- - Saitama Criterium 2014

Saitama Criterium 2014

photo credit @ Le Tour

                                               Kittel powers home in Japan

excerpts from Le

The second edition of the Tour de France Saitama Criterium was played out in sunny weather worthy of July, watched by a passionate audience that has been definitively won over by the Tour de France, and by the leading lights of the race who made the journey. One of them, Marcel Kittel, continued the winning run which paused on the Champs-Elysées, taking the sprint ahead of Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff.

It’s a criterium, and a tour de… force. In Japan, you can sometimes experience July in October. Since arriving in the country, the riders have seen Saitama in sunny conditions they didn’t really get to enjoy last summer. Most of all, the city was all decked out in Tour colors from the early morning, evoking, with a few subtle differences, the atmosphere of the "Grande Boucle": yellow and polka dot jerseys popped up everywhere on the sides of the roads, the world’s best-organized autograph hunters laid siege to the riders’ hotel, and the red white and blue colours of the French champion were almost as popular as at home. "Wow!", said Arnaud Démare. "Quite a few people have asked to buy my jersey. I’d never have imagined that so many people would be into cycling here, it’s amazing". Reigning champion Chris Froome was equally taken aback, describing "an incredible atmosphere, nearly as vibrant as the Tour itself, but it’s nice not to have the pressure that goes with it!"

While the demands may not have been as intense when the first points race on the Criterium program got under way, Froome certainly didn’t hold back from contesting a sprint and pocketing a few points, while his future Sky teammate Nicolas Roche took the lead. On the eight laps of the circuit, the Irish rider made a consistent impression, picking up points behind Alexander Kristoff, who was also challenging. The Norwegian even allowed himself to raise his arms on crossing the first finishing line, but it was Roche who topped the table, four points ahead of his nearest rival. "It’s nice to finish the season like that, because it’s my last race in a Saxo-Tinkoff jersey. It’s also a little bit like winning a stage of the Tour: I get the same music on the podium". In the second points race, another stage-hunter until now dissatisfied after his first Tour decided to take control of the race. Keeping a very close eye on proceedings, Démare finished ahead of rival Gatis Smukulis, and will have particularly savoured a sprint win over Vincenzo Nibali. But the Frenchman had another excellent reason to celebrate at the finish. "We came to Japan as a family, and I really wanted to win a bouquet of flowers for mum, as it’s her birthday today". Gozaimasu, as the Japanese might say, to Nadine, the champion’s beaming mother, who was clearly moved.

The spectators were then treated to a mini-Tour de France over the 60 kilometers of the main race. Almost as enterprising here as he was several months ago in England and France, Vincenzo Nibali was the main mover in a small breakaway, and was joined by Rafal Majka, in the hunt for another polka dot jersey! This ultimately doomed attempt was thwarted halfway through the race by a move led by Jean-Christophe Péraud and Michael Rogers, who won in Bagnères-de-Luchon in a similar scenario. Three laps from the end, the still-sparky Nibali took the sole lead, gaining a handful of seconds on a select group including Kristoff, Sagan, Kittel, Bardet and Démare, but also Arashiro and Beppu. In fact it was the only two Japanese riders to have ridden the Tour who led on their own as the last lap approached, but they couldn’t hold off the chasing sprinters. In the final straight, power talks… and usually in German. Saitama was no exception: the man who won four stages of the 2014 Tour produced a big effort and distanced his remaining rivals. The podium resulting from this high-speed shoot-out was rounded off by Kristoff, third, and Peter Sagan, who had to be happy with second. Now why does that sound familiar?

Top 10 finishers 

1 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Team Giant-Shimano 1:24:39  

2 Peter Sagan (Slo) Cannondale    

3 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha Team    

4 Arnaud Demare (Fra)    

5 Yukiya Arashiro (Jpn) Tour De France Japan Team    

6 Romain Bardet (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale    

7 Valerio Agnoli (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:00:02  

8 Koen de Kort (Ned) Team Giant-Shimano 0:00:05  

9 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Astana Pro Team    

10 Fumiyuki Beppu (Jpn) Tour De France Japan Team 0:00:10  

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