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Tales from the travelers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Tour de Hokkaido: Between typhoon and earthquake
By Remko Kramer
Nathan Dahlberg and Tim Wilson had already left the team house that is situated in an old monastery near Gennep in the Netherlands. They left for a big Asian Tour of races starting in Japan, then Borneo, Malaysia and China. We, Team Manager Frans van Slagmaat, Soigneuse Francis Cerny and I, Remko Kramer, only joined for the first race, the Tour de Hokkaido a 6-day stage race on the northern island of Japan.
The flight was pretty long with stopovers of 3-4 hours in London and Osaka. I had a very good sleep, on the flour between the chairs of the 747 from Japan Airlines. There was not much room, and every 20 minutes I woke up from the pressure at one side. But with turning around every time, I made a good 6 hours during the 11-hour flight to Asia.
The airport of Osaka, named Kansai, is something special. It is an artificial island in the sea before Osaka. From the air you can see the strange square shape. The main building, which is huge, has a special design and looks really cool. And what a difference. Coming from the London Heathrow airport, were we had to walk stairs and take an old bus, driving through old rundown hangars and luggage stores from the one terminal to the other. Now a short walk and there was a monorail train, stopping close to the luggage band. And in the few minutes this took, the Japanese were able to have the luggage there already!
Waiting for the connecting flight to Chitose airport, Sapporo, we met Cory Lange, who came from Canada for the whole Asian Tour. His bicycle was left in Canada and at arrival in Sapporo this was the first worry. Luckily the former secretary from the Tour de Hokkaido and our friend, Hiromi was there to help us to make arrangements. At the airport we also met Nathan and Tim again and Robin Reid who came in from New Zealand. They took us to the hotel, just a five minute walk to the airport hotel, where a nice warm meal was waiting for us. No chopsticks yet.
The next day we were picked-up with a few other teams for a bus ride of 200 KM to Asahikawa. Nathan decided that he needed some training to get his system going and he took his bicycle and an unreadable tourist map of Hokkaido.
After we arrived at the hotel in Asahikawa we built our bicycles together. Now our multi-functional super-translator, Belgian Paul de Coninck (who teaches the Japanese to eat grilled chicken) took care of business and arranged that Cory's bicycle would be at the hotel that evening just on time for the prologue.
The Tour de Hokkaido started with a prologue on a bicycle path along the Ishikari River. The weather had turned into a rainy day and in the afternoon the wind got stronger and stronger. I had the last starting time and rode a bad prologue, my legs felt like cramping in the cold rain in the all-out-effort of 2.3 KM. The other guys did better, but we had no specialist in this discipline, so no great results.
In the evening there was an opening ceremony in the Asahikawa Grand Hotel.
Luckily the weather had changed again and in the sun we rode to the starting area.
Our tactics were to cover every break because we expected that a good composition in a breakaway could get very far. But everybody was so sharp that the many, many attacks lead nowhere. In the last 20 KM, the Italian in the Japanese Nipponhodo team, Claudio Pizzoferrato, took a few hundred meters. This seemed useless, so many teams and riders were still trying and going full speed. But Pizzoferrato kept on going. The peloton came to 100 meters but he kept his advantage and managed to stay away even with the mass-sprint behind him. What a ride!
After the finish, lunch-boxes were given out and in the sun we relaxed in the park at the finish and ate the "western-style" sandwiches. The Asian lunch-boxes were a lot more interesting with rice and sushi, later we exchanged; the difference attracts.
After a bus ride we arrived at a lake in the country, with around it a holiday park and a camping site. We had a wooden house for the whole "family". Mechanic Don Wilson cleaned and fixed the bicycles at the balcony at the front door. Some of the guys went for a hot bath, a specialty in this area of Japan. The others had a massage and washed their clothing.
This day we would take the biggest climb of the tour. But the beginning was fast as yesterday and each team tried to attack the leader jersey of Italian Pizzoferrato. We raced well and covered each break. Cory took a good moment and put the hammer down when he had a nice gap with three others. A few KM further there was a hot-spot sprint with very valuable bonus seconds. Cory won this and moved further up in the GC.
