In spite of the impending arrival of Typhoon Francisco off the coast of Japan, the inaugural Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France takes place on Saturday, with Chris Froome (Sky), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and world champion Rui Costa (Movistar) among those lining up in the end of season showcase.
The event takes place on a 2.6km circuit in Saitama City, 20 kilometres north of Tokyo, and consists of two points races – based loosely on the great Japanese tradition of the keirin – and a straightforward 20-lap scratch race.
ASO president Jean-Etienne Amaury has described his organisation’s new venture as a “union between Japanese and French culture.” To that end, an exposition of French produce has been arranged in Saitama to coincide with the race, but above all, the criterium is a very visible effort to export France’s grandest sporting tradition, the Tour, to a large and increasingly attentive audience in the Far East.
“This is the first event outside of the Tour de France to bear the name of the Tour de France,” Amaury pointed out. “We want to try and recreate in Saitama the ambience of sporting competition and popular fete that we see at the Tour.”
Thanks primarily to the achievements of Fumiyuki Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro, who in 2009 became the first Japanese riders to finish the Tour, the race’s profile and the amount of live television coverage have already increased considerably in Japan in recent years, and Saturday’s criterium is an attempt to buttress that growth still further.
“It’s important to explain what the Tour de France is to the public, because in Japan, cycling usually means keirin,” said Beppu, who lines up for Orica-GreenEdge on Saturday.
Just like at a post-Tour criterium in France or the Netherlands, Froome will line up in the yellow jersey and Sagan will ride in green, while the Tour’s super combatif Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and newly-crowned world champion Rui Costa were also enticed to make the long trek east.
Indeed, in a further bid to familiarise the watching public with the classifications and jerseys of the Tour, race director Jean-François Pescheux has somehow conjured up a king of the mountains competition on the seemingly flat circuit, based around a small rise around the midway point.
The cultural exchange goes in both directions, of course, and on the eve of the race, the 32 riders from internationally-based teams – Sky, Movistar, Ag2r-La Mondiale, Cannondale, Orica-GreenEdge, Europcar, FDJ.fr and Argos-Shimano – were invited to a sumo exhibition at a local high school.
After observing the teenage wrestlers in action, Froome, Sagan, Rui Costa, Riblon and Marcel Kittel later joined in the training, although one wonders if the ceremonial belt, the mawashi, was ever intended to be worn over bibshorts.
Undeterred by their attire, Kittel and Sagan, in particular, threw themselves wholeheartedly into their training bouts with the teenage wrestlers, though mercifully there are no points on offer for artistic merit within the confines of the dohyō.
“We’ll have to fly them out to our next camp in Tenerife and see what they’re like on a bike,” Froome joked when asked about his opponents in the ring. “I was surprised to see how flexible they were from the training.”
Froome was pragmatic when asked about his approach to the tight, city-centre circuit in Saitama on Saturday. “I’m not going to try and hide the fact that my form isn’t the same as it was at the Tour, but at the end of the season, most of us are in the same boat,” he said. “I’d like to try and fight it out by I don’t know how realistic that will be with guys like Sagan.”