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Packing his new BBox Bouygues Telecom team Colnago into a bag, ready to make the long trek to Europe from Thailand, Yukiya Arashiro was in fine spirits and looking fighting fit.
It was February 7, and the 25-year-old from Okinawa had just taken his first win of the season in a Thai national-series race, a 72km criterium near Chiang Rai.
“I rode it mostly for training, and to assess my form, which is good,” Arashiro said. “It was a criterium, but staged as a points race, so it was a bit like riding on the track. I attacked early and gained some good points, and then again later in the race, which earned the win.”
Afterward Arashiro and his training partners saddled up and rode the 100-plus kilometers back to their winter training base, where he has spent the past couple of months. The sunny climes of northern Thailand, along with good roads, mountains and a low traffic volume, have drawn Japanese riders to train here for several years.
A former Japanese domestic team manager first invited his training partners, Koji and Shinichi Fukushima, to train here when he took up local residency. Every winter since, they’ve fled the freezing Japanese temperatures en masse.
“It’s much better for me to train here,” said Arashiro. “There are lots of riders to train with, and the weather is nearly always warm and sunny. In Europe it’s often cold and wet, so this works well for me.”
The Japanese are well known for working long hours, and the same goes for their training. Arashiro and his partners often ride up to eight hours a day in Thailand, which certainly helps develop endurance and early season form.
“I’ve been doing a lot of endurance training, and a lot of climbing,” said Arashiro. “We had a mock mountain race last week — I won, which shows me my form is good. This year I have been doing a lot of motor pacing at the end of our rides, which has really helped raise my level. I think I’m much stronger overall than a year ago.”
When Arashiro made the jump from the small Japanese Meitan-Hompo team to Bbox last season, many thought he would suffer. But not only did he come out with guns blazing in his season-opener, the Tour de Langkawi, he surprised everyone — including his teammates— by earning a place on the start line for the Tour de France, where he took an impressive fifth place on the opening road stage, in the same time as winner Mark Cavendish.
Riding the Tour was something Arashiro had talked about, but he said sporting director Jean-René Bernaudeau didn’t know him very well.
“But I had good form, and they took me along — and were very happy with my ride.”
Before 2009 Japanese riders had started the Tour but never finished. Arashiro was determined to be the first — but then Skil-Shimano got a wild-card start, and thus Fumiyuki Beppu also lined up in Monaco. The upshot was that two Japanese riders made it all the way to Paris.
“Road racing is very small in Japan, but with us making it to the Tour finish it made the national newspapers, which helped boost awareness of the sport,” said Arashiro. “But it’s still very small. Not many people know who we are. Although after the Tour many international journalists and photographer wanted stories and pictures.”
Arashiro’s strong opening season was rounded off by an aggressive ride at the world road championships, and while he did not finish in Mendrisio, Bbox re-signed him, despite the team’s step down from the ProTour to the Continental Pro level.
“I don’t think it will change the way the team works and the races we ride too much; the setup is the same. I think we are in the same position as last year, so I hope that the team and I will be at the Tour again,” he said.
Arashiro’s career basically started in France, and his progression has been rapid.
“I’d only raced a couple of times when I first came to France, under the guidance of the Fukushimas. I started at the bottom, but learned fast.”
In just a few years he progressed from crashing out of his first amateur races to winning national-level races and ultimately riding the Tour.
So what lies ahead for this promising Far Eastern talent?
“Well, my main aim is to win my first real pro race for the team this year, and then to make it to the Tour again,” said Arashiro. “I think I’m stronger than before, and learned a lot last year. I know I can’t out-sprint (Mark) Cavendish, and can’t climb with (Alberto) Contador, so I need to find my way some still. I’m what they call a ‘puncheur.’”
He’ll throw his first punch on February 17 at the Volta ao Algarve.