Let’s get something out of the way to start. The Tour de France Saitama Criterium, hosted in the suburban doldrums of Tokyo, is not real or proper bike racing as we know it.
Because of this, it receives a fair amount of mockery (we’re guilty too). Partly, this is due to the overwhelming urge for everyone to take bike racing seriously a lot of the time. Especially these days, where the stakes are always high, with rider contracts and team finances as precarious as ever, youthful talent bursting through and each new impressive young thing being handed a WorldTour deal, and in terms of the ever-present risk that riders put their bodies on the line every time they kick off from a start line.
So maybe the Saitama Criterium (along with its cousin over in Singapore), provide us with some light relief where we know nothing of consequence is going to happen. No-one is going to suffer a season- or career-ending crash. Hopes and dreams won’t be smashed or elevated to inconceivable levels. It’s just a bit of fun. And because the Tour de France is a bit of a racket (a brilliant, beautiful racket we love very much – it’s important to add) it feels like a modicum of snark at the end of another exhaustive road racing calendar is kind of due.
But that’s not how the Saitama Criterium or the people of Japan view it. Not at all.
In the days before the race, Peter Sagan has been doing wheelie contests with local riders. Victor Lafay and Mark Cavendish have been joining in with kids races, traditional clothes and French berets have been donned, drawing competitions undertaken. In simpler terms: it’s fun, when professional road racing so often isn’t. And of course, when race day comes around that doesn’t change one bit.
On the train out from the north of the city to Saitama, the buildings hardly let up. A Manhattan-esque mass of concrete where everything towers over you, nature squeezes in where it can, and life seeps through it all.
Saitama itself is home to 1.3 million people, and seems fairly ordinary as cities with over a million go. It’s the sort of blank canvas you can pour the Tour de France onto to make it pop in slightly more colour.
And that is exactly what the race has done with its exported tasting menu. As soon as you head out of the train station (around which the laps of the race are based, which on one hand is handy as it’s easy to find, but train tracks you can’t cross make it a pain in the arse to navigate) you are confronted with the hanging yellow flags of any other start or finish village in July.
There are people handing out papers outside the station and there are sunflowers grown by a local elementary school. On a sign it says the children had grown them specially to honour the visual tradition of a July Tour. You could also take one home, another sign read, if you asked nicely.
Outside, the taste of France continues, as the square is decorated with French flags and a food market has incorporated some French stalls for the weekend. Sadly, there is no Senseo coffee or lukewarm Gaulois chicken fingers to be seen anywhere.
Down below the concourse, people are already lining the route with two and a half hours until the start. In this Tour cosplay event, this is in keeping with how fans do it.
A middle-aged couple walk past in matching Jumbo-Visma jerseys. In fact, most of the jerseys here are Jumbo-Visma, while a few Team Sky caps are also dotted about, showing the everlasting pull of the yellow jersey, while a couple of Bahrain-Victorious numbers in homage to homegrown hero Yukiya Arashiro as well as the odd EF because, well, vibes, can also be spotted.
Part of the course involves a brief segue indoors, for those with tickets, inside the Saitama Super Arena. It is the second-largest indoor-sports venue in the world, with a maximum capacity of 36,500, has previously contained the John Lennon museum, and today is playing host to the confusing mix of the Tour de France and Japanese ice skater Yuzuru Hanyu, whose ‘re_pray’ Tour has come to Saitama for one night, and one night only. This also explains why there is a 60-person queue for the women’s toilet on the way down to street level. Some stand in line with books. Surely, a queue of this length necessitates getting in line before you actually need to go? In amongst it all is a middle-aged Japanese man sitting at a cafe filling in a gigantic betting slip while listening to the music video for Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated.’ Vibes don’t come purer than this.
After fighting through the crowds to get roadside, the time trial event is about to begin. One fan’s mouth actually drops when she realises she’s watching Tadej Pogačar ride past.
The time trial seems to be taking place at a slightly more pedestrian place and level of exertion than one would be used to, but it’s not really about the time trial, as made evident by the lack of time-trialling equipment. Instead, it’s giving the spectators already in position out on the course ahead of the crit race a chance to see the stars who’ve made the trip over.
Yukiya Arashiro and Bahrain-Victorious win the time trial event, which obviously delights the home fans. From outside the target market, we are kind of desperate to know how the designs for the race are actually fixed. Obviously, someone informs all teams who will be winning the time trial event, and presumably none of the other teams really care or object. But when it comes down to wheels on tarmac: is it just one team (Bahrain-Victorious) absolutely gunning it and the rest taking it easy and putting most of their effort into making it look like they’re trying?
After the time trial we begin to wander over to the finish line area for the main race, which is easier said than done. In Japan, there is a fastidiousness to every pedestrian crossing. Not only does it feel like it takes an absolutely inordinate amount of time for the red man to turn into a green man, but even if there are no cars coming, you would not even dream about crossing the road. As a visitor, I conform, but often you will see one Japanese person defy their societal shackles and cross the road when they damn well please. I look on in envy and with respect.
