A close up of a Manabu Ishibashi in the rain at the Tour of Oman.

From Japan to … the Tour de France?

Recruiting ex-WorldTour riders as staff as a bridge to Europe, a former Formula 1 driver has big ambitions.

Credit: Pauline Ballet/ASO

Jonny Long
by Jonny Long 21.03.2024 Photography by
Pauline Ballet for ASO, Tour of the Alps
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JCL Team UKYO is currently racing at Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, where through three stages the team has four top-10 finishes including a podium on stage 1.

At the Tour of Oman, you’d be forgiven that at the start lines, there was often little to see.

In fact, if the only parts of the world you saw were the starts of mid-level bike races like the Tour of Oman, you’d be forgiven for thinking our planet was merely a succession of car parks.

The fact of the matter is to find the room for umpteen cars, riders and support staff in places that don’t take hours to drive to and are located in places where fans may be able to come and politely gawp, car parks find themselves taking on a second life.

As you wander past professional cyclists in various states of undress, trying to avoid eye contact with arses and bollocks, you’re also trying to be perceptive, to notice something mildly compelling, something novel. On day two of being in a desert car park, I am already parched for something to pique my interest.

Wait a minute. I slow my pace; is that former Astana-Qazaqstan pro Manuele Boaro emblazoned in the polo shirt of a nondescript Continental team I am not familiar with?

JCL Team UKYO, featuring Japanese champion Masaki Yamamoto, accompanied by Alberto Volpi and Manuele Boaro standing to the right. Credit: Tour of the Alps
JCL Team UKYO, featuring Japanese champion Masaki Yamamoto, accompanied by Alberto Volpi and Manuele Boaro standing to the right. Credit: Tour of the Alps

I wander over, introducing myself to Boaro who is so relaxed he may as well be horizontal. The Italian sports director’s JCL Team UKYO riders mill around readying themselves for the day’s stage. A mechanic drills … something.

JCL Team UKYO consists of 11 riders (seven of whom are here in Oman).

The Aussie Nathan Earle (formerly of Team Sky back in the day) may be familiar to some, and he’s joined by three Italians including Matteo Malucelli, and then seven Japanese riders, including Japanese national champion Masaki Yamamoto.

“I finished in October my career and a week later Alberto Volpi [former pro and DS for Barloworld and Bahrain-Victorious as recently as last year] called me because he saw I was stopping and said, ‘I have a new job for you in this team; would you like to come?’ I said OK,” said Boaro.

They met in Milan and Volpi, JCL’s general manager, sold the project to Boaro, now looking for something to fill the hole where his professional life as a cyclist used to be.

JCL Team UKYO have a twist to them, in that the UKYO in their name refers to their owner, Ukyo Katayama, a former Formula 1 driver who raced 97 Grand Prixs and has since finished second in the 24 hours of Le Mans, climbed six of the Seven Summits, dabbled in television presenting, oh, and started a Continental cycling team.

For years they’ve competed on the Asian circuit, at the Tours of Japan, Korea, Hainan, and Taiwan. But last year UKYO decided he wanted more – to become the first Japanese team “to not only compete in the Tour de France, but also reach the podium.”

Easier said than done, right? Who doesn’t want to race in the Tour de France? Ukyo has a plan, however, and one not without merit. The team will relocate to Northern Italy for portions of the season and hired Volpi and Boaro, names known in European cycling circles, who are able to call up races and ask for wildcard spots, with some success.

Following Oman, the riders will head to Como for three months for a European block of racing, including the 2.Pro Tour of the Alps in April, before the Japanese riders need to head home briefly before their visas expire.

“The guys need to see cycling in Europe, also in Asia, but if you want to have results, you have to ride in Europe,” Boaro tells me. “This is why the guys come close to Como in a big house. Training in Italy, nutritionist in Italy. We [will] see step-by-step, we want to go up.

“We start from here [in Oman] and then we go to Trofeo Laigueglia and then the Tour of Taiwan. It’s nice to be there. It’s not simple, we have to go and ask many races ‘please can we possibly come?'”

For Boaro, it’s not just about a sort-of new life post-career, it’s a job with the potential for a different adventure to the one he lived whilst riding.

“I like Japan and also for me everything is new. A new career because after you finish cycling it’s nice to be here, to stay in racing. I did the Saitama Criterium and Japan Cup, there are a lot of fans in Japan. This is why I love it! The feeling is amazing, the same as when you go to the Tour or Giro, because the fans have maybe two races to see the riders. This is why it’s a big advantage for the guys, for people who love cycling. There’s a lot of cycling passion in Japan. Always when I was in Japan I was happy. The people give a lot of respect and the feeling is very good.”

JCL Team UKYO lead from the front at the Tour of Oman.
JCL Team UKYO lead from the front at the Tour of Oman. Credit: Tour of the Alps

Boaro has only spoken to Ukyo via phone for now, and their Middle Eastern trip to the AlUla Tour and Oman is the first meeting between the 11 riders and the new team staff this year. Ukyo is happy, Boaro tells me, as the team’s new Italian sprinter Matteo Malucelli managed a top 10 in AlUla, and in Oman the squad have been active in breaks.

Has Boaro found it easy to adapt to this new life?

“I stopped in October and since then I’ve been on the bike three times,” he admits. “The new job has demanded a lot of focus. All the time I’m on the computer. But when I’m in the team car, I’m feeling the race. I have a lot of passion and I want to help the guys as much as possible because when I was a rider I wanted that, and now I want to continue that philosophy.”

The Japan Cup at the end of the season and the Tour of Japan in May are obviously big goals for the team, where Aussie Nathan Earle should be in attendance for the squad as the ToJ’s two-time defending champion, but the wildcard invite to April’s Tour of the Alps is an even bigger opportunity. Another of many steps on their journey to where they want to be.

“The goal Ukyo wants is a Grand Tour, but we don’t want to pressure the guys or go too fast,” Boaro says. Maybe one day they’ll get there. For Boaro, he may get to Japan again in 2025 for a start of season training camp. Until then, more emails, and more bike races.

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