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.
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.