By Lee Rodgers
The start of the 2009 J-Tour Challenge kicks off with the first race of the series in Gunma Prefecture near Tokyo on April 26. The 12-race series will see Japan's professional cycling outfits battle it out for top honours alongside a choice selection of the country's top amateur teams.
Last year's series winner Tomoya Kano (Skil-Shimano) has his hopes set on a tilt at the title once again, yet the 35-year-old's mediocre showing at the recent Tour of Taiwan suggests that he has some work yet to do if he is to have a chance of a repeat. The Skil team's two-time national road race champion, climber Hidenori Nodera will also be hoping to snatch a victory or two. The retention of another two-time series winner, veteran Shinri Suzuki, demonstrates the Skil team's depth.
Asian Racing Team boss Nakane Kenji has high expectations for his squad of eight riders this season. "We'll be concentrating on the Asian Tour this year primarily, but we'll be represented at Gunma. We have some new faces who will be expected to perform," he told Cyclingnews.
The two standout riders from Asian are Masahiro Shinagawa and Taiji Nishitani. Shinagawa rode for three years in Europe with the European Skil-Shimano outfit and has good form.
Another big hope this year for overall victory is Makoto IIjima, the three-time Olympian (points race, eighth in Peking), riding for Team Bridgestone Anchor. The 39-year-old proved he still has a lot to offer with a solid ride in Taipei.
"He's the man we'll be looking to," said team manager Nobihito Kubo. "He's a fantastic all-rounder, and he's got the speed necessary for the hilly courses here."
New Bridgestone member Shinpei Fukuda will be looking to live up to the early promise he showed with his resounding victory in last year's Hiroshima Cup. He defeated an experienced field with a blistering sprint.
Another outfit that should feature heavily at the top end of the table is the Matrix Powertag Corratec team. It has a stable of talented riders, led by captain Naoki Mukaigawa.
Other riders to keep an eye on are Kazaya Okazaki (EQA Design) and Polish sprinter Mariusz Wiesiak (Nippo-Colnago). Wiesiak is one of a handful of foreign cyclists competing in the series.