It was rather loftily billed as the 22nd stage of the Tour de France, and while that is a rather grandiose claim for an exhibition race in late October, the inaugural Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France could scarcely have followed a more fitting script for organisers ASO, as Chris Froome (Sky) emerged victorious ahead of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Rui Costa (Movistar).
While the Arrivée banner, leader’s jersey and yellow Mavic support car could all have been lifted directly from the Tour, the racing itself understandably owed more to the procession of post-Tour criteriums that take place in late July and early August.
No matter, an estimated 200,000 people lined the streets of Saitama on Saturday to take in the event, undeterred by the rainy residues of Typhoon Francisco, and just like at the Tour, the crowd was divided neatly between die-hards in retro kit and curious observers out to enjoy the spectacle.
Such an attendance had been predicted the previous evening by Ivan Basso, a veteran of the Japan Cup, where he even made his return from suspension in October 2008. “I first came to Japan as an amateur in the late 1990s, and the crowds keep getting bigger every year and I think it’s been that way ever since they held the Worlds in Utsunomiya in 1990,” he said.
Overnight, the riders’ sleep was interrupted by the effects of an earthquake of 7.5 that shook the Rafre Hotel, but all was calm on Saturday morning, and when they exited the elevator at the lobby, they were greeted by an orderly queue of local fans, who lined up for autographs and pictures behind a velvet rope. “Sometimes fans can be quite abrupt at races, but here they were just all so polite,” Sky’s Geraint Thomas put it later.
Out on the 2.6km course, the small peloton was heralded largely by gentle applause, but the decibel levels rose gradually over the course of the afternoon, just as the sun poked through the clouds and the roads began to dry off.
Part of the concept of the race was to marry the Japanese tradition of keirin with road racing, and so the bunch was split into two parts for the day’s first two segments, a pair of points races, with sprints at every second lap. On each occasion, the honours fell to local riders – Yusuke Hatanaka won the first and Yasuharu Nakajima took the second – while the Tour challengers felt their way around the course. “If it was dry, you wouldn’t even need to brake on the bends,” Basso said.
The main event, however, was the 54 kilometre Saitama Criterium. The 32 riders from European-based teams may have been pushed more than they would have liked in the initial points races, but over the course of the 20-lap scratch race, the star names gradually came to the fore.
In keeping with the traditions of the post-Tour criterium, there was time for most of the ensemble cast to take a bow before the crowds, as gaps mysteriously ghosted open and then abruptly yawned shut within the space of a couple of laps.
The most popular such cameo was undoubtedly that of Fumiyuku Beppu (Orica-GreenEdge), who punched off the front with four laps to go. As the home fans loudly cheered his efforts, Beppu grimaced with Voeckler-esque abandon as he gamely fought to hold off the bunch. Perhaps fittingly, cycling’s pantomime villain, Alejandro Valverde, was the man who eventually chased Beppu down and teed up the anticipated grand finale.
As if by magic, with two laps to go, the yellow jersey, the green jersey and the rainbow jersey – or Chris Froome, Peter Sagan and Rui Costa – slipped off the front, and there was precious little suspense about the finish either, as Froome clipped away from Sagan and Rui Costa in the final kilometre and crossed the line in first place.
After getting all his lines right during the race, Froome didn’t put a word out of place in his post race comments either. “I didn’t know if it would be possible to beat Sagan and Rui Costa but they were watching each other and I got away,” he said earnestly. “I’m amazed at how many people are supporting cycling here. It’s an honour for me to race here in the yellow jersey.”
It remains to be seen if the Saitama experiment is repeated – local journalists maintain that additional Japanese sponsorship will be required – but Froome was receptive to the idea. “First I’d have to win the Tour again, but of course I’d love to be back here in the yellow jersey,” he said.
With that, Froome was whisked towards the podium area, where – just like in July – Bernard Hinault was on badgering duty, sternly ushering the right people onto the dais at the right time, while Peter Sagan was hamming it up agreeably for the gathered multitudes.