MIYATA: Japanese road bicycle legend re-born

120 years since a former gunsmith, Eisuke Miyata, built the first Miyata bicycle, this esteemed name in Japanese bicycle history is returning to its manufacturing roots, with a new project that promises to deliver catatonic doses of nostalgia to Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers.

Unlike modern-day bicycles, dimensions of another’s design did not inform fabrication of the first Miyata; it was built from proprietary tubing in the same factory where guns were made. The first Miyata’s were bolt-upright town bikes (which have lately become fashionable as inner-city café props). Over the decades, Miyata established a good foothold in the bicycle market, becoming contracted by multiple local brands to build their bicycles and ultimately attracting Panasonic Corporation to become a shareholder in 1959*.

By the late 1960’s, Miyata’s production favoured touring bikes, a precursor of the lightweight road bicycles it would later produce. [Of note, Miyata was also responsible for the first all-Japanese manufactured motorcycle. Sold under the ‘Asahi’ name from 1913, production was blunted by local preference for imported motorcycles and ceased after only four years. Miyata resumed production of its motorcycles again in 1935, on the back of swelled interest in motorcycle racing.]

Miyata, circa 1890

 

Non-Japanese cyclists, particularly those in Europe and America, would probably recognize the Miyata name from its long collaboration with Dutch bicycle brand, Koga. Koga’s founder, Andries Gaastra, envisioned bringing a range of lightweight bicycles to the Netherlands market, though he started modestly by building the first Koga at his home following the company’s commencement in 1974.

With a build-quality imperative that demanded the best components, Gaastra sought importation rights from Japanese manufacturer Shimano. After a trading relationship was formed, Koga would then be introduced to Shimano’s extensive network of peers, which included Miyata. Seeing the opportunity to source a quality frame at competitive pricing from Japan, Koga entered into a partnership with Miyata, which led to the first ‘Koga Miyata’ road bike in 1976.

A year later, Koga Miyata sponsored the Belgian ‘IJsboerke’ professional cycling team. This entry into professional cycling team sponsorship bore significant fruit when, in 1981, Dutch rider Peter Winnen, riding for the Koga Miyata-sponsored ‘Capri Sonne’ team won the 230km 17th stage of the Tour de France, from Morzine to L’Alpe d’Huez. According to Koga’s website:

“The winning bike used by Peter Winnen was delivered to L’Alpe d’Huez by Team Capri Sonne only on the morning of the stage. This special, even lighter version of the team bike had in fact only been finalised the day before, and was transported overnight to the Alpe d’Huez stage start personally by Koga assembler Aart Boer. Some of the riders decided on the spot to use this new team bike, and among them was Peter Winnen.”

At this stage, Japanese-made racing bikes were already highly regarded for their build quality – Specialized founder, Mike Sinyard, even sourced his company’s first ‘Allez’ road bike from Japan in 1979 – and Miyata enjoyed great success throughout the sustained touring and road cycling boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s – right up until the USD bombed and Japanese-made bikes became uncompetitive; a product of the nascent Taiwanese manufacturing era.

By 2000, Koga began extricating itself from the Koga-Miyata partnership, initially with exclusive ‘Koga’ branding in the premium road cycling segment. In a sense, the “Japanese-made” allure had well since worn off anyway: Koga Miyata frames had for years been made by a Taiwanese subsidiary of Miyata Japan. By 2010, Koga officially announced its complete separation from Miyata production and distribution infrastructure.

* the founder of Panasonic (nee ‘National’), Konosuke Matsushita, grew up in a family that owned a small bicycle store, and developed a passion for cycling and bicycles. Panasonic sold a 10% stake of Miyata to fire engine maker Morita Holdings in 2001, before fully divesting the remaining 90% to Morita in 2008. In a twist that I personally found interesting, and ironic, Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer, Merida, bought a 30% stake in Miyata in late 2010.

 

BACK TO THE BEGINNING
In November 2011, Miyata announced – with all the social media bells and whistles – it was returning to its halcyon days. Once again, Miyata would create lugged, triple-butted, steel road bicycles under it’s ‘Miyata Japon’ program. Adding dimension to the marketing hook, and proving value of sponsorship often goes beyond its initial scope, Winnen’s 1981 TdF stage victory lends the launch a mystique and historical gravitas more often associated with Italian brands – as do the words of Kazuhiro Tohyama, Miyata’s Chief Development Director.

Well, GQ seems to like the story – so far, so good.

November 2011: the Miyata booth nearing completion, prior to 2011 Cyclemode Tokyo -Japan’s biggest bicycle exhibition

 

At a product-based level, the concept targets affluent and dewy-eyed consumers: each Miyata frame, liveried in ‘Legend’ blue or ‘L’Alpe-d’Huez’ red/silver, is built to order with a turnaround of four months. Consumer orders are placed online, though display models will be available at select Tokyo dealers. Production was to commence this month out of Miyata’s Chigasaki factory, in Kanagawa Prefecture.

As reported by Japanese news source, ‘The Nikkei’, Miyata “anticipates growing demand for these bikes amid the growing focus on fitness and health in recent years” and “expects orders for 100 units in the first year.” In all seriousness, 100 units might be all the company can reasonably expect to sell, unless it expands the program internationally: complete bikes start at JPY439,000 (USD5,600), whilst framesets are priced at JPY339,000 (USD4,400).

More information

Miyata Japon website

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