Tour of Japan
In May writer and regular Soigneur contributor Tom Southam took over as acting team manager for the British Rapha Condor JLT Continental cycling team at the 17th Tour of Japan. For Southam and his riders the race presented both a complex sporting challenge, as well as an opportunity to experience racing in a less well-known corner of the cycling world.
I waited my whole adult life to get to the land of the rising sun. Now the sun is coming up at 3:30 am on my first morning there, and I’m wide-awake thinking about Bill Murray in ‘Lost in Translation’. There is a control panel next to my bed, there is a button here for everything: electricity is everywhere. I make myself a cup of Japanese green tea, because at this time of night it is that or beer. I know which one I would prefer, but I also know which one my body needs. I re-read the last paragraph of an email from a friend:
When it comes to booze, you’ll want to go for shochu rather than sake (nishon-shu in Japanese), if you want to avoid beastly headaches. It’s a Japanese spirit, about 20%, and particularly nice if you go for the sweet potato variety – you may even find the odd jar of habu-shu, which is said liquor with a huge pickled viper in it. Guaranteed to leave no hangover whatsoever.
Japan has always seemed like another world to me. After twenty years of international racing, Europe has become staid, America too easy, and Africa is just plain difficult. Japan always seemed different. In Japan they look at things differently. In Japan they love karaoke. When morning finally comes I head for the buffet. Breakfast is powdered scrambled egg and sweet breads, which I eat with chopsticks as Pippo Pozzatto, the race’s biggest draw, arrives at breakfast. He looks tired and annoyed, he smells expensive. There is nothing for our riders to do but rest on the first day in Osaka. I meet Daisuke – Rapha’s man in Japan. He has great sideburns, and his turned up jeans are immaculate. I ask him where we can find the vending machines that sell used underwear and he coyly tells me hes never heard of that before.
Red t-shirt wearing race officials buzz about the hotel and tell me lists of things that we can and can’t do. Just in case I forget, there is a big list of them written up on a whiteboard in the hotel reception. I am not great with rules. Japan however seems to be constructed out of them. In the manager’s meeting we go over the logistics of the race. There are two rest days, and two stages less than 15 km in length in eight days. All of the stages are on circuits of one size or another. Daisuke tells me that this is the only way that they can get away with organising the race, as the road closure is complicated in such a busy country. I look at the start list and decide that Taylor Gunman is my favourite name of all the riders. I make a mental note to follow his progress.
Osaka is a sea of multi-lane roads filled with cube shaped cars. When the lights go out, the streets shimmer and shops and buildings come to life as if the city has just been plugged in. Daisuke takes us to meet the team’s fans downtown. They are delighted to meet our riders; they present postcards for signing and ask for pictures. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about a group of unheard British twenty somethings stuns us all. Daisuke advises me on the competition, he tells me about the manger of the Utsonomiya Blitzen team, Yusuke Shimizu. “He is a legend here. His tactics will always be the best; he made Beppu, Fukishima, Aroshiro. His riders here are young, they will be smart though.” I realise Japan has turned out a number of WorldTour professionals in recent years. I tell him Aroshiro is a quality rider and he tells me the story of how he missed out on a contract at a different WorldTour team because his agent muddled up the decimal point system, and asked for 30 million euros a year.
The race begins the following day. It is Sunday and as we drive to the start in the early morning sunlight a shiny black Mercedes taxi passes us. There are three business men inside: the one in the front is falling asleep holding a can of iced coffee, in the back the two others are drunkenly giggling. The driver wears immaculate white gloves. When we arrive at the race the public is delighted. Luke is two meters tall. Women want their pictures taken with him, but blush and squeal whenever he comes close. He hands out hats and postcards and I guess he feels a lot more special than he usually does on a Sunday morning. Another of my riders, Hugh, is also tall, but he is bothered. “They only like me because I’m different.” At first this level of adulation feels strange. But, he is young and stressed by the whole thing, and I know that he needs time to feel normal with it.
