Geraint Thomas, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Marcel Kittel, Matteo Trentin Alexander Kristoff and a select group of their teammates spent Saturday enjoying Taiko drum lessons, baseball and children’s bike race in Saitama on Saturday as they entertained the local Japanese crowd before the Saitama Tour de France criterium on Sunday.
This year marks the sixth edition of the Saitama Criterium, which is organised by Tour de France organisers ASO and hefty appearance fees has ensured the presence of some of the biggest names in the peloton. For Thomas, it is one of his final post-Tour de France celebration events and Valverde is being feted as the new world champion but Kittel and Kristoff have already begun working for the 2019 season and are looking ahead rather than back
For all the riders, the trip east from Europe is a relaxed moment, with many of them bringing their wives, partners and even children. The pressure of the Classics and the Tour de France is a distant memory and the riders had fun as they were used to entertain the Japanese cycling fans. A few hundred attended the team presentation events but thousands are expected on Sunday for the sprint race, the time trials and the main event criterium on Sunday afternoon.
On Saturday Thomas, Valverde, Kristoff and event ambassador Alberto Contador were given a baseball lesson on stage after the team presentation, with Thomas in a yellow baseball jersey and Valverde in rainbow stripes. They quickly showed the could throw and catch a ball but hitting a baseball for a virtual home run proved more difficult. Kristoff’s could hardly hit a ball and Valverde realised he should perhaps stick to bike racing, while Thomas was much better but managed to hit a lady in the crowd as he hit autographed softballs into the crowd.
When asked if he perhaps played, cricket, Thomas reminded the speaker that he comes from Wales. “Cricket is a posh sport, we prefer to play rugby in Wales,” he joked.
Kristoff claimed he was hitting the balls into the crowd as a pre-race tactic. “I was targeting Marcel because I fear him for the sprint tomorrow but obviously the balls were too soft because he is still laughing,” he joked.
Before the baseball capers, Nibali, Trentin, Kittel and Fumiyuki Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro – who will compete in a Japan team on Sunday - were given a Taiko drumming lesson. They struggled to pick up the three-beat and then seven-beat rhythm. Earlier in the day Arashiro also took part in a falconry display, while Kittel went shopping in the Saitama market. Contador lead Thomas and Valverde in a children’s bike race, taking things far too competitively by surging away off the front to win.
Thomas was wearing his Tour de France winner’s yellow jersey and will race on his yellow Tour de France bike.
“I could get used to wearing this,” he joked, promising to ‘fight’ for victory in Sunday’s exhibition criterium even if he has still fully get back into training for the 2019 season.
Click or swipe through the photo gallery to see images of the baseball, drumming and other activities form Japan.