07 July 2012

From The Land Of The Rising Sun To L'Arc de Triomphe

In perhaps no other nation is track racing more closely followed than it is in Japan.  At least, one could easily have such an impression upon seeing how much money is bet on the keirin races and how many people watch them.

Also, more bicycles are equipped with components from Shimano than from any other company.  In fact, Shimano's offerings displaced their Campagnolo counterparts as racers' equipment of choice for much of the 1990's and in the early 2000's.

So, perhaps, one might wonder why so few Japanese cyclists have raced outside of their own country.  I thought about this today, when I watched the sixth stage of the Tour de France on NBC.  One of the commentators (not Phil Liggett) pointed out that two of this year's riders, Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu, are among only four Japanese racers who have completed the Tour de France in its history, which has spanned more than a century.

Fumiyuki Beppu (l) and Yukiya Arashiro.  From Velo News

Now, to be fair, for a variety of reasons, through most of the Tour's (as well as the Giro d'Italia's,  Vuelta d'Espana's and the Milk Race's) history, nearly all who rode in it came from a handful of countries in western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the British Isles.  In fact, no American rode it until Jonathan (a.k.a. Jacques or Jock) Boyer entered in 1981.  He didn't make it to l'Arc de Triomphe that year, but he finished a more-than-respectable 12th two years later.

Since Boyer competed, the American contingent has become a significant part of the peloton in le Tour as well as other European races.  Also, increasing numbers of riders have come from the former Soviet bloc countries as well as Latin America and Canada.  However, Japanese cyclists have remained conspicuously absent.

Part of the reason for this may be that road racing isn't nearly as strong as keirin racing in Japan.  That almost seems paradoxical in a country where parents often tell their children, "The nail that sticks out is hammered down."  One would think that road racing, in which most riders participate as members of a team, would be more popular than track racing, which tends to be more individually focused.  Then again, non-team sports like sumo wrestling are wildly popular, while sports like soccer have nowhere near the following they enjoy in Europe, Latin America or even in other parts of Asia.

I can think of one reason which might, at least partially, explain the relative lack of popularity of road racing in Japan:  It's a country about the size of California with about four times as many mountains and five times as many people.  In such a place, I imagine, suitable roads for racing are scarce, and if the logistics of devising a course from them are daunting in European countries that have a century-plus history of racing, things must be even more difficult in Japan.

On the other hand, the Japanese are noted for overcoming difficulties.  For that reason alone, they may become even more of a presence in international racing in the future.  Perhaps Toshiba, Panasonic, Shimano and other Japanese companies will sponsor teams that will carry the Rising Sun around l'Arc de Triomphe.

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