Ten years and a sky full of stars for the Tour de France Saitama Critérium
October 4 th 2023 - 16:40 [GMT + 9]
A decade after the inaugural Saitama Criterium feted the movers and shakers of the 100th Tour de France, the champions are again returning to wrap up the season in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japanese fans always turn out in force along the three kilometres four hundred circuit through the heart of this city on the outskirts of Tokyo.
As the first gift to mark this very special anniversary, Tadej Pogačar will be making his debut in Saitama. The Slovenian rider clinched the Tour in 2020 and 2021, when the late-season celebration had to be scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Echoing the podium on the Champs-Élysées, the winner of the white jersey in the latest edition will be flanked by the conqueror of the polka-dot jersey, Giulio Ciccone, as well as the former winners Egan Bernal and Chris Froome.
Chris Froome was there when it all began. Fresh off the first of his four Tour de France victories, the Briton won over the Japanese fans in his first appearance in the Saitama Criterium. Clad in his yellow jersey, he emerged victorious from the urban circuit and developed a taste for sewing up the season with his Japanese fans. The ties were so strong that in 2019, a few months after his hair-raising crash, he even went there on crutches and jumped on his bicycle. "Froomey" is back to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Criterium, along with some of the riders who left their mark on the past decade, which also saw a changing of the guard. Mark Cavendish, with 34 Tour de France stage wins on his account, also added his name to the honour roll of the Saitama Criterium in 2017. The Japanese event could turn out to be the last race in the career of the "Manx Missile", who is still keeping mum on his professional future. Peter Sagan, on the other hand, left no room for doubt when he announced that he was hanging up his road bicycle at the end of the year… after one last ride on the urban circuit where he prevailed in 2016.
In a way, the field in Saitama is a synopsis of the recent history of the Tour de France, including the historic victory of a Colombian rider, then only 22. Egan Bernal's career has since been a mixed bag, with a triumph in the Giro followed by a blood-curdling crash some time later. He returned to the Tour and Vuelta pelotons this season. The early 2020s will be best remembered for the meteoric rise of Tadej Pogačar, who had to settle for the runner-up's spot in the Tour last July but secured his third —and last— white jersey. On the other side of town, fans had already been following Sepp Kuss's career with great interest, but the American took it to a whole new level with his victory in the Vuelta last September. His teammate, Christophe Laporte, was also rewarded for his constant progression with a win in the recent European Championships. Reading the tea leaves to anticipate the future, Giulio Ciccone's polka-dot jersey seems likely to be the first of several, much like Carlos Rodríguez's stage win in Morzine opens up new horizons for the Spanish camp as the search for the heir to Alberto Contador continues.
Riders participating (as of 28/09):
- Lidl–Trek: Giulio Ciccone, Dario Cataldo (ITA), Asbjørn Hellemose (DEN) and Mathias Vacek (CZE)
- UAE Team Emirates: Tadej Pogačar (SLO), Ivo Oliveira (POR), Álvaro Hodeg (COL) and Davide Formolo (ITA)
- Jumbo–Visma: Sepp Kuss (USA), Christophe Laporte (FRA), Attila Valter (HUN) and Jan Tratnik (SLO)
- Cofidis: Victor Lafay, Axel Zingle, Guillaume Martin and Thomas Champion (FRA)
- Ineos Grenadiers: Egan Bernal, Brandon Rivera (COL), Joshua Tarling (GBR) and Carlos Rodríguez (ESP)
- Bahrain Victorious: Pello Bilbao (ESP), Matevž Govekar (SLO), Yukiya Arashiro (JAP) and Kamil Gradek (POL)
- Legend Team: Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome (GBR), Peter Sagan (SVK) and Victor Campenaerts (BEL)