Tour de France organizers ASO took a bold leap into a new market by holding the first event outside France to carry its prestigious name in Saitama on Saturday. The Criterium de Saitama, a publicity event aimed at attracting Japanese investment to the Tour while boosting the profile of road cycling in the Asian country, proved an unqualified success. The result of the Criterium’s three races were less significant than the attention the event attracted on a day that began in gloomy fog but ended with bright sunshine.
Japanese national riders Yusuke Hatanaka and Yasuharu Nakajima won the two opening track-style keirin races around the 2.7km Saitama street circuit before Tour de France champion Chris Froome unsurprisingly triumphed in the crowd-pleasing main event, the 54km criterium, from the Tour’s Green Jersey winner Peter Sagan and world champion Rui Costa.
The duel format race was aimed at tapping into Japanese enthusiasm for keirins and subtly turning their heads towards conventional road cycling, a sport which sits a long way behind the more popular endeavors of baseball, football and sumo. For local hero Fumiyuki Beppu of the professional Orica GreenEDGE team, this was a great opportunity to educate local fans and he admitted Froome’s participation was crucial.
“It’s good for the fans in Japan because they don’t know cycling perfectly, it’s not easy to invite the winner of the Tour to a criterium like this,” he said. “With Japan and how far is it from Europe, it’s a long way, it’s not easy to get the best riders. It’s very important because we have to explain cycling well because otherwise people think cycling is keirin straight away, we have to explain it.”
Beppu believes it is a sport with the potential to grow, especially given that Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Olympics.
“Baseball, football and sumo are still great sports but we’ve made a lot of progress since 10 years ago,” he added. “This criterium, it’s the Tour de France that’s coming to Japan, that’s great progress. And with the 2020 Olympics at Tokyo, that’s great news for all sports, including cycling, so I’m super excited about the future.”
Meanwhile, Froome was pleasantly surprised by the level of interest the event had generated.
“It’s been amazing, first of all to see there’s a lot of supporters of the Tour who really know the ins and outs of the sport,” said Froome, who alongside top sprinter Marcel Kittel, Sagan, Costa and top Frenchman Christophe Riblon on Friday donned a traditional belt and tried his hand at sumo wrestling with students at the Saitama Sakae High School.
“They’re not just watching it but are proper fans of the sport, they know the intricacies of the racing. You can see that just by speaking to them, they know the tactics and how things work. I was quite blown away to arrive here and have to do things like autographs and photos in the hotel lobby. I didn’t really think necessarily European cycling would be that well televised here, but it obviously is.”
What cannot be doubted was the enthusiasm of those who braved the earlier grim, soggy conditions to cheer on the riders, while also being introduced to some French delicacies in a specially arranged fair. That in itself was a curious Franco-Japanese mix as some of the more popular stalls were selling local fare such as noodles, but the French wine and charcuterie stalls also seemed to be enjoying a good bit of trade.
It wasn’t just food on offer, though, as the Japanese embraced their unique ability to revel in the bizarre with stalls selling various inflatable shaped balloons, energy drinks such as the fluorescent yellow Ex 3000 and the now ubiquitous white face masks. But what really made the occasion quintessentially Japanese was the criterium sharing top billing with a Halloween party that seemed to have a feline-gothic theme and had attracted hundreds of imaginatively dressed youngsters. That proved the often colorful, weird and wonderful world of Le Tour really had come to town.