Ben Berden on his way to the win. © Donn Kellogg

by Donn Kellogg

As the 2011/2012 cyclocross season sadly winds down, the pros from each country are tying off their last races. In Europe, the likes of Sven Nys, Zdenek Stybar and Kevin Pauwels battled for the Superprestige title and the final GPs, while the boys in Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld’s black and green – Tim Johnson, Christian Heule, Jamey Driscoll – joined with Belgian’ US transplant Ben Berden (Ops Ale-Stoemper) and Portland local Erik Tonkin at a venue slightly more foreign, traveling to Japan to take part in Cyclocross Tokyo.

The crowds were as large as at many US events © Donn Kellogg

Though Japan has a rich history in cyclocross, cyclocross as a participation and spectator sport is gaining popularity in Japan – and the fans and costumes lining the course showed their enthusiasm. While the country has hosted two UCI weekends in November, including the world-class Nobeyama event that Cyclocross Magazine reported on [See a feature on that race and the Japanese scene in CXM Issue 16], and its countrymen dominated those events despite foreign racers attending, this event in Tokyo was different, as Cannondale flew in its racers, and the Belgian Berden was also attending, ready to show he had the sand skills that he didn’t get to show in Koksijde when he didn’t make the Worlds team.

The inaugural race was set at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, across from bustling downtown Tokyo and under the famous Tokyo Rainbow Bridge. Since the event was non-UCI, given its first year status, the course designers had a bit more free hand with the layout. The 1.5km course included a 700 meter out-and-back sand section that proved to be the critical element in the race. Blue skies and mid-40s temperatures brought out the fans, and the course was lined with spectators ringing bells and dressed in costumes.

The pre-race conversations among the international riders centered on speculation as to which local rider would be a surprise challenge. Perhaps not surprisingly, the current Japanese national champion, Yu Takenouchi, decided to step into that role. On the first lap, he was the first rider to exit out of the wooded section and into the sand.  Takenouchi quickly lit it up in the sand, gapping even the Belgian, Berden, who grew up racing on the dunes such as those we saw at Koksijde. “Before I knew it he had 50 meters and was going away from us,” Berden said after the race. “It was impressive. I had to really dig deep to get up to him on the return leg of the sand section.”

The sand did what sand does, and quickly sorted those who could put down the power from those who could not; by the end of the first lap, Takenouchi was the sole local defender, as he and Berden drove the pace at the front, with Tim Johnson and Christian Huele in hot pursuit, followed by Jamey Driscoll and Erik Tonkin, who only found out the Tuesday before the race that he was flying to Japan to fill the spot of The Cyclocross Meeting star Barry Wicks.

Five laps in, Takenouchi began to fade, as Tim Johnson found a different line through the sand that saw him begin to bridge the gap to Berden. Johnson’s charge with three laps to go was an impressive display of power and determination. With a lap to go he had pulled Burden to within five seconds. “I was right there to Ben when we hit the sand for the last time,” said Johnson. “[But Berden] is tough and very talented in the sand.”

Berden, Johnson, and Huele  © Donn Kellogg

Johnson’s push proved not quite enough to catch the Belgian, who held off the multi-time US champion through the sand to take the win. “I kept looking over my shoulder for the last three laps,” said Berden, “saying to myself, do not let Tim get up to me. I was lucky that the course had such a large portion of sand, it played to my favor. That was a tough and great race!”

Christian Huele recovered from a crash and mechanical to finish on the podium, followed by Yu Takenouchi, Jamey Driscoll and Eric Tonkin, in that order.

Tim Johnson navigates the sand © Donn Kellogg