Arrigato Japan

Flying home from Japan, I keep on thinking: “Arigato Japan”, which means thank you Japan. The Japan Cup has been an experience I will never forget and it has been a good way to end the 2018 season. 

October is usually the month the season ends and the ‘off season’ starts. Traditionally the European season ends with both Il Lombardia (for the climbers) or Paris-Tours (for the classic riders), but that doesn’t mean the season is over yet. With cycling becoming more and more global, the season ends now a days with the Tour of Guangxi (China) and the Japan Cup. While the Instagram accounts of many colleague cyclists were already filled with exotic holiday stories and my Strava feed looked empty, my season wasn’t over yet!

Last year I was privileged to race in the Tour of Guangxi and honestly, I was looking forward to get back this year once again. Racing there was a special experience, which is still an understatement. The roads specially redone, police officers standing each 50 meters with their back towards the race to protect us from Panda’s (or whatever), a special culture and a relax atmosphere in the bunch made it a perfect way ending least year’s season.

When I got my race program during last year’s December training camp, the Tour of Guangxi got replaced by the Japan Cup. After hearing the stories about last year’s Japan Cup, I got excited to go there. The Japan Cup isn’t a stage race like Guangxi, but a two-days event with a criterium and a hilly road race around the city of Utsonomiya. 

After I had finished the four Italian races, named the GP Emilia, the GP Beghelli, Tre Valle Varesine and the best of all races: Il Lombardia, I headed towards Japan with still a lot of motivation left. During the Italian races we raced strong as a team, only the big result was missing. We took initiative and responsibility and after a hard year, I was proud to race there and to be a part of the team performance again. 

As said before, the Japan Cup isn’t just a ‘candy trip’ towards Japan. Although it’s the final race of the season, there was still a HC (Hors Categorie) race to win! With a strong team (Robert, Antwan, Koen, Lars, Maarten, Frans (DS), Jan-Willem (mechanico), Dries (soigneur) and me) we headed towards Japan. After having a comfortable Business Class flight we arrived early in the morning (Japanese time) in Tokyo. From taking the luggage to get through the customs, everything went smooth and efficient, which confirmed the stories about Japanese efficiency. A two hour bus drive brought us to the race hotel in Utsunomiya. Many of fans were waiting for us, it felt like cycling is popular in Japan! 

Being on the other side of the world means that I would like to see as much as possible of the country. Since we had a race to prepare, there wasn’t time for a big sightseeing trip, but we had a plan! Robert (Gesink) did some research during the Italian races and made a route towards Lake Chuzenji. There’s no better way than exploring the area by bike, so we went for a four hour bike ride towards the lake and the water falls, with some locals joining us! It helped us staying awake, since we were all pretty jet-lagged and had already a criterium coming up next day! The views up the lake were worth the trip and it was a cool way to get in touch with the locals. 

The Japan Cup kicked off on Saturday with a Bianchi fan-ride in the morning and a criterium downtown in the afternoon. Since Bianchi is booming in Japan, there were a lot of ‘Celeste-bike’ owners waiting for us. The criterium felt like a good warm-up for next day’s race. With many peoples shouting our names and literally sitting on the course since 7AM in the morning it was a pretty cool experience. 

On Sunday the time was there for the Japan Cup. A 144km race at the former Utsunomiya World Championships course was waiting for us. Our DS, Frans Maassen had an amazing experience racing the World Championships over there. The Dutch squad thought they had a clever way of not being jet lagged, by arriving the evening before the race. This worked out very well with the whole Dutch squad having a DNF behind their name during the 1991 Utsonomiya World Championships. But Frans liked racing there so much that he even did his goodbye race in Utsonomiya. This time he arrived more early and he made it to the finish. By getting 16th he had at least a better farewell tour. 

The race worked out well for us, with Koen in the brake and Antwan, Robert and me making it to the split on the climb with 40k to go. With two laps to go Robert and Antwan got away with 6 other guys and finally Antwan just missed the win by getting second. 

After the race we straight headed towards Tokyo for a sponsor event and some sightseeing, organized by Bianchi. We stayed at the luxury New Otani Hotel, with a view up the skyline of downtown Tokyo. After reading the facts about Tokyo I was stunned by the fact that there are more than 38 million people living in the metropolitan area. We were wondering how much rice the city has to import to feed their people. By the time we made a walk downtown it felt like Tokyo never calms down. At 2AM the streets were still crowded. I always get impressed by the hugeness of metropoles and I like being there. It feels like time is going twice as fast and there’s never a boring or silent moment in a metropolitan area.

On Monday Bianchi organized a special event for their fans combined with some sightseeing activities and a traditional Sushi lunch for the team. We walked towards a temple and after throwing some coins I’ve hopefully got rid of all my sins. The day ended with the Bianchi fan party, were more than a hundred fans and customers were waiting for us. Many of them even brought self made presents for us. 

Tuesday morning we flew back from Japan with a bag fulled with nice memories and presents! The Japanese culture feels very special and traditional. It looks like people are friendly, polite, very structured and above all, very enthusiast! Cycling lives in Japan and I hope to come back next year. Arigato (thank you) to all the Japanese people for this unforgettable trip! 

My off season starts now and I’ll take some time of the bike. 2018 didn’t brought me the results I was hoping for, it was a year of falling down and standing up again. The last months I felt the power coming back and I will work hard this winter to get back stronger next year!

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