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Nagasawa frames: Inside the Japanese master's workshop in Osaka

Josh Cunningham
12 May 2017

Trained by Ugo De Rosa, and with his work proven on the Japanese keirin circuit, Nagasawa is a legend of frame building

Tradition and etiquette are big in Japan. You give up your seat; you don’t interrupt; you make tea correctly; you use a side dish for soy sauce; you take off your shoes inside; you bow with precision.

In fact, the minutiae of what is and what isn’t proper on these isles could well be deeper than the Pacific Ocean in which they sit. But for Nagasawa-san (Mr Yoshiaki Nagasawa, that is – honorifics are paramount of course) it is perhaps his very defiance of tradition that has enabled his frames to dominate the fabled Japanese keirin circuit, and to command respect the world over. 

It’s from an inconspicuous workshop on a quiet suburban street on the fringes of Osaka that he practises his craft. All that distinguishes his humble workplace from the surrounding residential sprawl is an enlarged down tube sticker in his signature orange-and-blue colour scheme plastered in the doorway. And perhaps this lack of ostentation reflects the simple, understated elegance of steel; the material with which Nagasawa has always built his frames – and reputation. 

The sorcerer’s apprentice

‘The Tokyo Olympics in 1964 was what really sparked my interest in cycling,’ Nagasawa tells Cyclist. ‘That was the first time I saw actual racing, and it was the starting point of everything I have done since. After that I started racing, and at my first major event someone recommended that if I was interested to continue in cycling then I should join his university, and its cycling club.’

It was through a friend at the Nihon University cycling club that bicycle mechanics first captivated the young Nagasawa. ‘One of the seniors was a subscriber to the French racing magazine Cyclisme, and so I was able to read about the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and about one mechanic who would prepare the bicycles for ten racers each night. It used to take me the whole night to prepare and assemble my bike for a race, so this was incomprehensible to me. But rather than just asking anyone how it could be done, I realised there and then I had to go and see for myself.’

After liaising with the Italian national team during the Olympics, the Japanese Federation arranged for two Japanese riders to embark on a spell of training and racing in Italy. ‘And when they asked me to go with them as a mechanic,’ he says, ‘I immediately agreed.’ 

The 22-year-old arrived in Rome in 1970 and wasted no time in casting his net beyond the realms of the Japanese clique. ‘The World Championships were in Leicester in England that year,’ says Nagasawa of the Mallory Park motor racing circuit edition.

‘I was there as a mechanic with the Japanese team, and I met Sante Pogliaghi (of Pogliaghi bicycles – now owned by Basso), who was the Italian mechanic. He invited me to work at his shop in Milan.’

An 18-month introduction to frame building and mechanics with Pogliaghi eventually led to a four-year apprenticeship with the legendary Ugo De Rosa, and it was under the wing of De Rosa that Nagasawa began to make his name.

‘Nagasawa came to me and said he wanted to learn,’ Ugo De Rosa, now 80, tells Cyclist. ‘I needed an employee and so I chose him. He was strong, and worked hard every day.’

One anecdote romantically suggests that De Rosa once asked his newfound apprentice to build a frame for Eddy Merckx, whose Molteni team famously rode De Rosa bikes. ‘How?’ Nagasawa supposedly asked. ‘Like an offering to the gods,’ came the reply. But fables aside, this was the period in which Nagasawa learned his trade, and in due course it was the strong Japanese work ethic that would earn him his break. 

‘I was at the track World Championships in 1975 with the Japanese amateur team,’ he recalls, ‘and one of the Japanese professional sprint team members fell and broke his bike. Our team was using frames made at De Rosa, and we had a spare, so I offered it. He got 3rd place – the first time a Japanese cyclist had made it onto the podium – and so when I returned to Japan in 1976 people knew my name. They said if I made frames, they would order them. So I started.’

The homecoming

‘By chance I knew some people very well in the keirin scene, so my initial idea was that I would make frames for professional keirin racers, and then somehow sell them. 

The Japanese keirin scene is famed for the exactness with which equipment must adhere to the rules. But this wasn’t a problem for Nagasawa. ‘I set up my new workshop after a local bicycle parts manufacturer, Sugino, cleared some space for me. Then I designed and built my first frame, presented it for accreditation in May, and received certification in July.’

Such is the significance of gambling in the sport in Japan that it shapes how tactics play out, how riders interact, how
the public spectates, and how equipment is regulated. In order for the bets to be fair, the competition must be pure mano-a-mano, and thus the bikes must be all but absolute in their uniformity. 