After overcoming myriad patient crossings, and making progress towards the line, a cyclist hands over a leaflet. It features information concerning a local Saitama team that was launched this year, who are clearly trying to spread the message to locals that there is more bike racing in their area than the Tour criterium.
The leaflet also features a short Q&A with 26-year-old squad member Junpei Fujita, who’s been watching the Saitama Criterium since it was first held in 2013. At that time, he was in high school and had not started cycling competitively but the race in his own backyard inspired him to try it out. He’s on the Saitama Criterium this year and says he was looking forward to being on the road alongside Peter Sagan and Tadej Pogačar.
With a minute to go until the start of the road race, the official Tour de France music begins to ring out and immediately I am transported to the various car parks on the outskirts of French towns where I have spent many a pleasant summer. Really, Saitama is the ideal Tour start town.
As the riders get going and pass under a bridge one racer goes “yewww!!” because who doesn’t also do that when you ride under a bridge?
Alex Carera (Tadej Pogačar’s agent) and Urška Žigart (WWT rider and girlfriend of Pogačar) walk past on their way to the VIP section, where Marcel Kittel is drinking stubbies with a couple of friends before a fan interrupts and the German sprinter kindly spends a long time chatting to them. Meanwhile, Didi the Devil has also been carted in. Later on, Der Teufel will disappear into the race car for a lap, hanging out of the window and waving his trident to the delight of roadside fans, like the Tour’s own demonic labrador … and you know what, Didi’s tongue was probably lolling out of his mouth too.
Lidl-Trek’s Giulio Ciccone, who won the polka dot jersey this summer, has to get in the break in order to take the KOM points. But is there really a difference between the break and bunch today? And how do the riders remember the script? How closely controlled is the whole thing? We’re considering making it our life’s mission to find out the truth.
With 12 laps to go, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish are having a joke about something, we wish we knew what. They, alongside Chris Froome and Adam Hansen, form the Tour de France legends team.
The crowd then cheers as Arashiro puts in a dig ahead of one of the intermediate sprints, before Cavendish comes past him and sticks out his tongue for effect across the line.
The crowd seems to be lapping it up and believing in the whole charade. And, really, when it comes to cycling fans and believing in charades, it’s not like we’re broadly a group that’s unable to sometimes suspend belief when confronted with something exciting and shiny.
Arashiro is soon part of a move off the front alongside Cavendish and others, which then swells in number. The Japanese rider motions for everyone in the latest move to work together, which will go down as one of the more egregious bits of acting this afternoon.
The crowd waiting by the finish line continues to grow, the darkening clouds are not putting anyone off, and the marshalling is being taken extremely seriously. Everyone is giving an exact spot to stand in and any deviation will not be tolerated. The rules are there and you must follow them.
Suddenly, Chris Froome attacks! Accompanied by Egan Bernal and Koto Yokoyama, who soon drops behind the Tour-winning pair. Is this part of the script? Froome checks behind frantically. Does Froome still have it?
This group are soon brought back too, but then another cheer erupts, as Peter Sagan attacks! This is by far the most excited the crowd has been up to this point.
The Slovakian is still out in front with two laps to go, and now Kuss and Pogačar are trying to move across as heavier rain drops begin to fall.
Attack GC Kuss! He now wants everything! Are the Tour organisers helping his cause for some sort of parity with Jonas Vingegaard as only one of two Grand Tour winners within Jumbo-Visma? Elevating the American to the status of being so good he is worthy of a Saitama podium? Are they sowing the seeds of a Pogačar comeback victory in 2024? Or, did the script writers just want a finale of Pogačar versus Jumbo-Visma, and with Vingegaard absent, Kuss will have to do?
Pogačar then attacks from further out than you ever would in a sprint finish and sails across the line to the rapturous applause of the crowd, the Slovenian clasping his hands to his head in his trademark disbelief celebration. Kuss is second and Sagan third, with Cavendish leading the bunch across the line in fourth, the Manxman reaching out to shake the hands of those who pushed him close but not close enough to finish ahead of him.
All around me there are smiles from cycling fans who’ve had a fun day out. Who’ve seen the stars of the sport they love make the journey over so they can see them live in the flesh instead of on their TV screens during late summer evenings.
To them, even if they know none of this is real, it doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe the spectacle is enough to be exciting. Maybe in a culture that is into fandoms and idols, it is more about the riders than any grand, possibly confused ideas of sincerity and credibility that we like to attribute to the bike races we watch in our part of the world.
One thing is for sure. With a fanbase that will loyally turn out for what is essentially a fake version of the sport they love, Japan deserves a proper WorldTour-level event. The Japan Cup comes too late in the season (mid-October) for it to really carry any weight. Logistically, it would obviously be tricky. But bike racing isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? Even at a fake criterium.
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