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The Road Cycling National Championships, Held in the Tokyo Paralympics Road Event Venue

The Road Cycling National Championships was held from June 27-30. The first day of the tournament featured individual time trials for the 2019 Para Cycling Road National Championships banner.

The setting for this tournament—the very first Japan champion tournament in the Reiwa Era—was the Fuji International Speedway, which is slated to be the starting and end point for the Road Cycling event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. The course was comprised of the grounds of the circuit and its surrounding roads, with a part of it overlapping the course for 2020. With only about a year left until the Paralympics, the top para cyclists in Japan brought all of their energy and anticipation to the course.

Masaki Fujita, cycling down the Fuji International Speedway circuit course with prosthetic legs

“Hey, I Might Actually Like This Course” Said Keiko Sugiura, Queen of Para-Cycling,

“Cycling in this venue, I really ‘felt’ the Tokyo Paralympics.”

So said para-cycling queen Keiko Sugiura (née Noguchi), who reigned victorious in all four major para-cycling tournaments and three time trials in the 2018 season, with a confident air.

Keiko Sugiura (right), who won the Women’s C1-5 event, with Miho Fujii, who came in second place; they received local Shizuoka Prefecture specialties in addition to their medals

“I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that this tournament was held here at the Fuji International Speedway, and to have this opportunity to race on a part of what will be the actual Paralympics course. I mean, this is a course I would’ve paid to race on. It’s a really hard course, with corners and downhill slopes, but I was able to go over my cornering lines the day before with my coach, at the trial run, and really drill it into my head, so that when I went into the race I was able to perform the way I wanted—it was a great learning experience. My time, 22:46, was also better than my target, and I’m satisfied with how things went.”

Sugiura’s strong heart and lungs allow her to maintain her pace at critical moments during her races. She has focused the most on improving her physical strength, in order to keep pace with foreign para-cyclists and their strong physicality, and she is feeling the effects of this training in her races. However, she hasn’t been able to perform as well as she would like on the world stage, in part due to the fact that she’s started using a new bike just this year.

“This tournament gave me the opportunity to think, ‘hey, I might actually like this course,’ so that’s a good thing mentally. With difficult courses, your times tend to get better the more you race on them, so at the Paralympics, I’d like to race in a way that makes use of this home field advantage. I think I’ll be able to go home today feeling a little bit, more optimistic.”

Sugiura has higher brain dysfunction from a bicycle accident in 2016

Sugiura’s classification was switched from C2 to C3—a lighter impairment class—last fall. This is sure to make her battle for the gold medal even more difficult, but she seems optimistic, telling us, “I’m happy to be able to battle it out in a lighter impairment class.” For the queen of para-cycling, this tournament in her local Shizuoka Prefecture was an opportunity to commit, again, to the journey towards a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Up-and-Coming Women’s Tandem Pair Make Their Race Debut

Making her para-cycling debut in this tournament was Sakura Yamamoto (née Tsukagoshi), who—like Sugiura, who has two children—is mother to a one-year old daughter. She is a top able-bodied athlete, who competed in the Women’s Omnium event at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Following her maternity leave, she returned to the sport and made the decision to aim for the Tokyo Paralympics, as pilot for Noa Yamaguchi, a para-cyclist with visual impairment. She has participated in para-cycling training camps since April of this year.

Sakura Yamamoto (front) and Noa Yamaguchi (back) made their tandem debut in this tournament

“It was only after I became a pilot that I learned what it was like to have a visual impairment [and not be able to practice outdoors as much]. Noa is incredibly motivated. But it’s hard for her [in terms of training environment] if the people around her don’t make an effort to see what she needs. So I try to contact her on LINE on a regular basis, just with things like, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Have you been training?’”

Following her very first race with Yamamoto, Yamaguchi said, “I was so nervous, but Sakura kept telling me ‘Just relax, relax,’ and so I was able to regain my composure partway through. There were two pairs in the race, and it would’ve been nice to have come in first place.” She smiled happily.

“We have to rely on [Keiko] Sugiura to get the points we need to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, but obviously we can’t compete if we’re not up to par, so we’re going to try the best we can,” said Yamamoto, with a strong sense of conviction.

Yamaguchi (second from right), who won her first victory in the Women’s B event, and Yamamoto (right)

Kawamoto of the Rio Paralympics Japan National Team Makes His Presence Known

In the Men’s C2-3, Shota Kawamoto (C2) beat Masaki Fujita (C3) to claim victory over the event. Though Kawamoto’s time had been 21:04.90 and Masaki’s 20:58.73, the time calculations for their impairment levels meant Kawamoto came in first.

Fujita (left) exchanging a handshake with champion Kawamoto (right) on the winners’ podium

Fujita was a silver medalist in the Road Time Trial at the Rio Paralympics, a fact that didn’t seem lost on Kawamoto as he stood on the winners’ podium, in the one position higher than Fujita. He looked back on the race, looking very satisfied with his performance.
“The uphill slopes in this course are hard, but I think I was able to show my strengths on a technical course. It was raining, but I was able to keep my concentration and not get too nervous.”

Kawamoto had competed in the Para-Cycling Road World Cup that was held in Belgium in May, and come in 18th in the Road Race, and 14th in the Time Trial. Disappointed in himself and determined to do better, he’d gone all in at the high-altitude training camp that had been held before this tournament, and managed to “break in” the new bike he’d started using in January of this year.

“Now all I need is the mental and physical strength. I want to keep training, with the goal being a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.”
His strategy is an offensive race, one that brings even the rain on his side. It may not be long until we see a Kawamoto that’s a powered-up version of what we see now.

Shota Kawamoto, who showed off his strengths on this technical course

Fujita, long-time leader of the Japanese para-cycling world, shared his convictions with us as well. He acknowledged Kawamoto and his rise in the sport, but told us, “I don’t want to lose.” He had returned to the sport in March after an injury in August of last year, and in April had transferred to another employer, delving even deeper into his training than before. In his words, you could feel the strength of his conviction, his commitment to his goal—winning his fourth consecutive Paralympic medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

This day of the tournament saw races featuring elite cyclists Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu, who had both competed in the Tour de France, which meant there were cycling fans in the stands as well.

“There’s fun even in the struggle. There’s just something about the atmosphere of the national championships that’s really good.”
So said Fujita, the “original” master of rainy-day races. After promising a comeback, he left the venue—to return, hopefully, for the Road event at the Tokyo Paralympics.

The champions for the Men’s B event was Takuto Kurabayashi (front) and Kazuhei Kimura (back)

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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