After Tai Chi and dragon dancing in China at the Shanghai Criterium, the end of season fun continued in Japan on Friday as the riders caught and cooked Unagi eels, wielded samurai swords and chucked ninja stars – all in the name of cultural immersion ahead of the Saitama Criterium.
Both the Shanghai and Saitama criteriums are put on by Tour de France organiser ASO to export a flavour of the Tour to the Asian market. While last week was the inaugural edition of the Shanghai Criterium, Saitama is in its fifth edition and has had riders sumo wrestling, firing arrows and beating drums in the past.
On Friday, a fight between samurai and ninja warriors was the main event, played out on stage in front of a big and enthusiastic crowd of locals. Marcel Kittel and Warren Barguil donned the elaborate outfits and long swords of the samurai, while Chris Froome and Greg Van Avermaet were dressed in the rather more underwhelming ninja get-ups – more ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ than ‘Ninja Assassin’. There were demonstrations from experts before the pros were called onto the stage.
Kittel and Barguil dodged attacks and then ‘defeated’ the ninjas before Froome and Van Avermaet launched Shuriken – the small sharp weapon known as ninja stars – at a target. Froome put it slap bang in the middle of the bullseye with his first attempt. Van Avermaet needed several re-throws.
Before that, Mark Cavendish and Fabio Sabatini had fished live Unagi eels out of a tank with their bare hands. “Slippery,” was how the British sprinter described the experience, to the delight of the amused crowd.
A Japanese chef then demonstrated how to kill and prepare the eel, cutting its throat and pinning its head to the chopping board before proceeding to remove its guts while it was still moving. Cavendish and Uran later helped cook it before it was served up to all the riders.
If today’s appetizer was anything to go by, the weekend's main event will be just as well supported as in recent years, with fans literally falling over each other as riders stepped out of the elevator at their hotel on their way to the event. Some fans went as far as to travel to Tokyo Nakita airport to greet Didi the Devil as he arrived from Shanghai with the press corps on Wednesday evening.
Racing will take place on Saturday with a three-pronged schedule, featuring a special sprint race involving a derny and a one-kilometre free-for-all, a 2.5km team time trial, and the main criterium.
Cyclingnews will have full coverage, photos and special interviews from Saitama in the next few days.