by Michael J. Rice
With Japan quickly becoming known as an incredible cyclocross destination, Cyclocross Tokyo never fails to impress. First held three years ago after an organizer who experienced Cross Vegas decided to bring world-class cyclocross racing into the heart of Tokyo. For two days each year, cyclocross takes over what is known as “Tokyo beach” in the vibrant Daiba area that will be the site for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The first two years, perfect spectating weather helped to bring in 5,000 the inaugural year followed by 13,000 spectators last year to see Japan’s best go head-to-head against some of the legends of cyclocross, with Jeremy Powers taking the win last year.
For the first day of racing this year, the ’cross gods brought the worst blizzard to hit Tokyo in 40 years. Cyclocross racing persevered through the day but over a foot of blowing snow in 12 hours and a government issued severe weather alert forced a cancellation of Saturday’s final C1 race.
A total of 21cm fell on the beach before morning when the warm sun came out to create perfectly muddy conditions in the woods for Sunday’s Elite women and Elite men finales. The melted snow also helped to firm up the two very long sand sections that this course is known for. An artificial island built with bridges connecting it to central Tokyo, Daiba’s sand beach is less than 20 years old (with sand imported from a Pacific Ocean island just off the coast of Japan) but this was reported to be the most snowfall in Tokyo in 40 years.
This year, the decision was made to separate the UCI Elite Men’s race from the C1 class race so the field would be very small and racers would not have to be pulled off the course to keep lapped riders from disrupting the fight for the top podium spots. This whittled the starters down to 13 with a few notable riders who where DNS, such as Ryan Trebon, Erik Tonkin and Timothy Johnson. With the race in Tokyo as his last chance to make up for what he admitted has been “a terrible season,” Zach McDonald (Rapha Focus) took off at the start of the race and never looked back.
The sun came out to melt some of the record snow that fell on Saturday, and created a slick, muddy course which was in stark contrast to last year’s massive sand test that drew 13,000 fans.
McDonald appeared at ease in the muddy conditions, and stormed the course, grabbing trees with his gloveless hands to catapult himself around slippery corners. 2013 Japanese National Champion Yu Takenouchi (VERAN CLASSIC DOLTCINI) and Barry Wicks (Kona) gave chase. By the end of the second lap, McDonald had almost 30 seconds on Takenouchi, then another 15 on Barry Wicks. Wicks picked off Takenouchi later after he made some mistakes in the sand but Takenouchi fought back to resume his pursuit of McDonald.
Spectators flocked to the course, set in central Tokyo, some with intention to watch the racing, others just to see what the heck was going on. McDonald quickly began to lap the back-of-the pack racers, with Takenouchi sitting solidly in second as Barry Wicks chased.
A chain issue and loss of braking hurt Wicks’ charge, and Australian Lewis Rattray tried to work his way up through the group with no success. Japan Pro Tour road racer and former XC Elite rider, Kazuhiro Yamamoto impressed everyone by moving up steadily from the rear and just edged out the Japanese U23 champion Toki Sawada to grab fourth place at the finish. Takenouchi managed to stay in second, however, and Wicks held on to third.
McDonald had come to Japan earlier in the season to race in November at the Nobeyama Cyclocross race (UCI) and Kansai Cyclocross. He was sick and developed respiratory problems (bronchitis) that led to a DNF and DNS at Nobeyama and a 2nd place to Yu Takenouchi on the Kansai beach despite being the kind of sandy course he really excels on.
“It was awesome!” McDonald said post-race. “It is a great course. It was really challenging just to get around the course. I’m good off the line so I just wanted to hit it hard and be the first into the sand. Then the back section was really muddy with lots of hidden roots. The back section was like a mountain bike course. I like technical courses so when it started to snow I was like, ‘Snow more! Snow more!'”
As for the crowds, he added, “The crowds were awesome! Even with the weather there were tons of people. They were all really excited to be there. No heckling or maybe there was and I just didn’t know. (Because it was in Japanese.)”
Second place, Yu Takenouchi, said, “That was my best pace today so I was a little disappointed I couldn’t catch Zach. I was hoping to get close enough to put some pressure on him and force a mistake but I couldn’t. We had to choose mud tires for the conditions today which made the sand a little difficult.”
He was a fan favorite and said, “For me hearing all of the fans cheering “Yu!” “Yu!” is really fun. With all of the snow yesterday, I was worried that people wouldn’t come out but many did. I was really grateful to all those who watched me race and cheered me on.”
Barry Wicks said of his competitor, “I like to race with Yu. He’s very strong.” He added, “After the third lap, my brakes went away so I had no brakes all day. I dropped my chain. Too much sand. It’s hard on the bike. I think people here have a good passion for the sport. We saw people racing with costumes earlier. Good spirit of cyclocross!”
Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) had some bad luck last week at the World Championships, but she’s back to her winning ways in Tokyo this weekend. Cyclocross veteran Wendy Simms (Kona) took the holeshot, followed by Lyne Bessette (CyclocrossWorld) in second. Compton was way back in fifth—similar to Worlds, holeshots have not been her strong point this season.
Compton explained: “In the sand section right after the start, the rider in front of me came off her bike so I lost some time but I just tried to keep my own pace.” Despite losing any momentum from the start of the sand, Compton was one of the only women able to conserve energy by cycling that first section. The only others to ride it were Simms and Bessette who were able to put a big gap on Compton who was riding the sand in a pace line of the runners.
With one lap down, Simms retained the lead though Compton had moved into second. Bessette sat in third, while multi-time Japanese National Champion Ayako Toyooka sat in fourth. It was no surprise when Compton took the lead by the end of two laps, and Simms began to fade slightly. Toyooka overtook Simms four laps in, then the current National Champion, Sakiko Miyauchi, passed her on the last lap.
Compton soloed to the win with plenty of time between her and Toyooka, followed by Miyauchi and Simms. Bessette came in for fifth, followed by K.Sakaguchi (Panasonic), Fuuka Sakaguchi (Panasonic), Imai (CycleClub.jp), Takeda (Chainring), Ainota (Grow dirtfreak Litec) and Hashiguchi (Wadachiya).
Compton said, post-race, “The course was fun and hard. I was really grateful for all of the cheering all along the course. I was surprised by how loud the cheering was and surprised to find a course with so much sand and mud in the middle of the city! I definitely want to come back next year.”
“It was great to be able to race in the middle of Tokyo but with sand, trees, mud and roots!” she added. “The wooded sections were very slippery and the sand sections were very long and required a lot of power.”
Second place Toyooka said, “The sand was wet making it easier to ride than previous years but there is no place to recover and you have to keep your head or you make mistakes and lose time.”
She looked over at Compton and remarked “Katie is such a powerful rider and pushes a much bigger gear. On top of that, her technique is amazing. I’m really glad that everyone in Japan was able to witness her skills.”