These days Araya, Bridgestone, Rensho, Nitto and Fuji are all commonplace brand names to be found adorning the polished steel and alloy surfaces of traditional keirin equipment. Whether it’s saddles, stems, rims or frames, everything must be rigorously tested before it receives the NJS stamp of approval (Nihon Jitensha Shinkōkai is the sport’s governing body), which on Nagasawa frames is found on the undercarriage of the bottom bracket shell. But despite all this uniformity, there is still room for excellence, and in the upper echelons of professional keirin racing nothing is more widely seen, or more highly revered, than a Nagasawa frame.

The roots of this superiority reach back to just his second year of business. With the Plaza Accord agreement of 1985 yet to take effect on the depreciative Yen, and the keirin racing format enjoying a post-war boom in Japan, a combination of rapid capital investment and ever-improving athleticism meant that Japanese track riders became household names.

‘In 1977 there were two Japanese riders in the final of the track sprint World Championships in Venezuela,’ Nagasawa says. ‘Both of them were riding a Nagasawa frame, but the rider who won gold was Koichi Nakano. That was the start of his wonderful reign.’

Koichi Nakano is seen as one of track racing’s greatest exports: a Japan Keirin School alumnus-turned-track rider whose 1977 world title was the first of a successive ten aboard Nagasawa frames. He was a figurehead during years of prosperity on the domestic keirin circuit, and his burgeoning celebrity status was not lost on his chief mechanic either.

‘The success at the World Championships made the name of Nagasawa,’ confirms the man himself. ‘It gave us a reputation that the frames we constructed are good enough to be used in international competitions. I received a constant stream of enquiries and orders after that.’

Bucking convention 

His orders are indeed almost exclusively for professional keirin riders; the bespoke nature of every build, and a team of just two (his son, Takashi, is being quietly mentored) mean that production is limited to just 150 bikes a year. But what is it that continues to entice this elite group of athletes, almost 30 years after the reign of Nakano, to come knocking on Nagasawa’s unassuming door?

‘In Japan, the tradition has always been that orders for frames are received with specific part sizes and dimensions already determined, with the bike built to that specific request,’ says Nagasawa, explaining how formalised the bike building process has become in Japan. But Nagasawa does things differently, and it’s his unconventional methods that make his bikes so renowned.

‘If a customer were to go to another bike builder,’ he says, ‘they would have to tell them the specifications of each part – angles, lengths; everything must be detailed. The customers who come to me just tell me their body measurements and say, “Make me a bike.” My goal is to make the bike specifically to the customer’s needs, but based on my own ideas.’

This method requires a degree of respect from his clientele and an appreciation for his lifetime of experience. They have to
trust that Nagasawa knows their needs better than they do themselves. 

‘By looking at the racer, I can make my recommendations for them, and design a bike to suit.’ Where his competitors follow precision and logic, Nagasawa follows his senses, his intuition. It’s something beyond the realms of tangibility – and not for the first time in cycling, it’s a strategy that has worked. 

‘There is much talk of the different tube materials; stiffer, thinner wall thickness, chromoly steel. It’s all going in the direction of reducing weight. But my way is in the opposite direction.’

And it’s this perpetual challenging of conventional wisdom that has epitomised his career, from introducing single-butted tubing, which has since become the go-to material in Japanese keirin, to the altering of recognised dimensions in search of more aggressive riding positions; or carefully manufacturing his own bottom bracket shells, customised lugs and dropouts – components that other builders will happily snatch from a production line. Another obscurity found in the Nagasawa workshop is his famous ‘upright’ frame-building jig, whereby he pieces tubes together using a homemade device that props the frame up vertically – as opposed to lying it flat on a surface to assemble as convention has always dictated. In the light of such unorthodoxy, the fact that Nagasawa only works at night needs no further comment. 

‘Nowadays there are so many different types of tube. Other frame builders are ordered to use this, to use that, and so feel obliged to buy and use them,’ says Nagasawa – a hint of grievance only just apparent. ‘We do not have many different types of tube, but I select and recommend the tube that will suit that customer. The tubes I use are the same ones I have used for 30 or 40 years,’ he explains of his material of choice – the No.1 and No.2 tubesets from Japanese steel giant Tange. For the minority of road frames in his workshop, however, Columbus SL tubing is used, in a fitting tribute to his Italian past. 

‘Now carbon is becoming more and more popular, there are many Japanese keirin riders who are using carbon road bikes [to train]. But I am also getting lots of customers who are going away from carbon, looking for a strong steel frame. It’s good to return to basics – at least that’s what I think anyway.’ 

Steel frames are indeed basic; their clean, round, practical tubes are pleasantly free from flamboyance, clinical in their precision and elegantly functional. That’s why they remain the standard in Japanese keirin racing, and could be seen as reflecting Japanese societal mannerisms at large. 

Indeed Nagasawa seems to tap into the very nature of steel. With the wise eye of an Italian craftsman and the curiosity of a lifelong apprentice – and working with a holistic approach – he creates his frames, which are considered by Ugo De Rosa
himself to be ‘classics’.

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