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An interview with Koji Fukushima, February 18, 2007
Koji Fukushima: The harmonica man
Inside the realms of European cycling fans the name Koji Fukushima is little known, but back home in Asia, the Japanese rider is a superstar. Darren Lee and Kharis Idris spoke with Fukushima during last week's Le Tour de Langkawi.
When European riders fly to Malaysia each February for Le Tour de Langkawi, they treat it as a good warm up for the upcoming season - not too tough nor too easy. But for the growing number of Asian riders in the region, Langkawi and China's Tour of Qinghai Lake is their chance to shine - Asia's Tour de France and Giro d'Italia.
That's why Koji Fukushima mentioned one phrase without fail in each press conference he attended at the Tour de Langkawi - "tomorrow, I will attack".
"I love to attack. If I feel good on a particular day, I would discuss it with my manager and he would encourage me to attack from the start," explains Fukushima.
And that's exactly what the Koji and brother Shinichi does. It's become the Fukushimas' trademark style that, when one feels they have the legs, he'll be off the front from the first kilometre and give his all in a seemingly doomed stage-long break. The all or nothing approach never fails to draw the attention of on-lookers, which is exactly the plan.
"It is very important for Shinichi and I to show that we are capable of attacking and winning since we have been racing in France for the last five years," said Koji. "It is important for an Asian rider to show their capabilities in a sport that is dominated by the Europeans."
But it doesn't just draw looks and it's certainly not always doomed. In the 2005 running of Langkawi, Fukushima riding for the Bridgestone-Anchor outfit went off the front early and held the peloton at bay in an unthinkable 173 kilometre solo victory before nearly accomplishing the feat again just six days later.
"It was truly one of the best moments of my career as a professional cyclist," reflected Fukushima. "On Stage 9, as an appreciation to my other team mates and my director sportif, Akira [Asada]- I decided to go at it again."
Two years later, the brothers and teammates' style is still achieving results, this time for the Nippo-Meitan Hompo team. Koji broke free on the opening two stages of the 2007 Tour de Langkawi, holding out until the closing kilometres on both occasions. Then, on Stage 7 came the breakthrough - Shinichi featured in a break, from the early stages of course, and pushed the tempo higher than five times stage winner Alberto Loddo could handle. Shinichi stormed across the line some 2.45 ahead of the peloton.
"There were some good efforts by the Asian teams this year," observed Fukushima, pointing to Giant Asia Racing Team's victory in the teams classification. "Team LeTua made some waves when they tried to contest for the sprints. While it showed that they are fearless, they still have much to learn on the fundamentals of professional cycling.
"It is very difficult to win bunch sprints against the much more physically superior Europeans. So maybe a very good chance to win a stage is going out on long breakaways or strategically timed breakaways."
Despite his notable success at this year's event, Fukushima admits that it was the most difficult Tour de Langkawi of the six editions he's contested. The Japanese rider blames that in part to the strength of the European teams contesting the event and also that he peaked for January's Tour of Siam, where he won the second stage.
"The ProTour teams have become so focused on the Genting stage that they do not want to work together in breakaways initiated by Asian teams," said Fukushima. "And if they do join the breakaway, they would serve as a marker for their teammates in the peloton to catch them again.
"On the Cameron [Highlands] stage we had the eventual winner, Anthony Charteau, in the breakaway with the other Asian riders. Initially, he would be tactically serving as the marker for his leader, Francesco Belloti, but because none of us were that strong to work with him, he fled off alone and won the stage by a commanding four minutes!"
While Fukushima might not be able to climb alongside the Tour de France experienced riders like Charteau, he's certainly doing his bit for the growth of cycling in Asia. Prior to his stage one attack, Fukushima rode laps of the start line, handing out postcards and autographing the caps of his adoring fans.
Following the first stage presentation, where Fukushima claimed the Asian rider's jersey, the exuberant rider interrupted the press conference for another of his trademarks - a song on the harmonica.
"I learned to play the harmonica all by myself as a university student back in Japan," he explained. "The first time I played the harmonica at a race was during my amateur racing days in France but it became a crowd-pleaser, particularly when I played it at Asian races."
If the hotly contested Asian rider classification is anything to go by, then the level of cycling within the region is beginning to make headway. The signing of Japanese rider Fumiyuki Beppu to the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team is further evidence of the increase in competitiveness of Asian rider.
"Fumi was a teammate for four years when we rode for Bridgestone-Anchor. Our DS, Akira, had worked with him personally before too," said Fukushima. "Fumi is a very talented time trialist. It is good to see that he has been acknowledged by a ProTour team like Discovery Channel. He only can get better at what he does with all the exposure of racing he has."
As for himself, Fukushima says he still has a few goals to kick in his career. Among them is the desire to join Shinichi as a Japanese national champion and to one day contest cycling's holy grail - the Tour de France. While the 33 year-old is beginning to enter the later stage of his career, Fukushima doesn't have a date set for his retirement.
"I don't really have an answer to that question. Really, I don't know," he laughed, when asked about how long he would continue to compete for. "What I do know is that I would still want to ride for as long as I can. To me, age is just a number. There are still many things that I have not achieved as a professional cyclist."
"If and when I do retire some day, I would like to be part of a team that identifies young and talented riders - from Japan or Asia - to work with them and help train them to be the best. I don't think I'll be a directeur-sportif, but more of a public relations officer because I know I am very good at connecting to people."
But for now both Koji and the Nippo-Meitan Hompo team are just getting into the groove of what could be a very successful 2007 season, if their results to date are anything to go by.
"I would say that we're off to a very good start," he declared. "We will try to compete in at least 100 races in Europe. Our next target will be the Coupe de France and Tour de Limousin where one of our riders, Yukiya Arashiro, was third on the GC last year. Yukiya was also 14th in the World Championships last year in the Under 23 category."
There's no doubt that no matter where in the world Fukushima is competing, he will bring along his vibrant personality, a stack of postcards, a harmonic and will be primed to attack!