Eri Yonamine, the 25-year-old Japanese racer who has posted some impressive results in the early season, earned an automatic selection for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero, taking her country's only spot for the women's road race and time trial thanks to her double victories in the national championships in Oshima this weekend.
While her win in the road race over the more experienced Mayuko Hagiwara was hard-earned, her fight to be considered for the Olympic team was an off-the-bike battle that went to the Japan Sports Arbitration Agency (JSAA).
The saga began back in January, when both riders represented Japan at the Asian Cycling Championships. For the road race, the national team coach ordered the team work for Hagiwara, to get as many UCI points as possible. Hagiwara had just come off an impressive 2015 season with Wiggle-Honda, where she won a stage in the Giro Donne and one in the Tour de Bretagne, as well as finishing on the podium of two one-day races. She had firmly established herself in the international races, while Yonamine had not yet competed in major road events outside of the world championships where she has performed somewhat better than Hagiwara.
When both riders made the five-rider breakaway at the Asian Championships with Huang Ting Ying (Tapei), Pu Yixian (China) and South Korea's Na Ahreum, they had the numbers in the move. It came down to a sprint, with Hagiwara and Yonamine each sprinting to the line for the final podium spot behind Na and Huang, with Yonamine throwing her bike to the line. Although Hagiwara beat her out for third, the coaches took exception to Yonamine's actions.
On April 26, the Japanese Cycling Federation removed Yonamine from the long list for Olympic selection, stating, "Any rider who doesn't follow the team order, she will be removed from the Olympic team selection pool."
After the Asian championships, however, Yonamine came to the United States and began cranking out impressive results. Only in her fifth year of racing bikes - she had mixed cyclo-cross and mountain bike racing in previous years, but focussed on the road for 2016 - she won a stage in an early season race in California, then joined a composite team for the Redlands Classic, where she finished third overall. The result led to her being picked up by Hagens Berman-Supermint, and she finished seventh at the Joe Martin Stage Race, eighth at Tour of the Gila, won the Mt. Hamilton Road Race and was 11th in the Philadelphia WorldTour race.
Hagiwara, on the other hand, raced the spring classics in Europe before heading to the Chongming Island WorldTour race. There, she crashed and broke her ribs and did not race again until the national championships.
After learning of the federation's decision to remove her from the Olympic long team, Yonamine appealed arbitration at the JSAA, and on the day before the road race - where the winner would be automatically chosen for Rio - she found out that she had won and was reinstated for the team.
She won the time trial, and then in the road race was alone with Hagiwara on the finale, thanks to a short climb that whittled down the peloton each lap to just seven riders out of 36 starters. On the final lap, it was Yonamine and Hagiwara, and Yonamine came out on top.
"I'm so happy that I am representing Japan in Rio. The Olympic Games are held every four years. I always thought that it is something very special, but it was never be the only goal (for my cycling career)," Yonamine said in a statement to Cyclingnews.
"At the beginning of this season while I was discussing with my coach over my goals, we both agreed that the Rio should be our number one goal this year. It has been a huge challenge for both of us. Back in 2012, I got second at my first-ever Japanese National Road Race Championships, right before the London Olympic Games. I didn't know what it meant to me as an athlete then. Now four years later, I knew that I had to win the nationals to be selected for the Olympic team.
"I have worked so hard for this goal, and I have learned so much from everyone around me and everything I experienced through my Olympic journey. I always respect my competitors, and I appreciate everyone who made this journey possible. I couldn't get where I am now by myself. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of my family, friends, supporters who are always encouraging me to reach my goals. Special thank-you goes to my team Hagens Berman-Supermint for taking a chance to bring me on board in mid-season and giving me opportunities to race against the world's top riders, also to my sponsor, Yonex, for believing in me."
Hagiwara, on the other hand, was sad and disappointed by the decision to base the selection on the results of the national championships. After a year of hard work racing in Europe, she was the one who gained enough points to earn Japan a spot for the Olympics.
"Japan doesn't have any UCI teams or women's UCI races. So if you are not racing in Europe we normally have no opportunity to get enough UCI points to qualify for the Olympics without racing for the National Team compared with other countries," Hagiwara said to Cyclingnews. "But the national team does only a few races a year, which is not enough to get enough points to qualify for a spot for the Olympics.
"Four years ago I decided to go to a European team. I was really lucky I could join the Wiggle High5 team. I worked hard and learned a lot from my teammates and staff because it was not always easy for me. I developed myself year by year and even started to win races. The way was far from easy but I managed to get one spot in Rio for Japan.
"But the federation does not see what I have done and how I got these points. They only see the results of the national championships. I am very disappointed about it. My Olympic dream is over."