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Gallery: Froome and Sagan step into sumo ring ahead of Saitama Criterium

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Ivan Basso with two young sumo wrestlers in Saitama.

Ivan Basso with two young sumo wrestlers in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Marcel Kittel (Argos Shimano) gives it everything

Marcel Kittel (Argos Shimano) gives it everything
(Image credit: AFP)
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Chris Froome limbers up for the wrestling

Chris Froome limbers up for the wrestling
(Image credit: AFP)
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All eyes are on the Tour de France champion

All eyes are on the Tour de France champion
(Image credit: AFP)
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No marginal gains would help Froome out today

No marginal gains would help Froome out today
(Image credit: AFP)
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Marcel Kittel (Argos Shimano) launches himself into the challenge

Marcel Kittel (Argos Shimano) launches himself into the challenge
(Image credit: AFP)
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Chris Froome at the Bonsai Art Museum of Saitama.

Chris Froome at the Bonsai Art Museum of Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Geraint Thomas lines up alongside Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh in the Saitama Criterium.

Geraint Thomas lines up alongside Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh in the Saitama Criterium.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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To the victor the spoils. Peter Sagan in celebratory mood in Saitama.

To the victor the spoils. Peter Sagan in celebratory mood in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Peter Sagan gets his mawashi signed by a sumo opponent.

Peter Sagan gets his mawashi signed by a sumo opponent.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome is feted in Saitama.

Chris Froome is feted in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Peter Sagan charms his hosts in Saitama.

Peter Sagan charms his hosts in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Geraint Thomas receives a gift from Saitama Sakae High School.

Geraint Thomas receives a gift from Saitama Sakae High School.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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World champion Rui Costa after the sumo exhibition in Saitama.

World champion Rui Costa after the sumo exhibition in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome in Saitama.

Chris Froome in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome with a pair of his opponents in the sumo ring.

Chris Froome with a pair of his opponents in the sumo ring.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome was the centre of attention as members of the Tour de France peloton gathered in Saitama.

Chris Froome was the centre of attention as members of the Tour de France peloton gathered in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Jean-Francois Pescheux flanked by Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde in Saitama.

Jean-Francois Pescheux flanked by Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde in Saitama.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Yukiya Arashiro is the local favourite at the Saitama Criterium.

Yukiya Arashiro is the local favourite at the Saitama Criterium.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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The Saitama Criterium peloton observes a sumo exhibition on the eve of the race.

The Saitama Criterium peloton observes a sumo exhibition on the eve of the race.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Perhaps wisely, Rui Costa opted not to add a belt to his white world champion's bib shorts.

Perhaps wisely, Rui Costa opted not to add a belt to his white world champion's bib shorts.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome learns the poise of sumo.

Chris Froome learns the poise of sumo.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome and company are introduced to the art of sumo.

Chris Froome and company are introduced to the art of sumo.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Marcel Kittel steps into the ring.

Marcel Kittel steps into the ring.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Marcel Kittel threw himself wholeheartedly into the sumo exhibition.

Marcel Kittel threw himself wholeheartedly into the sumo exhibition.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Rui Costa readies himself.

Rui Costa readies himself.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome braces himself for impact.

Chris Froome braces himself for impact.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Christophe Riblon had a different definiton of most combative.

Christophe Riblon had a different definiton of most combative.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Peter Sagan prepares for his bout.

Peter Sagan prepares for his bout.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Peter Sagan dives into action in the sumo ring.

Peter Sagan dives into action in the sumo ring.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)
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Chris Froome at Saitama's Bonsai Art Museum.

Chris Froome at Saitama's Bonsai Art Museum.
(Image credit: Daniel Simms)

In spite of the impending arrival of Typhoon Francisco off the coast of Japan, the inaugural Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France takes place on Saturday, with Chris Froome (Sky), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and world champion Rui Costa (Movistar) among those lining up in the end of season showcase.

The event takes place on a 2.6km circuit in Saitama City, 20 kilometres north of Tokyo, and consists of two points races – based loosely on the great Japanese tradition of the keirin – and a straightforward 20-lap scratch race.

ASO president Jean-Etienne Amaury has described his organisation’s new venture as a “union between Japanese and French culture.” To that end, an exposition of French produce has been arranged in Saitama to coincide with the race, but above all, the criterium is a very visible effort to export France’s grandest sporting tradition, the Tour, to a large and increasingly attentive audience in the Far East.

“This is the first event outside of the Tour de France to bear the name of the Tour de France,” Amaury pointed out. “We want to try and recreate in Saitama the ambience of sporting competition and popular fete that we see at the Tour.”

Thanks primarily to the achievements of Fumiyuki Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro, who in 2009 became the first Japanese riders to finish the Tour, the race’s profile and the amount of live television coverage have already increased considerably in Japan in recent years, and Saturday’s criterium is an attempt to buttress that growth still further.

“It’s important to explain what the Tour de France is to the public, because in Japan, cycling usually means keirin,” said Beppu, who lines up for Orica-GreenEdge on Saturday.

Just like at a post-Tour criterium in France or the Netherlands, Froome will line up in the yellow jersey and Sagan will ride in green, while the Tour’s super combatif Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and newly-crowned world champion Rui Costa were also enticed to make the long trek east.

Indeed, in a further bid to familiarise the watching public with the classifications and jerseys of the Tour, race director Jean-François Pescheux has somehow conjured up a king of the mountains competition on the seemingly flat circuit, based around a small rise around the midway point.

The cultural exchange goes in both directions, of course, and on the eve of the race, the 32 riders from internationally-based teams – Sky, Movistar, Ag2r-La Mondiale, Cannondale, Orica-GreenEdge, Europcar, FDJ.fr and Argos-Shimano – were invited to a sumo exhibition at a local high school.

After observing the teenage wrestlers in action, Froome, Sagan, Rui Costa, Riblon and Marcel Kittel later joined in the training, although one wonders if the ceremonial belt, the mawashi, was ever intended to be worn over bibshorts.

Undeterred by their attire, Kittel and Sagan, in particular, threw themselves wholeheartedly into their training bouts with the teenage wrestlers, though mercifully there are no points on offer for artistic merit within the confines of the dohyō.

“We’ll have to fly them out to our next camp in Tenerife and see what they’re like on a bike,” Froome joked when asked about his opponents in the ring. “I was surprised to see how flexible they were from the training.”

Froome was pragmatic when asked about his approach to the tight, city-centre circuit in Saitama on Saturday. “I’m not going to try and hide the fact that my form isn’t the same as it was at the Tour, but at the end of the season, most of us are in the same boat,” he said. “I’d like to try and fight it out by I don’t know how realistic that will be with guys like Sagan.”