Contributed by Graham David
If you wanted to challenge the appetite of your spectators, you`d like not one but two typhoons heading slowly towards you during the run up to your event, bringing cold weather and heavy rain from the night before and all morning. And if you wanted to worry your star performers, you’d arrange for a large, long and rather frightening earthquake at 2am the morning of the race.
But such is the magic of the maillot jaune – and the green and rainbow jerseys – that the crowds came to Saitama Criterium by Le Tour de France regardless of all of that. Local media estimated around 200,000 spectators for the two points races and then the longer 20 lap race – this is a country where Keirin is the competitive cycling culture, but a culture which is distinctly downmarket, and road cycling is rather coming from behind.
Rain nor an earthquake were stopping World Champ Rui Costa from signing on!
Froome is here, with Sky Procycling. Sagan too. And Rui Costa in his newly minted rainbow jersey. It is a strong line up – Froome brings Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh, and for a period the skytrain appears at the front of the chasing group in the Criterium. Shades of the summer. Elsewhere, Ivan Basso is noted for being a fan of sushi by the race commentators (always a sure way of endearing yourself to a Japanese crowd); Marcel Kittel is a pre-race favourite, while Alejandro Valverde, Christophe Riblon and others are all here too.
Big crowds lined the streets of Saitama for the event.
It’s a crowd with a strong home bias. Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu bring proper Tour credentials to the race, and are undoubtedly the domestic stars of the show for the crowd. And they are both crowd pleasers – Beppu attacking time after time in the Crit, while Arashiro has strutted his stuff earlier in the points races and at the front of the grid. But other Japanese riders are going to rise to the occasion too, with Shinichi Fukushima flogging his guts out during the main race, and Yasuharu Nakajima winning the second point race.
But it’s the maillot jaune that is the star of the show. Chris Froome is wearing it for the first time in competition since the Champs Elysees in July and Peter Sagan has the green kit on exactly as it was in Paris. The organisers aren`t leaving much to chance – even the motorcycle outriders and their bikes have been brought with them. So, yes, there is an air of authenticity about proceedings.
Gradually too the weather improves and although the points races are rain affected, by the time of the main event conditions are a lot drier, albeit on the chilly side. 20 laps of a 2.7km course in-town is the challenge. The commentators are sure that the Japanese roads will be smoother than the rough stuff in France, but worry that in the rain there might be a lot of skidding.
Froome wins, beating Sagan and Costa in a sprint, the three having broken away from the field as the last lap starts. The race format has a series of sprint challenges and breakaways form and teams get together at the front of the chasing group to close down – it is like seeing every possible variation of racing in one short event.
As the awards ceremony takes place, and Bernard Hinault chaperones and cajoles the riders and dignitaries on the stage (if it wasn`t authentic as a Tour event before, it is now) it gets dark and the riders are getting chilly outside. A small boy with an incredibly loud voice (sign of suitable lung power?) is bellowing at Froome for an autograph. Froome responds graciously and the crowd and the riders are clearly not deterred by typhoons and earthquakes.
Froome post race after his victory.
Really though the race is not what today is about. The riders make the right noises about how tough it was, how hard they have raced, how much they are looking forward to resting, and their holiday break. But today is about gauging audience interest and seeing how the event works – is there space in the calendar, how do the riders react, can it be properly run and administered, is Saitama a sensible choice in a crowded calendar? And what about media and sponsors – are they interested enough? The riders have done their bit: the crowd has enjoyed it; but is it enough for the organisers? After all, it will have to make commercial sense too, so how much money is there in the maillot?
Rui Costa was a popular man in Japan.