Big in Japan

The on-stage antics and the exhibition criterium get all the attention but what if the real story was the huge crowds? Cycling is big in Japan and there’s an army of loyal fans. The only thing missing is a prime local road race.

We’re off to Saitama! It has a drab image but…

…so goes the preview text accompanying a tourism video promoting the city of Saitama available to passengers flying with ANA, a Japanese airline. It’s a hard sell if the people promoting the town have to use this as their opening gambit so they need events to compensate for what geography or history hasn’t supplied. Saitama city was formed at the start of the century following a municipal merger and sits just north of Tokyo being known as a dormitory town for commuters. Its proximity to the capital ensures easy access for all, whether salaryman or pro cyclist stepping off a long haul flight. ASO has a deal with Saitama to stage a criterium and flies over several star names to take part in a weekend of races, rides and photo opportunities.

You might have seen the images of Mark Cavendish trying to catch an eel or Chris Froome sporting a yellow “ninja” costume as he chucked shuriken stars at a target. It’s hard to work out who the audience here is, is it for the local Japanese fans keen to see foreigners embrace a piece of their culture, albeit a derivative one; or for international fans to get a look at Japan? Imagine if the scenario was reversed and a bunch of Japanese athletes were flown into Paris, bussed out to a suburb to be dressed in berets and Breton-striped jerseys so they can dance the Can-Can? It’s hard not to wonder if ASO aren’t missing something. Just as the Saitama criterium is trying to export the theme of the Tour de France into Japan, this could be the chance to export more of le French touch to Japan, a market that enjoys French food, clothing, luxury goods and more?

But away from the costumes and the exhibition race one thing stands out: the crowds. The presence of big stars really draws people in and an estimated 200,000 people came to see the criterium say ASO although perhaps other counts are more modest? Either way the course was lined with fans including those perched on specially build grand stands.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s not just the numbers, it’s the quality too. The Japan Cup race every October is lined with fan clubs waving banners and spectators sporting jerseys and caps. These are not idle locals coming outdoors to see what the fuss is about or those stuck by road closures; this year’s race happened in a downpour and the crowds still turned out. It’s not Flanders or the Basque Country but it’s not far off either. Behind this is business too, Japan ticks all the boxes being a wealthy market for sponsors with a brisk bike trade and pro cycling is shown on TV and not just the Tour de France, you can get the classics too – a moment to crowbar in this great Ronde van Vlaanderen video clip – although a rights sale deal has made things harder this year. There’s the 2.1 Tour of Japan race and plenty of local media. France’s Vélo Magazine has done a Japanese edition:

There are of course local pros too with riders in World Tour teams like Fumiyuki Beppu (Trek-Segafredo) and Yukiya Arashiro (Bahrain-Merida) and both have completed the Tour de France with eight finishes for Arashiro. There’s also the Nippo-Vini Fantini team with Nippo being a Japanese construction company. Don’t forget Shimano either.

The landscape is promising, the fans are there, it could make economic sense and the tarmac is as smooth as tofu. So why is there no World Tour race? It would make sense given the passionate fans, the viable market and the prosperous economy. Similarly with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics what chance a test event becomes something bigger, just as happened with the London road race that is now the Ride London Surrey Classic. But it’s not easy to do at the click of a finger, let alone in Asia compared to Europe. But if the peloton can go to Guangxi, Japan is not far and you could imagine the Japan Cup being moved a week forward or back to give an Asian block at the end of the season.

It’s fun or weird to see big name pros goofing around on stage and taking part in exhibition races complete with Chris Froome in his yellow jersey. Is this best way to bring the sport to Japan? It certainly gets more coverage than the more authentic Japan Cup race which attracts several World Tour teams but little international coverage even if it’s a full on race. The star pros draw huge crowds and maybe with the 2020 Olympics there will be a test road race and a legacy event that becomes a fixture on the World Tour.

65 thoughts on “Big in Japan”

    • That seemed to help fast track the Guangxi Tour but races get put onto the calendar in a more ordinary too, like the GP Québec or the Ride London race. Not all races want this status, one headache has meant inviting local teams only to exclude local ones, a problem mitigated now with the “new” World Tour races which have a middle status, a “World Tour” label but not every WT team has to ride and more invitations can be made.

      • Sorry, the above comment was mine.

