Arashiro, emperor of Saitama

October 27 th 2019 - 09:58

Several days after the coronation of Emperor Naruhito, Yukiya Arashiro achieved a crowning moment in his career by winning in front of his home crowds on the Tour de France Saitama Criterium. The victory must have been even sweeter since in the run-up to the finish he resisted the duo made up of Yellow Jersey Egan Bernal and Vuelta Red Jersey winner Primoz Roglic.Beforehand in the main race, Matteo Trentin and Romain Bardet stood out, respectively claiming the green and polka dot jerseys, whilst the very lively Jakob Fuglsang was designated the most combative rider on this unofficial “22nd stage”.

At the starting line, the Tour de France Saitama Criterium experienced a world first in the history of cycling, because whilst the pack obviously welcomed the Yellow Jersey, worn by Egan Bernal, he was rubbing shoulders with the Vuelta’s Red Jersey winner, Primoz Roglic. However, such unusual circumstances did not disrupt the usual scenario of the circuit race, when a 9-rider breakaway quickly formed and almost immediately revealed the ambitions of its protagonists, with the intermediate sprint won by Matteo Trentin, whilst Romain Bardet was true to his Polka Dot Jersey in gobbling up the climbing points at the top of a particularly steep exit from a tunnel! At the mid-way point in the race, the racing scenario had become all too clear, with the Green Jersey falling into the hands of the former European Champion, though the pack stayed within twenty seconds of the breakaway, meaning that victory was unlikely to go to one of the riders in this small group of attackers.
This prediction proved to be true, when four laps and 14 km from the finish, the breakaway was caught and a counter-attack took place, putting Fuglsang, Naesen, Calmejane and Arashiro, amongst other riders, to the fore, still closely followed by the pack. The Yellow and Red Jerseys wanted their taste of glory and with 7 kilometres left, they bridged to the breakaway, increasing its efficiency. Shortly before tackling the last lap, Fuglsang and Arashiro split away and the counter-attacking group was reduced to a partnership between Bernal and Roglic. Roared on by the spectators in Saitama, Arashiro managed to distance Fuglsang and took on the final straight alone. The winners of the last two grand tours were close behind, but the Bahrain-Merida rider held strong to achieve one of his finest successes. At the age of 35 years, the pioneer of Japanese cycling is continuing to show the way to his younger heirs.

Sprint aficionados enjoyed a rare formula in Saitama, with four qualification races to reach the final, contested on a rolling start, 800 metres from the finishing line. In the first heat, Oliver Naesen proved to be a bit too cocky when attacking 500 metres from the line and was caught and passed by Japan’s Saya Kuroeda. However, this technique worked for Michal Kwiatkowski, in a tough heat where he had to count on his power to avoid a direct confrontation at the line with Matteo Trentin. The third heat was completely different, in which the duel between Anthony Turgis and Kakeru Omae went the Frenchman’s way right at the very end: “I think my experience helped me to beat him,” explained the relieved Total-Direct Energie rider. The fourth ticket for the final was a two-way battle between a Japanese pair, since Jakob Fuglsang was evidently not confident in his finishing skills against the duo of Watanabe and Sawada, who crossed the line in that order. In the final, “Kwiato” again tried to shake off his competitors with an acceleration 500 metres from the line, but this time was lacking the strength to hold out against his two Japanese rivals. The duel was won by Saya Kuroeda, the only rider of the day to put in a faultless performance.

The team time-trial in Saitama stood out this year because it witnessed the return to competition for Chris Froome following his serious accident on the last Critérium du Dauphiné. It was not a sensational comeback, as the four-time winner of the Tour de France had already pointed out when speaking of his current strength and form, with Team Ineos finishing in 12th position, the last of Tour de France teams in the classification. At the top of the table, four Japanese teams with explosive qualities overcame the strengths of the elite squads. In the contest between the Tour de France teams, the AG2R trio finished 5th with an average speed of 46.9 kmph, placing them 3 seconds ahead of Astana and 7 seconds ahead of Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team-mates.

A career as an elite sprinter can open doors to all sorts of opportunities. Marcel Kittel, who this summer decided to definitively leave the saddle at the age of 31 years old, has not had to wait for long to slip into a new role. The German colossus, a regular at the Saitama Criterium since his initial participation in 2013 after winning his first four stages on the Tour de France, has been invited this year as an ambassador. This is a natural role for him in light of the affection he has for the end of season race that he won in 2014: “I’ve always had a wonderful welcome here and everybody has been able to see just how touched I have been each time by the acclaim of the crowds”. Kittel can also look back with particular fondness on the 14 stages he won on the Tour de France as he draws the final curtain on his time as a pro rider: “I have had a fine career. The highlights are obviously those victories on the Tour de France, as well as having had the opportunity to wear the Yellow Jersey. As a sprinter, I always dreamed about tasting victory on the Champs-Elysées”. Such memories are not holding Kittel back from looking forward, starting with his life as a young father which will commence in the forthcoming weeks: “It’s a new chapter that’s going to begin for me. I will be spending more time with my family and I will soon be starting studies in economics”.

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