Tales from the peloton, February 11, 2008
The Fukushima brothers are virtual cycling legends in Asia. Steve Thomas catches up with them as they prepare for the Tour de Langkawi.
It really is a small world; I was in the far north of Thailand, visiting an old friend and heard that there was a race taking place that weekend, the first of the King's Cup National Series. Naturally enough I decided to check it out; and low and behold guess who were on the start sheet? The infamous Fukushima brothers, Shinichi and Koji – virtual gods of Japanese and Asian cycling.
I'd come across the duo many times in the past, mainly at the Tour de Langkawi – one of their favourite races – and an event they were in the midst of preparing for. It's also a race in which Koji scored a fantastic solo stage win in a couple of years back, one of the most popular victories ever in the race. However, things are not looking quite so healthy for him so far this season...
"I came here four years ago ... I bought Koji over, and then it just grew from there. We've been coming for training ever since." - Shinichi on Malaysian racing and training.
"Well, I've done about 30 percent less training than normal at this time of the year, and I know my form is not good. I seem to need more training than the other riders, so it's unlikely that I will perform well – but I will of course try! My plan is to be on top form for the second half of the season in Europe," Koji explained.
Trying is something in Koji's nature, he has always been known for his constant attacking; "Maybe I could get more results playing it differently, but this is my style, and I want to keep it that way." And indeed it's a style that wins much admiration and the hearts of many, almost as much as his natural warmth and eccentricity – which has a charm all of its own.
The pair was in Chiang Rai with its entire Meitan Hompo team for a pre-season training camp, largely under the impetus of Shinichi, a part-time resident of the region.
"I came here four years ago; my old coach and manager bought a small resort and said it was good for training. I bought Koji over, and then it just grew from there. We've been coming for training ever since. There are 20 of us in all at the moment," noted Shinichi.
However, his love affair with this part of Thailand runs far deeper than simply training. "It's great here; I got married to a local girl in January, and spend a lot of my time here. I hope we can stay here when I finish racing."
Although retirement is a way off yet, and his involvement with Thai cycling and its development grow by the day. "I'm going to be 37 this year, but I still really want to race at the top level – so I will not be stopping yet, I think as long as your head is still good you can do it. I also really want to help develop Thai and Asian cycling in general. There are some great riders here. However, the system is as it is with many federations – not great; so I am trying to help Thai riders to develop and get them to Europe – they are very tough and strong.
"If I can get one, then two, then fifty Asian riders to Europe it will really boost Asian cycling. But all they know about Europe is a two-hour video of the Tour de France. With the current growth rate I think there is no reason that we cannot build an entire Asian team to compete in the Tour within a few years that would really set the sport alight here – this is my goal."
The brothers hail from Osaka, in southern Japan, a nation with a growing number of road riders, and noted for its kierin traditions.
"The Japanese Federation is not so interested in road racing and developing it. It's all about keirin racing, the officials mainly have ties with the keirin federation, and that's where the money is, so it's a struggle to develop road racing."
There were always a few odd Japanese riders making their way on the road, but thanks largely to the efforts of teams such as Skil-Shimano and the Fukushima's there are now a steady core of Japanese riders making waves in Europe. "When I first went to France it was unusual; then Koji came and we started to improve and get results. Slowly, we brought other riders across and the team formed. Originally, it was just me and Koji getting results, but now we have a lot of good riders who have followed through."
The entire Fukushima family have become heavily involved with cycling over the years, and particularly in the development of Japanese riders, as Shinichi explained, "My father works for Daihatsu and helped get them involved in a development team, they put a lot of work into that and out ream."
But cycling didn't run in the family, until now that is. It was Shinichi who started the ball rolling, as Koji tells us. "We had muscular problems with our feet in the family, so had to go to hospital for regular check ups. One day a doctor said to my father that I had legs like a keirin rider, Shinichi heard and got a bike and started training. It was a while later when I started. I'd finished university, and lost direction, my parents asked Shinichi to look after me [he's 2 years older - ed.], so he sent me a bike. I started riding, then training, and then racing; and it just went from there."
Well, as they head into the new season, which will see them moving to their French base after the Tour de Langkawi, the Fukushima brothers are certainly showing no lingering signs of muscular problems, and two of cycling's most likeable characters look set once more to move Japan, and indeed Asian cycling up yet another rung on the worldwide cycling ladder.