        I was just thinking that if the UCI is actually committed to growing the sport, surely going where the fans are and where this a cycling culture would be a good start? Hence why it makes sense to have new races in the US, Japan etc rather than China or the Middle East

  1. They ponied up the dough for the World’s in 1990 but nothing much since. Perhaps this big, valuable marketing opportunity in Japan is really not so valuable? In many ways I think pro cycling’s still living in the dream world of the LeMond/BigTex era. Huge multinational consumer goods sponsorships combined with feel-good stories about champions overcoming personal adversity made a lot of people think that pro cycling was going to be a big-time, mainstream sport worldwide rather than a Euro-centric oddity.
    TdU, ToB and ToC might be big deals to their local market and fans, but they’ll go the way of the Coors Classic or Tour de Trump sooner rather than later.
    The UCI seems way more interested in attempts to create new markets for their sport than they do helping support the existing events and organizers. Perhaps the new regime might refocus?

    • Y’know, Larry, TdU is 20 years old this year.

      Most of the members of the Aussie dev team racing it this year won’t remember a time when it didn’t exist.

      • ToB, assuming Tour of Britain, goes back to 1945 (we’ll ignore the 4 year gap from ’99 to ’04). ToC, assuming Tour of California, is the most tenuous of those mentioned but is organised and backed by one of the worlds biggest event organisers (far bigger than ASO) and has already survived the collapse of Lance so i’d say it’s in good shape.

        All three mentioned races seem in far better condition to keep going for longer rather than sooner. Certainly more so than a series of established races, like Tour of the Mediteranean, were.

        • Britain has some fantastic topography for LBL style racing in the south west, Lake District, Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire and the north Pennines (where there are many climbs all within a small area going to 600m+). Time and again though the Tour of Britain designs a race for sprinters or TTers. And don’t get me started on London getting a WT race ahead of the Yorkshire/Pennines area. Bah.

    • Larry T – Inrng said that the Japanese purchase bicycles and equipment by the truckloads… That’s a strong indicator that a big marketing opportunity in Japan really is valuable.

      I also heard they have cycling hotels and a great set of trails for cyclists… perhaps it would be a good opportunity for a cycling travel company.

      • I don’t oppose events outside of the traditional cycling countries – but instead oppose spending valuable resources trying to gin up interest in places where there’s never going to be much interest at the expense of traditional cycling country events with history and passionate followings. Things like awarding points for a win at TdU equal to winning one of the five monuments of cycling or scheduling ToC to compete with the Giro d’Italia.
        Finally, the last time I checked China and the Middle East were not considered “Anglophone countries” but I still think trying to gin up interest in events in these places is a waste of time unless you assume the revenue generated is used to help keep the traditional events alive – a claim that I’ve read but have no way to verify.

      • Many places have cycling hotels and great sets of trails for cyclists. Some of them even share borders with Italy. I’ve spent a lot of time and ridden a lot of kilometers in a few of them.
        CycleItalia is the name of our business for one reason – there’s simply no better place to be a cyclist or cycling enthusiast.
        Full stop, as some would say 🙂

        • Go ride in Japan and get back to me. Great food, great roads, amazing climbs (about the same height as the Stelvio), a cycling culture and hot springs. Does Italy have hot springs.

          • If we speak of facilities, far from as many: but Japan has no reasonable terms of comparison in that sense all over the world (at least ten times more than everyone else).
            Yet, Italy is a seismic and volcanic country, too, which means that it’s got a lot of hot springs and it’s indeed included in the global top five countries with the highest number of hot spring facilities, along with way bigger nations like Russia or China.
            For some reason, Italy and Japan, when compared with the rest of the top five, also have in common the smallest annual turnover for facility (smaller structures and less “extreme luxury” ones, perhaps?), even if Japan’s case is again quite special: in Japan the average revenue for facility is only 660K $, in Italy it’s about 2.3M $, while in China, Russia or Germany each facility averages 5-7M $/year.

            However… well, you can actually take advantage of Bormio’s Bagni right after or before climbing the Stelvio.
            The Bormio hot springs have quite a history, they were famous during the Roman empire and Leonardo da Vinci probably took a dip, too… But it all started a long time before: a 2,100-2,500 years old bas-relief was found in the area, dating back to a local pre-Roman population; it probably shows Volcanus / a water god related to the hot springs – if you’re a cycling fan, it might even make you think about the Tirreno-Adriatico trophy:

    • I believe the lead pic is the sprint finish with Froome out-of-shot crossing the finish line. He “beat” Barguil who beat Uran, and then all the sprinters rolled in behind, crushed by Froome’s famous sprinting power….

      • Edit; sorry that was the previous exhibition/criterium in Shanghai, a quick googling suggests Cav ahead of Japanese riders Beppu and Hatanaka, having managed to reel the Froome and Barguil breakaway in this time.

        • The picture is from one of the “sprint” races held prior to the criterium, there are several events featuring the riders, a time trial too. As Dave says Cavendish was first in the main criterium ahead of Beppu and Hatanaka.

