On the road most of the year following the pro peloton, Japanese photographer YUZURU SUNADA entered the world of cycling through the open doors of Italy. His images have graced the pages of peloton since our very first issue. His attention to detail, creative angles, honesty and work ethic have made him one of the most sought-after photographers in the cycling world. We had the chance to learn about his unique journey to becoming a professional photographer in Bruges, the night before the Tour of Flanders. His adventure started with a one-way ticket to Milan and a chance meeting with Gianni Bugno.
Interview: Brad Roe
Images: Courtesy, Yuzuru Sunada
Tell us about your cycling career? I started cycling when I was 18 years old and for four years I raced in Japan. When I was 21 years old, I had a big accident when I was riding and I broke both legs completely, and I stayed in the hospital for six months. I received some money from that accident and when I finished university, I used the money and decided to move to Italy to race bikes. I went to the Italian Cycling federation, and they mentioned a cycling club in Milan called Di Lorenzo. I raced for one year in Italy, but of course no results! My level was not so great compared to the Italians.
THE DI LORENZO TEAM (above): Fourth from left is Gianni Bugno. Sixth from left is Yuzuru Sunada. First from the right is Mario Scirea who is the Director Sportif for Cannondale Pro Cycling.
Did you know someone in Italy, or did you just show up? I knew nobody. I could not speak Italian, just only ciao maybe. It was very difficult, but Italian people are very friendly and when I spoke about cycling people helped me.
How old were you? I was 23 when I found the Di Lorenzo club in Milan, and Gianni Bugno happened to ride for them as well as Mario Scirea [a former domestique for Bugno and Mario Cipollini and now DS for Cannondale Pro Cycling], so it was a very good team. Their level was very high and mine was very low so it was difficult. Bugno was also a member of the national team at that time.
We heard you rode frequently with Bugno? Yes, almost every day I trained with Gianni Bugno as our homes were very close. We met at 9 a.m. every day. Bugno was always riding slowly but very long distances. Even the day before races he’d ride 120 to 150K, always. He loved the traditional training of long rides and many miles, and I was happy to get to ride with him. He went on to become two-time world champion, and I became a photographer!
Did you quickly learn Italian? For three months, I spoke only English, but the fourth month I changed to more Italian than English. Every day I went to cheap restaurants and hung out with the locals, and spoke with them. I had no dictionary or anything, I just learned Italian by speaking and to this day, I have a Milanese accent!
Were there many Japanese riders in Italy or Europe at that time? No, there were not very many. I had one friend go to France but that didn’t go well for him.
What motivated you to pick up and move to Italy? I wanted to see real racing in Europe. I wanted to see it and try it, not for only becoming a professional cyclist but to learn. The first year, for seven months from February to October, I raced and trained, and then I returned to Japan because my parents had a small company and I had to work for my father. But this job was at a drilling company and having been in Italy for a year I had a new Italian mentality, so I wanted to do something for cycling and I had a passion for photography. When I was young I loved to shoot photos.
Were your parents happy? No, never. When I became a freelance photographer, my father passed away so I don’t know how he truly felt about it. I’m sure he was not happy. I worked very hard and now I’m very happy because I can stay in the cycling world.
“HE CHANGED ITALIAN CYCLING.”
– SUNADA ON BUGNO
Do you consider Italy your home now? It’s my first home, but I only sleep here. My family is in Japan, but my oldest daughter is now living in Milan and going to university. One time I talked to Andy Hampsten and I asked him, “Andy, you are happy as an American in Italy?” My dream had always been to become an Italian and he said to me, “I always keep an American mentality, it’s important.” It was a good lesson for me and I listened to him. Now, I feel Japanese. I will always be a Japanese photographer living in Italy. For me this is important.
Your favorite rider to shoot? Miguel Induráin. He was always a gentleman. When he lost races or if he won races, he was the same person. He was never disappointed and always humble. He reminds me of a Japanese Samurai.
Your favorite race to shoot? The Tour de France. Now, I follow almost all races by motorbike, but that wasn’t easy. I waited 17 years before I got a moto in the Tour de France! There were never Japanese teams or cyclists in the race, so it was really difficult for me to get on a moto. But I showed my work in magazines and I worked hard, and after 17 years I can follow the race on a moto.
Does the food and wine of Italy hold a special place for you? Italian food and wine is the best in Europe. Of course, French and Belgian food is great, but it depends on where you choose to eat. In Italy, 99 percent of the restaurants you leave happy. In France, it’s very expensive, but in Italy if you pay 10 euro you are happy, if you pay 20 euro, you are happy.