Arriving in Japan for the very first time, I was excited for the experience ahead and racing with my Avanti teammates. Two days prior to racing, we settled into our accommodation and made the most of the busy roads to explore the surrounds of Sakai as best we could.
The Avanti Racing Team squad for the UCI 2.1 Tour of Japan included Taylor Gunman, Jack Beckinsale, Luke Fetch, Sam Davis, Matt Clark and I.
The first stage saw a 2.65km individual prologue around the Daisen Park in Sakai. The atmosphere was electric with thousands of spectators, cameras and cheering from the sidelines. The opening criterium race prior to the afternoon’s prologue, was suppose to showcase the teams and riders to the enthusiastic crowd, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the best pre-tour criterium with Luke Fetch coming down during the race and fracturing his shoulder. We were down to six riders before the tour had even begun!
Our competition included the biggest headline team to start this year, Lampre – Merida, a pro tour team led by Filippo Pozzato, a multiple stage winner in the major grand tour’s and a previous winner of the Milan-San Remo, one of the biggest professional one day races in the world.
A strong line up of Asian teams, plus fellow Australian pro-continental registered team Drapac would also pose a significant threat on the opening stage, but as a team we were confident in achieving a good result on the day.
The fast times were only getting faster as the day went on and being the third last rider to leave the start-house, the pressure was on!
Out on course, my legs were feeling good and I crossed the line in a respectable time of 3.19:38 to place fifth. Teammate Jack Beckinsale also posted a great time of 3.19:13 to finish fourth and Taylor Gunman rode very strongly to place 9th.
We might have been within a hundredth of a second off the podium, but nonetheless it was a strong performance by all.
The first road stage of the 2014 Tour of Japan was set to be a day for the sprinters, with the seven lap course consisting of just one main climb situated only five kilometres from the finish line.
After a solid start in the opening Prologue, we were looking to achieve a good result on stage two.
From the start, Drapac controlled a few of the early attacks until they were happy to let a breakaway of two riders go up the road.
When we got to the steep one kilometre climb each lap, the pace increased and the front of the bunch became a little more chaotic, as riders swelled up both sides of us looking for good position at the base of the climb. Both Matt Clark and Sam Davis maintained our good position as best they could on each lap, making it a little easier to follow a safe wheel in front.
Atop the climb, a 500m long tunnel through the mountain brought us out and onto a fast downhill towards the flats. This made the last five kilometres of the lap go by very quickly and it would be imperative to be at the front on the last and most important lap of the race.
With the breakaway insights and fatiguing quickly, we caught the duo with one 21km lap remaining.
Riding strongly as a team, we kept our communication up all day and made sure we all had enough to eat and drink, thanks to Nunny supplying bottles in the feed-zone.
Fellow sprinter Jack Beckinsale was holding great position up the final climb and once over the top and onto the downhill, Taylor Gunman was by my side only 20 wheels back and paced me through the bunch to where I locked myself onto Jack’s rear wheel with four kilometres to go, ready for the finish.
At 2.5kms to go, there was a sharp left shortly followed by a sharp right turn with two kilometres to go. I had been squeezed off Jack’s wheel around the first corner but when I got back to him with 1.5km’s to go, he started to move us up the inside, then around the final right-hand turn with 1.2kms to go.
Out of the corner, we were around 10th wheel, so Jack moved out into the wind and did an awesome job to take me up alongside Drapac & Lampre with 600m to go, where I forced myself onto Wouter’s wheel in the lead-out train, then waited until I saw the first rider kick on my right. We made contact but I squeezed myself out and got back behind Wouter and Lampre’s Bonifazio who were side-by-side with 200m to go.
I waited a second too long and by the time I stepped out, the line was approaching and despite finishing fast, I ended up on Wouter’s right hip for a close third place. Not the win we all wanted, but we were happy to at least make it onto the podium and have learned some lessons for next time.
Stage three’s profile looked like a demanding circuit so we knew the 148km of up and down roads would be a painful day in the saddle. The night before in our team meeting, we discussed a plan to try and get Jack up for the win. He is climbing well and this course suits him very well.
The idea was for us to give Jack as much support as possible and to conserve as much energy as possible.
I was wearing the white jersey for the day, the best young rider’s leaders jersey as I was second in the classification to Wouter Wippet who was wearing the blue sprinters jersey for stage three. Very wet conditions greeted us on the start line and it wasn’t looking like it was going to improve for the rest of the day either. The racing started out as expected with race leaders Drapac content to let a small break go up the road and then set a steady tempo.