  2. Interesting geo ethnology lesson.

    We all, including the UCI might benefit with a little race, gender and geo sensitivity training.

    I need to order my life size Kangaroo for the TdU, till next year…

  3. If Aso is going to work on this there is a good chance that something will be established. Contrary the UCI has nearly never really managed to create anything substancial anywhere. Velon not too

    Generally said in Japan is really a fan base. Similar too Australia. So a one day day classic through hilly Tokyo would be great.

    I also hope the organizers of the olympic race will take advantage of the mountainous profile of western Tokyo. And not just lead them through the flat streets close to emperor palace

    • I’ve seen the proposed Olympic course, it will go west as you want but will finish back in Tokyo meaning the harder, more selective part is likely to be in the middle of the race rather than the finish. But this plan dates from June and replaced one seen in February so it could all change again.

  4. Sound interesting. I am already planing to go there in 2020
    There are quite high mountains in tokyo territory, some nearly 2000 meters (Kumotori)

    • Good to know that you became interesed in coming to Japan .
      You will find more younger RR fans here than Europe.
      It might be fun only to see how Japanese fans enjoy watching RR themselves.
      You are very welcomed.

        • There are plenty of cycling cafes in Tokyo. It’s a big city and several districts have their own cafes. Rapha is there but when in Tokyo maybe a more local option is interesting although if you go, walk around the corner to see Crown Gears, a bike shop with many vintage machines that would draw attention on the start line of the Eroica, a lot of 80s steel and chrome polished up. There’s Bonsai near the popular Shibuya which is a bike shop serving coffee and there’s Ratio C which is a cafe with a bike theme.

    • It’s a different crowd to put it mildly. Keirin is for gambling rather than sport and not the most seductive image as punters queue up to lose money (“Keirin’s image here is so bad that I’ve heard stories of tourist desk staff actively discouraging tourists”

      By contrast the crowds at the road races are very enthusiastic, there are fan clubs for, say, Italian pros who might not even be on your radar at all – think Manuele Mori – but they have an army, or at least a battalion, of fervent supporters in Japan.

      • During an academic visit to Japan a few years ago my wife insisted they take her to see keirin. Her hosts begged her to reconsider but eventually relented. She described the atmosphere as more like a decrepit dog racing track in the USA than any sort of cycling event. A few dejected and down-and-out looking gamblers chain smoked while studying the racing form in an atmosphere that was all about gambling rather than cycling. Afterwards she understood why her hosts were so reluctant to oblige her request.

  5. Keirin still strong, yes. Difficult to say if its the same kind of people that like road races. Maybe not

    I went in some lonely parts in the japanese alpes in the summer of 99 and 2000. Nigata prefecture, rainforest like landscape. Saw surprisingly many cyclists there

  6. I live in Japan, just outside Tokyo. It’s a wonderful cycling country however I understand it’s extremely difficult, nearly impossible, to close roads for races – Japan Cup & Japan Tour take place on loops and circuits. It’s a real shame because the terrain, climate, road conditions and culture are all primed for phenomenal racing, and there are some seriously genetically gifted climbers out here too that could give Japan a much stronger WT presence if there were more options for amateur and pro racing.

  7. I wonder if Kyoto would be a possibility. Ringed with gorgeous, difficult climbs, very international city, close to Osaka so together you have a huge base of potential support, but perhaps without quite as much difficulty in getting access to roads as you would near Tokyo? It gets very quiet just outside the city limits to the north, in particular.

  8. I was in Tokyo this weekend for holiday but didn’t go to Saitama, was running a bit short on time and wasn’t sure if it would be worth it, publicity information was pretty hard to come by in English. Looks like it was good though. Did see Jaco Venter looked pretty confused in Shinjuku train station (i would have offered to help but i was equally confused)

  9. There is a very popular comic, or manga, series in both comic book form and animated cartoon (think high quality animation, not sponge-bob) totally based on road racing with its own heroes and villains. I saw one episode, and found it entertaining, even though I didn’t understand the Japanese dialogue. I can’t read Japanese either, that’s why I don’t know the name of the title. My point being–the Japanese have a strong cult-like following for road racing among some portions of its population. Not surprising, since it is the land of Shimano (as Mr. Inrg points out above), and Honda was originally a bicycle maker over 100 years ago. Which begs the question why bike racing is not more prevalent there. As for the keiren racing, it’s been around for decades, and one of its top riders in the late 70’s (Nakano) became world sprint champion on the track in the early ’80s for a few years.

  10. Japan has some amazing landscapes and must have roads for selective racing so it’s a shame the most high profile “racing” is exhibition crits. The sport will never develop organically that way, even if it does secure short term finance and crowds. I’m sure there are hurdles to creating such a course but from an outsider’s perspective it does seem like a missed opportunity at present.

