The yellow jersey of Chris Froome may have been the primary attraction at Saturday’s Saitama Criterium but Tour de France organiser ASO’s foray into the Japanese market is thanks in no small part to the exploits of Europcar’s Yukiya Arashiro.
In 2009, Arashiro and fellow countryman Fumiyuku Beppu achieved the historic feat of becoming the first Japanese riders to complete the Tour de France – previous starters Kisso Kawamuro (1926 and 1927) and Polti’s Daisuke Imanaka (1996) had both failed to reach Paris – and their accomplishment triggered an upsurge in coverage of the race in Japan.
Arashiro has returned on three further occasions, his presence highlighted by the television crew and steady stream of travelling Japanese support camped outside the Europcar bus after each stage. On Saturday, the pilgrimage was reversed, as luminaries from the Tour peloton descended on Saitama for a season-ending exhibition race.
“Of course, this is just a criterium rather than the Tour itself, but the peloton is something very distant for the Japanese public, so it’s a dream to have the big riders come here,” the Japanese champion Arashiro told Cyclingnews in Saitama. “Since 2009, I’ve definitely seen that cycling has become more and more popular here. Everybody knows the name ‘Tour de France’ in Japan, but they don’t necessarily know how it works and what the race really consists of.”
That is not to say, of course, that Japan does not have a proud cycling heritage of its own. Like Colombia and Eritrea, Japan is a country with an indigenous cycling culture that has developed and prospered independently of the sport’s traditional European base, and until the 1990s, keirin racing and cycling were more or less interchangeable terms in Japan.
“There’s still a big gap in popularity between keirin and road racing, but road racing is certainly growing all the time,” said Arashiro, whose own path into the sport was atypical in the extreme.
A handball player in his youth, Arashiro was inspired to take up cycling by the exploits of Shinichi Fukushima, a family friend who was then racing as an amateur in France. So it was that Arashiro, at the tender age of 18, arrived in Nogent-sur-Oise having borrowed a bike and kit from Fukushima, and began his fledging career in a most unforgiving environment.
“Until I turned 18, I only did handball, I never raced a bike at all,” Arashiro said. “I was inspired by what Shinichi was doing in France, and he told me that if I wanted to race, I was better off coming to France right away to do it, because in Japan, the standard of races wasn’t good enough to develop, especially for a late starter.”
By his own admission, Arashiro was the greenest of espoirs on the French circuit – “I never even saw the Tour de France on television until I arrived in France, and I didn’t know how it worked,” he laughed – and his early races were simply a battle for survival. “Initially, I just wanted to make it to the finish of races. Things like echelons and fighting for position were all new discoveries, but I kept improving.”
Arashiro moved to the professional ranks with a Japanese team, Cycle Racing Team Vang, but he continued to make an impression on the French circuit. After impressing at the 2008 Tour du Limousin, Arashiro finally made the step up to the highest level when he signed for Jean-René Bernaudeau’s Bouygues Telecom (now Europcar) in 2009, and completed his debut Tour that very season.
In his early years with the squad, Arashiro was often deployed as a sprinter, and enjoyed a particular purple patch in late 2010, finishing in the top ten at the Geelong Worlds and 5th at Paris-Tours a week later. Over the past couple of seasons, Arashiro has ridden largely in support of his leaders, but the 29-year-old was happy to accept the brief – all the more so as it has made him something of a fixture in Europcar’s Tour line-up.
“We’ve got some very good sprinters in the team now, especially Bryan Coquard, and beyond that, we have Pierre Rolland too, who puts everything into the Tour de France, and I like being there to help him,” Arashiro said. “When I work for him, it means that I don’t have the strength for the sprint but that’s my job and I’m happy to do it.
“For me, the most important thing every season is to ride the Tour. I finished my fourth one this year, and I want to try and do that again, but the dream would be to win a stage there some day.”
Like his fellow countryman Beppu, Arashiro has found a second home in France and lives near La Roche-sur-Yon, not far from his Europcar squad’s Vendée base, and his precise command of French is testimony to his easy transition to life in the area.
It was telling, for instance, that regional newspaper Ouest France reported Arashiro’s absence from last month’s world championships (Japan failed to qualify a rider due to the mysterious vagaries of the UCI points system) with the same indignation that would normally accompany the omission of a local favourite from the French national team.
“It’s true that I was educated as a rider in France, but I’m definitely a Japanese rider,” Arashiro said. “Japan is Japan and France is France, although I really like it there too, even if the countryside of the Vendée is a bit different to what I was used to in Ishigaki.”
Indeed, the rarity of Arashiro’s appearances on home roads has only heightened his desire to seize the fleeting opportunities to compete in Japan. The Saitama Criterium is likely to be his only home race in the Japanese champion’s jersey that he won last June, and with that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that he is keen to extend his career for at least another seven years. “I want to keep going until 2020 at the minimum,” he explained. “Riding in the Olympic Games in Tokyo would be something really special.”