Halfway through the race we were still sitting comfortably near the front and I was holding court ensuring that Jack and Taylor were well positioned. The break brought itself back and then there was a bit of calm before young guns Rapha Condor decided to light it up.
When they did go, there were only a few that could respond, but we still had Taylor and Jack in the front group.
The leaders basically split into small groups with Jack riding very smart to fight all the way to the line, wining a two-man sprint for fourth place. Taylor came home in a big group of 18 riders five minutes down while the rest of us came in with the groupetto cruising home inside the time-cut. To top the day off, Jack also moved into the lead in the best young rider’s classification.
Stage four was a race up Mount Fuji was set to decide the overall GC and it was a stage which last year, teammate Ben Dyball was triumphant in to set the course record as the first rider ever to ride it under the 40 minute barrier.
This year with Ben recovering from a broken wrist, Matt Clark would carry the team’s hopes of a high placing and he was given free reign to go for it. Jack Beckinsale was also looking for a good result and to keep the Best Young Riders Jersey on his shoulders.
The race got underway after a short parade lap and we were all well warmed up which was good as it’s basically 11 kilometres up hill from start to finish. I did what I could to put the boys in a good position in the first kilometre then it was everyman for himself as Team Tabriz went on the attack to put the leading team, Vinni Fannin Nippo, under pressure.
Matt Clark showed some good form to finish a strong seventh with Jack Beckinsale posting a very good time, but unfortunately not enough to keep the best young riders jersey going into stage five.
Back to our hotel room, the usual evening schedule continued with a massage, nice dinner in a big dining hall and then some wifi to conclude the evening whilst stretching.
The toughest stage of the tour, 12 laps of a 12.2km circuit would test the legs of everyone and it was the stage that in 2013, fellow teammate and current Sky Pro Cycling rider Nathan Earle won - so the pressure to perform was on once again.
The closed circuit was definitely safe, but rolling roads with steep climbs ensured no one would have an easy day. Four and a half thousand meters of climbing lay before us and when we noticed some of the fellow riders warming up on trainers, we didn’t know what to expect.
When we began racing, we were at the limit and immediately fighting to hold the wheel in front. About half of the 100-rider peloton was dropped in the first six kilometres and if you weren’t in the top 20 or 30, you would be chasing the whole time.
Settling in after six laps, Jack, Matt & I were still in the front group of 45, but the speed on the climbs put me on the back foot and I slowly lost contact.
Jack continued to ride strongly to finish 12th and Matt finished within the time cut. I was in the last remaining chasing group on the road, which included Filippo Pozatto and around 10 other riders. We pushed on but were caught by the leading trio just before we were about to start the last lap, meaning we didn’t complete the race and joined the 60 other riders who were time-cut from the brutal stage race.
It was probably the hardest race I’ve ever done, with my Garmin data confirming that.
Heading into the final day, a dead-flat kermesse around the docks of Tokyo, only 40 riders took to the start line. It was disappointing to be watching from the sidelines, as it was a stage I’d definitely targeted, but we still had Jack Beckinsale and Matt Clark representing us so we were there in support for the boys.
The Iranian team of Tabritz who were leading the general classification controlled the race for most of the day, with a bunch sprint eventually concluding the 2014 UCI 2.1 Tour of Japan.
Jack placed fourth on the stage and finished fourth in the best young riders classification overall.
Despite not finishing the tour how I’d wanted to, I enjoyed the racing and the many experiences I shared with my teammates. With Jack riding very consistent and the rest of us having some good days, it wasn’t an unsuccessful tour at all. Personally, a fifth place in stage one and my first UCI 2.1 podium with third on stage two were achievements I was content to travel back home with, definitely leaving room for improvement next year.
Japan is a cool place and I’d recommend everyone take a visit there one day.
Thanks also to Pricey and Sean in the team car, it was a great team effort all-around and we couldn’t achieve such results if it wasn’t for our staff and supportive sponsors, so thank you.
For those of you who haven’t seen, our other Avanti Racing teammates have been dominant in the National Road Series whilst we were away in Japan, winning both the Tour of Toowoomba and the Battle on the Border races.
Next up for me is the UCI 2.2 Tour of Singkarak, which starts on the 7th June. Avanti will also be represented in the UCI 2.1 Tour of Korea at the same time. We look forward to more success - I know everyone is keen to keep the winning momentum in our team rolling.
Last but not least, thanks to my family, mum & dad, brothers and grandparents and girlfriend Lucy for all their ongoing support. Also thanks to my coach Matt Wallace and everyone else who have made a notable contribution to my performance on and off the bike.