Later Nathan was in a 10 men break, which lasted longer. But the Nipponhodo team of the Tour leader chased, on the flat they could not close the 2-minute gap. But at the climb they drove tempo and slowly closed the gap.
There was no chance to break away and we had no specialists in the mass sprint, so no result. The stage finished in the harbour of Wakkanai at the north side of Hokkaido. In this harbour city, many signs are in Russian, so close are we to some Russian Islands. Before the coast there is a volcanic island, with one peak 1700 meters high!
The weather forecast was bad. A typhoon was coming, already passed the south of Japan with new wind speed records! It visited Korea afterwards, some people were killed there! And now it came straight to us. Not so powerful anymore, but still strong enough to blow some bicyclists from the road... At the start it was still quiet but the peloton was not. Attacks from the gun and in the first KM a group formed. Tim saw the danger and went after them. Cory covered this attack and got away with some Japanese.
Cory: "Tim was going! We also got away from the field and I wanted to move over. I shouted and luckily Tim heard me, together we made it to the break and with 13 men we came together".
This was the break we were looking for every day. The big Japanese teams were happy with the composition and so were we. Some teams like the Canadian National Team with a 4th place on GC tried but didn't get there. So the peloton got quiet and the break kept going. They took 8 minutes and the GC was set for the rest of this race. Now the value of the bonus seconds that Cory took became clear. Place 6 in GC and Tim on place 11 with only 2 seconds from the top ten.
The typhoon brought in heavy rain at the end of the stage and the riders were wet and cold at the finish. During the night strong winds were whistling around the hotel.
Most of the typhoon had passed during the night and it was a very quiet day.
This was the day of Shinichi Fukushima! He celebrated his birthday yesterday and decided that he would give himself a present. Early in the stage he got away with 3 riders. First part of the stage was not so hard, but after a small mountain range there was an open flat section with strong winds. The peloton got splintered in the cross-winds here, but Fukushima, who was on his own now, kept going. With 30 KM to go two riders bridged up to Fukushima. But with two KM to go the chase group was so close that they gave up, but not Fukushima. He went by himself and won the stage with 3 seconds.
The team worked hard today and made sure Cory and Tim were in the first group. They were fine, but only in the last 100 metres a small gap in the sprint cost valuable time. Time is taken from the first rider of the group. And this small gap was a new timing point and cost 4 seconds and 2 places in GC!
We stayed in the Gateau Kingdom Hotel in Sapporo. This is a huge luxury hotel. The entrance hall reaches 15 floors high and glass elevators go up and down. From the rooms we had a view in the hall were they had a wedding ceremony every hour.
Then we received very bad news! The next race on this Asian Tour, the Tour of Borneo was cancelled. This meant big trouble, what can we do. Most of the team was here with expensive tickets with many stopovers to the next tours, Borneo, Malaysia, Thailand and China. But now there was more then 2 weeks nothing.
After contact with the team management back in Europe, we decided to break up the rest of the Asian Tour and send everybody hoe after Hokkaido, what a pity.
Today the last stage of the Tour de Hokkaido was in the Moerenuma Park. This is a complete new park, designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The entire park forms one sculpture with several impressive constructions.
There was a very fast course and the Nipponhodo team controlled the race. Robin managed to win a bonus second in a hot-sprint, but this was 1 second short of getting into the prizes. Also Cory and Tim tried several times to get away for bonus seconds but this was impossible with the tempo of this criterium.
After the race there was a great closing ceremony, with music and dance, the awards ceremony and a dinner with delicious food and some drinks...
A video from the race was shown projected on the wall during dinner. And afterwards we had a few drinks, and went for some swimming in the pool area next to the hotel.
The next day we all flew home. A few days later a big earthquake hit Hokkaido! But luckily, because of the good Japanese construction of buildings, there was not much damage and not many victims.
A few weeks later, some of us and some others came together again in Malaysia to continue for the rest of the Asian Tour... To be continued.
Images by Francis Cerny
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com