The Tour de France has waited 106 years for a Japanese rider to finish the event, but in 2009 Yukiya Arashiro (BBOX Bouygues Telecom) and Fumiyuki Beppu (Skil-Shimano) have both completed their maiden Tours. Their efforts raising the awareness of Japanese racing and the Japanese contingent in the press room significantly.
Shiho Dohi, covering her tenth Tour de France for Yokohama Media crew, spoke to Cyclingnews during the race’s final week. "Before, when we didn’t have any Japanese riders in the Tour, people used to ask me why I was even here because there was no-one to write about. Now we have two riders here and it’s so special for us as a nation."
In Japan cycling has become a regular part of the sports news coverage on both television and the internet. "There’s been a lot of interest," Dohi said. "For example my mother and father, until this Tour, weren’t interested in cycling, but now because of Arashiro and Beppu it has totally changed. Of course they’re not as big as Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador but Japanese broadcasters like NHK are focussing on our two guys."
When Arashiro took fifth the sprint on stage two he was the biggest sport story of the day. "In Japan baseball and soccer are the biggest sports by far, but for that one day cycling was the top story. Cycling is getting a bigger back home."
However, the possibility of a Japanese backed team entering the race is small, at least for now, according to Dohi. While the likes of Honda and Toyota are firmly entrenched within motorsports, there’s hasn’t been any Japanese presence amongst cycling’s elite team names since the days of Panasonic and Toshiba in the 1980s.
"Maybe one day there will be a Japanese team at the Tour but the biggest problems might not be quality or number of riders but instead attracting the sponsors. Japanese companies don’t think they can make money from cycling but with the exposure the riders are generating this year, there is a chance. Other riders in Japan can see this and realise that their dreams of riding the Tour can actually happen."