Cycling: Japan embraces prestige of colourful Tour

Cycling: Japan embraces prestige of colourful Tour

SAITAMA,Japan - Tour de France organisers ASO took a bold leap into a new market by holding the first event outside France to carry its prestigious name in Saitama on Saturday.

The Criterium de Saitama, a publicity event aimed at attracting Japanese investment to the Tour while boosting the profile of road cycling in the Asian country, proved an unqualified success.

The result of the Criterium's three races were less significant than the attention the event attracted on a day that began in gloomy fog but ended with bright sunshine.

Japanese national riders Yusuke Hatanaka and Yasuharu Nakajima won the two opening track-style keirin races around the 2.7km Saitama street circuit before Tour de France champion Chris Froome unsurprisingly triumphed in the crowd-pleasing main event, the 54km criterium, from the Tour's Green Jersey winner Peter Sagan and world champion Rui Costa.

The duel format race was aimed at tapping into Japanese enthusiasm for keirins and subtly turning their heads towards conventional road cycling, a sport which sits a long way behind the more popular endeavours of baseball, football and sumo.

For local hero Fumiyuki Beppu of the professional Orica GreenEDGE team, this was a great opportunity to educate local fans and he admitted Froome's participation was crucial.

"It's good for the fans in Japan because they don't know cycling perfectly, it's not easy to invite the winner of the Tour to a criterium like this," he said.

"With Japan and how far is it from Europe - it's a long way - it's not easy to get the best riders.

"It's very important because we have to explain cycling well because otherwise people think cycling is keirin straight away, we have to explain it."

And Beppu believes it is a sport with the potential to grow, especially given that Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Olympics.

"Baseball, football and sumo are still great sports but we've made a lot of progress since 10 years ago," he added. "This criterium, it's the Tour de France that's coming to Japan, that's great progress.

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