Geraint Thomas, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali, Marcel Kittel, Matteo Trentin, Alexander Kristoff and some of their teammates were invited by the organisers of the Saitama Criterium to participate in the events held by the Japanese prefecture to celebrate on the end of the cycling season, a party coordinated by the Tour de France.
Saitama has the highest ownership of bicycles per capita of anywhere in Japan – one of the reasons this event has been held here since 2013. But although those figures relate to transport and commuting rather than racing, the fans were as eager to get close to the riders for an autograph or selfie as much as any diehard fan back in Europe.
The riders were present on Saturday at an exhibition with mini-bikes and a baseball clinic, followed a day later by the three cycling, non-competitive events acting as core of the weekend: a series of sprints between groups of four riders -a resemblance of the ‘keirin’, a track discipline really popular in Japan-, a team time trial and, finally, the 19 laps of the main race, where Alejandro Valverde raised his arms first in front of Geraint Thomas and Yukiya Arashiro.
“It was a wonderful race,” the 38-year-old Movistar rider told local TV Tokyo. “I’m happy I was able to participate in this race,” he said after finishing the 19-lap race over a three-kilometre course.
Valverde and Thomas were “very fast,” said Japan’s Arashiro, who finished third.
“But I did my best… I’ll make more efforts for a year again and show people that I can win,” he said, adding he hopes more people will come see cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Vincenzo Nibali finished fourth, while Marcel Kittel finished sixth.