The riders race 2.7 km on the first day and already the following day is a rest day. That night the friendly lady from the organization who has the dubious pleasure of trying to keep our team in-line with the infinite number of non-race race rules accosts me: “Tom-san, you must make sure your riders all return their hotel key cards.” “The plastic key cards? Really?” I almost never hand the things in. I have thousands. When we clamber on the bus in the morning (without handing our key cards back in) a bespectacled guide timidly tells us from the front of the bus: “The trip is 200 km but driving rules are very strict in Japan. The driver must stop every two hours.” We stop four times in the 200 km drive. It takes all day. At the service stations they show CCTV footage of car crashes. Keeping drivers on their toes, I assume.
Outside of Osaka the land crumples into green mountains. There is no fat at all on the land in Japan. Temples and mobile phone towers pierce each skyline. That night all of the managers are invited to a function. I watch while a procession of dignitaries take turns to stand on stage, bow, and say things I can’t pretend to understand. During one speech the woman next to me touches my arm and says: “She’s talking about socks made from paper.” “What?” “Paper.” I think she’s mixed up her translation, but she hasn’t. “The woman on stage makes paper socks.” I wonder how well they will hold up in the wash.
We spend the rest of the night taking turns to fill everyone else’s glasses with beer, which I find to be a highly agreeable custom. My head clears by the following morning, but just after two hours of the first road stage – around a pan flat circuit close to the city of Mino, the car feels it is necessary to tell me: “You have been driving for over two hours: please take a rest.” I wouldn’t actually mind a break, nothing happening in the race. Pozzatto sits on the front like he is on a training ride for most of the stage. The speaker on race radio has a thick accent; at one point I swear she says: “The peloton is having a bottle of wine.”
I have Yufta in the car photographing the race. He exudes the kind of extreme politeness I associate with the Japanese. I ask him about the number of foreign riders I’ve noticed in Japanese teams. “There are lots of Spanish riders coming. There is an agent who brings them in to the Japanese teams. It is very good for our cycling.” I conclude that either these Spanish riders are no good, or that times must be hard in Spain. Japan is a long way from home for European cyclists.
As far as I can tell to watch pornography in the race hotel that night you have to go and buy a card from a machine in the corridor to put in another machine that is plugged into your TV. They have vending machines selling beer in the corridor. I imagine it as a friendly beer-selling robot, which it sort of is. I don’t watch any porn but I do wake up at 4 am again, and read an email from a fan.
I hope you enjoy The Iida stage.
I believe this stage is a mountain course, therefore, good for climber like a lighter weight Rapha member, ie: Daniel Whitehouse.
Unfortunately it starts to rain.
Please, take care of slippery road.
I am looking forward to see you tomorrow and the glory.
‘… and the glory.’ I love that sentence and I love Japan.
The rain comes down the next day all right. Lampre take up the pace making. Soon though Richard, my designated road captain, comes back to the car. “Everyone is creeping down the descent. The boys are keen to light it up, what do you think?” I know that attacking on the wet on a descent would be an infringement on an unwritten cycling rule. I tell them to go for it. Almost immediately race radio calls out an attack. “Numbers in the break:
31, 32, 34, 36.” Four Rapha Condor JLT riders. My riders. The race explodes under the pressure. Order breaks down. We don’t win the stage; our best rider Hugh Carthy is only 19 and – looking for teenage kicks – he attacks too early and gets caught before the finish, but it is a glorious defeat. Yufta is beside himself with excitement. “The Japanese people love to see the struggle. They like people with fighting spirit. Today was a very good day for the team.” The fans in Japan are more passionate than anywhere I have been. That night I have a deluge of emails from them.
‘… and the glory.’ I’m also told there is now a 30,000 Yen fine for non-returned room keys.
We have another rest day the next day so I take the staff out in Iida where we are staying that night and we sit at a bar and watch baseball and eat ‘okonomiyaki’ (Japanese pancakes) with ice-cold beers. On a stage race the chances to break routine are few. We head to a karaoke bar. I recall more advice from my friend’s email:
I hope you’re working on a karaoke repertoire. You only need about three staples, but try them out before you leave. Songs you think are going to be easy often turn out surprisingly tricky. An old staple like Simon and Garfunkel – The Boxer is the kind of hammer blow your hosts will never recover from. Tears, hugs, bonhomie, more viper juice, and a party till dawn.
