By Steve Thomas
Things will just not be the same at major Asian and many French races in 2009. Why? Because Koji Fukushima, the amiable Japanese professional, has decided to hang up his racing wheels for good at the age of 35. For many years Koji has been something of a star attraction at races, where he not only puts on one of the best and most aggressive displays of riding, but also woos and entertains the crowd with his friendly banter, commentary (in many languages) and his all time show stopper – playing the harmonica.
Originally form Osaka (now living in Nagano) Koji was something of a late comer to cycling, only taking it up under persuasion from his older brother and Mietan Hompo team mate Shinichi. Cycling was seen as a way to get the growingly wayward teenager back on the straight and narrow.
It didn't take long for Koji to find his legs and in no time at all he followed his brother to race in France. The rest, as they say, is history. The two brothers spent many seasons pioneering Japanese cycling at an international level in France, forging ahead with teams like Bridgestone Anchor and more recently Mietan Hompo, with a great deal of success.
If there were medals for sheer gutsy aggression then Koji would have been a world champion many times over. Koji's constant attacking became his trade mark. "It's maybe not always the best way, but it's my style – and I like to ride that way," said Fukushima. Sometimes his aggression did pay off with a victory, perhaps most notably when he pulled off a lone stage win and took the yellow jersey in the 2005 Tour de Langkawi, one of his favorite races.
"For me, personally, I think it was one of the best moments of my career," said Fukushima. "But this year, when the team won the Tour du Limousin, that was also very special, just different.[Yukiya Arashiro (Mietan Hompo) won the 2nd stage and the Young Rider classification-ed.] It was great to finally see that we had managed to get the team to a level to win such a highly ranked UCI race."
The decision to retire was a last minute decision and one he really did not want to take. "It was only decided a week ago," said Fukushima. "I really didn't want to stop, but I think now that it's better all-round. In the past I had improved every season, but for the last two years I have not progressed at all - it's frustrating. However, we have a lot of young and talented riders coming through on the team. We want the team to become bigger and better so it's time for me to stop."
The exact details of Koji's new role within the team are still to be finalised. "I have to discuss a lot with the team manager," said Fukushima. "My manager (Asada) said he thought I should change roles within the team, from rider to public relations. I won't be racing any more, that's for sure. I will be doing some non-competitive events, maybe even helping with a cycling school to help show the sport to young riders in Japan where cycling is just not part of the culture."