Zach McDonald, Ben Berden, and Kazuhiro Yamamoto bask in their winnings at Tokyo Cyclocross. © Satoshi Oda

Zach McDonald, Ben Berden, and Kazuhiro Yamamoto bask in their winnings at Tokyo Cyclocross. © Satoshi Oda

by Michael J. Rice

Cyclocross Tokyo champion for the second straight year, Zach McDonald summed up the event: “I love coming to this race. This course is awesome! The short laps are fun. It’s a little demoralizing halfway through the race because you see ‘seven to go’ but the course is awesome and the fans are amazing. Even though it was cold and raining; there’s a ton of people out here.”

Heavy rain that began late morning continued to pour through the Women’s and Men’s Elite races and didn’t let up until the racing was almost over. Nonetheless, the thousands who flocked to “Tokyo Beach” in the bay-side heart of the city for this fourth annual event, refused to let it dampen their enthusiasm.

On this course, rain is a mixed blessing. It turns the wooded sections into a slippery mess but rain firms up the deep sand sections that account for 50% or more of most racers’ time on the course. Tim Johnson, who has been here every year, describes the sand as “disgustingly hard and it’s not straight. You have to turn and do all these different things in the sand because it’s not UCI so they can do whatever they want. That’s why this kind of course creativity comes in. And even with all those sandy turns added this year we still have to do 13 laps.”

The rain this year made the long sand sections the fastest they’ve ever been, but the course’s sharp switchbacks in deep sand still forced everyone off their bikes.

Berden takes off from the start to grab the holeshot at Tokyo Cyclocross. © Satoshi Oda

Berden takes off from the start to grab the holeshot at Tokyo Cyclocross. © Satoshi Oda

Despite the difficulty of this course, Johnson always seems to enjoy himself and remarked at the starting line that “This is really a special race to come to, because of the enthusiasm of the crowds here in Tokyo.” While McDonald said “I don’t mind the rain. It makes things interesting like the snow did last year.” Meanwhile, Ben Berden was thinking to himself “as soon as I knew that it would start raining, I knew I was in trouble with Zach. Because he’s really good with the slippery technical stuff. And then in the sand with the faster rolling also. For me it would be better if it was dry but you can’t control the weather.”

Another U.S. based rider there on the starting line was Tim Allen (FEEDBACK SPORTS), the 2014 USA Cycling Singlespeed National Champion who was competing in Tokyo for the first time starting 20th behind the very best riders that Japan has to offer. Namely, current and past Japanese national champion Yu Takenouchi (Veranclassic Doltcini) who always makes the podium at Cyclocross Tokyo regardless of who challenges him from overseas. As well as his top rival of recent years, Kazuhiro “Kazu” Yamamoto (Japanese anime “Yowamushi Cyclocross team”), who was able to best Takenouchi at worlds the week before but had never beat him on this course or at the national championships.

Despite Berden’s reservations before the start, when the gun sounded, he took the holeshot from McDonald and Takenouchi. Meanwhile Johnson got pinned in at seventh place surrounded by Japan’s top pros with Allen starting farther back in the field forced to move up one at a time over the one hour race.

McDonald was able to squeeze past Berden in the woods towards the end of the first lap just before the last sand section that this course is so famous for. Takenouchi in third, looked determined as he is every year not to let the lead in Tokyo go unchallenged by a Japanese and was chasing hard.

McDonald tackles the barriers in Japan. © Satoshi Oda

McDonald tackles the barriers in Japan. © Satoshi Oda

By the third lap however, Takenouchi dropped off the pace and fell back as far as sixth at one point while McDonald was wizzing through the muddy sections putting as much distance as he could between himself and Berden in second. Takenouchi’s weakness allowed his rival Yamamoto to move into third place, 45 seconds behind Berden, who was still less than half a minute behind McDonald.

McDonald put more time into Berden every lap and was never contested for the lead after the first lap. The giant Tokyo crowd freezing in the rain still never dared to take their eyes off the race. The battle for third got really hot when Takenouchi regained his form and went after Yamamoto with a vengeance. The top Japanese racers both had too much at stake in front of the home crowd.

Champion Takenouchi, who lives and races in Europe, had always been the top Japanese here, but declaring that this would be the end of his professional career, Yamamoto had something to prove. He had been Cannondale Japan’s ace rider for 12 years dominating podiums for elite XC mountain bike, Japan Pro Tour road racing and cyclocross. He wanted to go out as the best Japanese CX racer that day.

These two normally mild-mannered Japanese racers, who always seem to have giant smiles across their faces, were bumping shoulder to shoulder, clipping each other’s tires and doing anything they could to be the one in front through each and every section. Takenouchi excelled in the muddy technical sections and sandy corners while Yamamoto would use his power to put a gap on his rival in every straight section. Their fight brought them closer to second place Berden with every lap.

After 13 laps McDonald coasted into the finish, with high fives along the way, well ahead of Berden who was watching his back for the Japanese fighter pilots. They had closed within ten seconds by the last lap. Finally, Yamamoto’s determination allowed him to break free of Takenouchi, blaze through the final sand section and on to the finish line securing his spot as the top Japanese on the day.

McDonald got the crowd involved as he defended his title on a short course with a high lap count. © Satoshi Oda

McDonald got the crowd involved as he defended his title on a short course with a high lap count. © Satoshi Oda

“Kazu” Yamamoto and his wife as well as much of the crowd were in tears witnessing his fight to go out with honor. His fellow Cannondale rider, Tim Johnson, observed: “Kazu really rides with a lot of heart. And that’s the understanding that people have when they see him race. And I knew that today he wanted to honor his career since he’s stopping. So I knew he was going to fight and fight and fight. He was racing really close to Yu (Takenouchi) and he was not going to quit. Which I think is something really unique that Japanese cyclocross brings to our sport. In America cyclocross is fun and people do it for fun and some are never competitive and that’s OK. But it’s funny the combination of people here who [do] it for the fun part but they also really compete against themselves so, so, so much that you see them collapsing at the finish line because they just emptied themselves. It’s awesome!”

When asked what message Yamamoto himself had for those overseas wondering about the Japanese cyclocross scene, he said “It has really become a big deal here. And we are seeing so much interest that very strong young riders are raising their level quickly. Right now, Japanese may not be strong enough to win against the world’s top riders but when you see the passion at these events for this sport, I think we could see a very dominant Japanese cyclocross racer emerge internationally in the near future. So keep an eye on us!”

Stay tuned for the 2015 Tokyo Cyclocross women’s report. Men’s results below the video.

Tokyo Cyclocross Day 2, Lead Lap Finishers

1Zach McDonald1hr00'20"
2Ben Berden                      +1'27"
3Kazuhiro Yamamoto      +1'39"
4Yu Takenouchi              +1'49"   
5Tim Johnson                +4'19"
6Kohei Maeda                +5'20"
7Motoshi Kadota            +5'46"
8Tim Allen                        +5'58"