent as a kickstart. Our idea was to make a coffee shop / gallery plus bike repair to promote bicycle culture to everybody, so we also moved to a gridlocked street to show cars that we are here now and that bicycles are also part of traffic.
We bought track bikes on eBay and went to Japan before the hype and got lots of Keirin frames. We got bigger and held exhibitions, and before we knew it we ended up in magazines and became a bike shop. When our contract ended, the landlord doubled the rent, so we moved from a 170sqm space to one that was just 30sqm, and still had to fit in our coffee machine, cargo bikes, and workshop. Our old shop was taken over by the Ramones Museum, basically a Hard Rock Café with a Ramones theme. The owner has three SUVs… very punk rock. The internet probably did the rest, and our business went down 70%, so I decided to end it, at least for now, maybe for good. Change is great. I stuck everything in storage, asked a few folks for support, and left Berlin to ride toward Japan.
How long have you been on the road?
I left in the middle of May and it’s pretty weird that it’s already over. I feel like I’m finally getting warmed up.
How many countries have you cycled in on this trip? Any idea how many kilometers?
I rode from Berlin into Poland, thru Ukraine, took a ferry to Georgia, and did a little detour via Armenia to fly from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, continued to Kazakhstan, then into Russia and Mongolia. I took a flight to Seoul, as the Chinese declined my visa, then rode down the South Korean coast, where I took a ferry to Fukuoka and from there up to Tokyo. That makes it 11 countries, plus a night in Dubai. I figure I’ve covered roughly 9,500 km.
So, why did you choose a fixed gear bike to tackle such an excursion!?
I’ve been riding fixed gear for 20 years now. As I mentioned, I did messenger work for many years, and I’ve done other fixed gear trips before. For me, it’s the safest bike. The maintenance cost is low, and if anything goes wrong it’s pretty easy to fix. Fewer parts, fewer problems.
There are a lot of haters and folks who think they know about fixed gears. Yeah, yeah, no brakes. When I first heard that messengers in American cities ride without brakes I also thought it was crazy. But it’s actually really easy, that’s the big secret about track bikes. Of course, it wasn’t always easy on my trip, but I’m sure I would’ve had way more problems with gears and other components that are prone to failing in unforgiving terrain and harsh weather. A fixed gear is the one and only original bike, and the best one to travel on, at least for me…
Tough question, I know, but what was your favorite country on the trip?
I like Japan, but probably because I’ve been here so many times and have lots of friends and it feels like home. I loved Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.
And what country has been the most difficult to cycle in? Why?
That’s an easy answer. Kazakhstan was not that friendly to me. It seemed like there was always a headwind, and plenty of rain, and lots of distance. I was constantly riding over 200 km a day, and there were often no villages and no hotels. The hotels weren’t that clean, either, and were often some sort of love hotel. And on top of it all, a stray dog bit me. Armenia was by far the most hilly, not that easy with a track bike.
Tell us a little about your bike.
My friend Andre has been building titanium frames in Russia since 1994. I’ve known him for a while, and I figured I’m old enough to finally get myself a Ti ride. I went to him with a few sketches and geometries, and he built the bike based around my ideas. Essentially, it was modeled after the iconic Cannondale Track, but with a bit more tire clearance. I ride 700x32c tires, they’re wide enough to be comfortable, but still fast. Continental Grand Prix 4 Season in the front and Continental Gator Hardshell in the rear. I run a 47/17 (flip flop hub with 19 cog on the other side) Sugino Zen mounted to Dura Ace 170mm track cranks. Suntour pedals with plastic Mash SF clips and Kashimax double straps. I only trust these, and also didn’t wanna carry another pair of shoes. 110mm Suicycle Bike Company stem with 73cm Nitto riser bars. The width is good for climbing and downhill braking. 8Bar wheelset. A‘me BMX grips forever. And maybe the San Marco “Zoncolan” doesn’t look so comfy, but along with the Turbo, I think it’s one of the best saddle out there.
How about the rack and bags?
I went to Chernivtsi, Ukraine, and my friend Taras (@zulu_fixed) designed a bag for me. We brainstormed a bit and figured when the bag was ready, that it would be better if we built a rack, too, so we took an old Soviet children’s bike transformed it into a rack for my frame. The bag sits on top of it and it has many straps to affix stuff like my sleeping bag and food on top of it. He also made me a bag that attaches to my seatpost to haul my rain gear and food. I carry a little hip pouch, also made by Zulu, for my camera, knife, spoon, etc., and I also have a little musette bag for my daily food or when going shopping.
You brought a few luxuries, like your moka pot. What else did you bring along?
Yeah, I need real coffee, that’s why I decided to bring it along. I only took the bare essentials with me, so it’s probably my only special item. I have rain gear, some long johns for cold days, but mostly used them as sleeping pants. I also packed two boxer shorts, two pairs of socks, two bibs, three t-shirts, shorts for the day, and some thin pants for the city, two beanies (one for the camera), a windbreaker vest, and two long-sleeve cycling jerseys. A baseball cap and one pair of sneakers. Tools, three spare tubes, one foldable tire, a few bolts, a few links of chain, oil, set of bike lights, knife, spoon, stickers, marker, a few pens, a little paper notebook, two smartphones with chargers, and a solar energy battery pack that I lost somewhere, so I got a normal battery pack. Earplugs, sun lotion, a small towel, and bathroom utensils. And lots of garbage bags to make sure everything is 100% waterproof! A u-lock and a long cable to lock wheels, etc., plus a small sleeping bag.
Is there anything about your equipment or setup you’d change?
I think I would ride a little bit lighter gear, maybe 18 and 20 cog, instead of 17 and 19 ⚙️.
You are documenting your trip on film. What kind of camera and film are you using?
I’ve been using my Contax T2 and disposable cameras.
How many rolls did you shoot?
I think I’m on my 22nd roll!? Try finding Film in Kazakhstan, they were laughing at me, so I bought the expired film, more laughter…
Tell us about the end point of the trip and the exhibition you’re working on.
I rode from Fukuoka up to Tokyo, and it feels good to be back here. Even the car drivers are nice. My friends are running a small gallery in Shibuya-Ku (@messcribtokyo) and I’m currently getting film developed for an exhibition there. The opening is on October 26th and the show runs until November 3rd. I hope to be able to show and equal amount pictures from each country with a little story. I’morking on a zine and also have some t-shirts for sale. Somehow, I need to put together some money so I can maybe continue this trip. It wasn’t my plan, but I had to get a ticket out of Japan, so I bought a $90 ticket to Bangkok. Let’s see what’s going to happen next…
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
I already mentioned some companies above, but I also want thank Mathias at Continental Tire. Without him, this wouldn’t have happened. Of course I also want to thank Taras at Zulu Fixed, and all my friends who have been staying in touch with me. Thanks also to @thervmble and @biehlercycling for keeping me warm. And lots of folks along the way, including you guys.
Make sure to follow Mo’s adventures on Instagram @keirinberlin, and on Facebook at Save Keirin Berlin. And, if you are planning on being in Tokyo from October 26th to November 3rd, check out his exhibition at the Mess Crib.