    • There’s a deep respect for the international star riders who accept the invitation to race in keirin there. Kaarle McCulloch said her national champion’s jersey got more respect in Japan than it did in Australia (where it was often assumed that her winning = Anna Meares not racing).

  11. Sort of reminds me of the Lemond-Hinault picture of them in stetsons, cowboy boots and on horses. That seemed to do the trick…..once Lance super charged the peloton. If the next multi-TdF winner is a Japanese cyclist we can all reflect back to this….

  12. Thanks for your great write up. Yes, 1.HC Japan Cup in Utsunomiya, Tochigi has a great shot to be WT and ready to go, if they can solve schedule conflict. Many of pro riders says JC already has WT class quality of organizing and hospitality, draws 130K+ enthusiastic fans for 3 days, especially last 2 years having Cancellara, Porte and Contador. The road race itself is fast and hard every year with decisive Kogashi hill, even Saturday Criterium is not exhibition thing but serious race as riders way pumped up in front of fans forming tight-knit circle in Utsunomiya downtown. Riders still without contract for next year try to secure it and ride so hard.

    One of reasons which keeps JC in HC is that the fear of missing start list for local CT teams, as you see the case of Tour of California. This year we had 6 Japanese CTs and one Japan special team with riders of some other teams. Especially Utsunomiya Blitzen and Nasu Blazen are local host teams and animate the race very actively, Takeaki Amezawa of Blitzen made podium this year in the rain. JC is excellent opportunity for Japanese riders, especially young guys compete seriously with top notch riders.
JC is great one day race but one barrier we have to solve to hold great stage races in Japan is more cooperations from police and local communities to use *their* roads. Tour of Japan (2.1) stages are mostly in relatively short circuits and young riders has less experiences compete in Europe for longer, harder line race. That’s why Akira Asada’s Equipe Asada project and Nippo Vini Fantini recruits young guys and send directly to overseas. Marathon and Ekiden races have great local/police support, wealthy sponcers and TV coverages because they has long years of history and part of true Japanese culture, Olympic champions. TOJ is expanding venues and Tour of Tochigi (2.2, launched this year) has 3 stages without curcuit with great commitment from local gov and police.

    Anyhow I believe Japan is ready to hold WT races – cycling market is growing and it’s getting to be part of culture, collaboted with tourism. Many challenges are still remaining but it’s matter of time.

    • Thank you for the update–that was very informative!

      And, let’s not forget to give a shout-out to the Fukushima brothers, Shinichi and Koji, especially Shinichi (, a valiant ground-breaker into the upper ranks of the world tour level road racing scene in Asia and Europe back in the early 2000’s. A truly nice guy with a never-ending smile! According to his wikipedia page, he’s now a ds at Nippo Vini Fantini : )

    • Selected WT races are allowed to have a national team entered in addition to the WT teams and PCT wildcards, both races in Australia and both races in Canada have one.

      In addition to that, the Tour of California was allowed to have a couple of USA CTs (Rally and Jelly Belly) this year.

      Both should be possible to include if the Japan Cup goes WT.

      • Yes, but reduced. Need some tweaks of UCI rules to get more local CT teams involved, but not likely. Hope some of our teams will go up to PCT sooner.

  13. I love Japan, and wish there was more serious racing there. I am hopefully running a bike tour of Kagoshima early next year – can’t wait!

    • Kagoshima has wonderful landscape and geography for cyclists, and great food and booze (especially black-pork and imo-shochu). Hope you will have pleasant stay over there.

      • Thanks. I am taking a group of students, most of whom have never ridden a bike for more than a couple of hours. We are doing almost 3ookm in 4 days, so it should be “interesting”…..I will look out for the black pork.

        • Don’t miss Mt. Kaimondake – that’s fantastic landscape if fine weather. Kagoshima is very, very unique place among Japan for many reasons. Hope you folks will discover while riding.

          • Thanks for the tip. We have Japanese guides, so I guess they know the best places to go. We plan to ride from Makurazaki to Ibusuki one day, so we should go past Mt. Kaimondake. I don’t know about the weather – we go in mid March – but I am hoping for cool, clear and dry!

    • Good point! That huge Japanese company whose name begins with S couldn’t even be bothered to show up at the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association tech seminar in Denver I just returned from. WTF?

    • There has been Shimano–Memory Corp, Skil-Shimano, Argos–Shimano, and Giant–Shimano in the past decade or so. Off hand, I don’t recall any other component manufacturers that were title sponsors for a World Tour team in recent memory.

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