He’s not wrong. At 4 am I sing ‘The River’ to an audience of five Japanese businessmen and their escorts. It is everything I hoped Japan would be.
We transfer to Mt Fuji the next day and the riders complain that there are too many transfers for so little racing. We begin to pass mountains and Yufta tells me these are the Japanese Alps, “Like the French Alps!” he adds for clarity. “Do you race there?” “Yes. In Japan there is no road racing for amateurs, but many hill climbs…” “Shit, if that doesn’t put you off, nothing will…” Hill climbs seem like a very Japanese kind of race. They are cycling’s haikus, they strip the sport right down to its essence: man against man against nature. As we approach Mt Fuji the smaller mountains seem to fall away, like the great volcano is a crime scene, and the rest of the hills have been ushered back behind a police line. We arrive at the race hotel at the foot of the mountain. It rains heavily on the thick trees outside. Lying on the floor on my bamboo bed, I am struck by the sudden serenity.
We drive up to recce the climb that evening and Mt Fuji seems cased in silence. At 2,000 m the road stops, below us the cloud lingers in the tree line, ahead a deep blanket of white snow sits on the dark volcanic summit.
The stage itself is a massed start 11 km hill climb with an average gradient of 12%. We all know that this will be the decisive stage of the race. Riders are dropped immediately. I have the window open and I am struck by their suffering: like gargoyles, agony is set in stone on their faces. I pass Taylor Gunman. It’s hard to watch. In the cold air at the top we find out that Hugh was second. It is a great result that catapults him up the standings. His suffering turned to glory.
As we drive to our next hotel our guide on the bus gingerly steps up and tells us: “Um, there are many other guests in the hotel tonight. We are a quiet and reserved people in Japan, so please… do not walk naked in the corridor.” The bike riders’ habit of walking around the corridors of hotels in their underwear does not go down well in Japan.
The penultimate stage is at the Keirin School in Izu. The place is miles from anywhere but still the fans pack in. The complex is enormous. Daisuke tells me: “There are four outdoor velodromes here and two indoor. They have this thing they train on called The Wall. It’s a 200 m stretch of tarmac that ends with a 50 m ramp at 25%. They sprint flat out into it, and then they have to get up the slope!” It sounds awful. “What’s that thing that looks like a theme park?” “That’s a bike-themed theme park.” Of course it is.
The Iranian Tabriz Petrochemicals team is on a mission to take the overall. At the start of the stage two of them pull a group clear including Hugh. Soon they start to ride away from the rest of the break. Hugh stays with them, but the speed is extraordinary. Behind, all the big teams in the race including Lampre and Vini Fantini fall apart. The gap goes out to six minutes on the twisting, undulating course. I drive up to talk to Hugh who is alone now with the two Iranians. Hugh only needs two points to take the K.O.M. I go to tell him not to work unless they give him the points. Before I can say anything he leans his head in the window and says, “They’ve told me I can have the points – as long as I don’t come through.” “What?” “They reckon they are fast enough without me…”
They certainly are. Even with Hugh sat on, the two Iranians lap (and eliminate) 44 riders, on a 12 km circuit, and win the stage. Hugh takes an insurmountable lead in the K.O.M. and moves to sixth overall, with just one flat 80 km stage to go. All the talk is about whether or not the eliminated riders will be allowed back in. Some teams have been totally excluded, others reduced to just one rider. In any other country the rules would be bent to allow the riders back in, not here.
We arrive in Tokyo that evening as the sun is setting on the city, making the endless sea of tall buildings that surround us shimmer in the light. Bruce Willis advertises iced coffee on huge billboards. The skyline reads like an electronics fare. Our bus winds through Tokyo on a highway ten stories high; the mirror-ball metropolis of the capital is below us. As the red sun sets on the east I think about Japan and I reason that the Japanese – like all the best of us, are a paradox. Their world is modernity and electricity, but they crave to glimpse the spirit at its purest, and while they might live in a world of rules and perfect order, they still love it when that order breaks down. It’s why they love bike racing. It’s why they love karaoke.