A chat with Tour of Japan winner Chris Harper
Chris Harper (BridgeLane) is arguably Australia’s best climber not racing on the WorldTour. The 24-year-old has risen to prominence these past few years courtesy of impressive back-to-back podium finishes at the Australian Road Nationals and it would seem he’s only just getting started.
The 2019 season started well — Harper was second at Road Nationals, third on the queen stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, and then third at the Oceania Road Championships (as defending champion). But this past weekend, Harper claimed his biggest result yet.
After finishing fourth at last year’s Tour of Japan, Harper headed to the 2019 edition and won not only the brutal Mt. Fuji stage but also the race overall and the best young rider classification. He is just the second Australian rider to win the race, following Cameron Meyer who took the title back in 2008.
The day after winning in Japan Harper jumped on a plane to Switzerland to prepare for an upcoming racing block in Europe. Speaking to CyclingTips from Geneva, a jet-lagged but typically relaxed Harper spoke about his win in Japan, the racing he’s got coming up, and his goals going forward. Note: the following Q&A has been lightly edited for fluency.
CyclingTips: Congratulations on your win in Japan. That must have been a very satisfying one for you.
Chris Harper: Yep, for sure. I’ve done Japan for two years. I’ve always liked the race. I wasn’t too sure how I’d be going there. We decided to go into Japan … I wouldn’t say underdone but with the idea that there wasn’t really any pressure on getting a result. It was more just seeing where I was at going into this next block in Europe and hopefully hold on to some form going into these races.
When did you have a feeling you were going pretty well? Was it just on the Mt. Fuji stage or earlier in the race?
The races earlier on in the week they’re actually pretty tough circuits but I mean they’re nothing compared to Fuji. They’re sort of just those punchy short climbs which normally I struggle a bit up. But yeah I was just feeling pretty good even in the first couple days even on the shorter stuff. And I just thought I’ll try to get through every day as easy as I can until Fuji and I was pretty keen to just give it a good crack up there no matter what.
I felt really good the day before Fuji and then on the little circuits we were doing before we went up Fuji I felt really good again then. It sort of all just played out well.
How did it unfold on Mt Fuji?. Did you just attack from the bottom of the climb?
Not quite from the bottom. I think it’s about 11k long. Dylan [Sunderland] was off the front with one guy pretty close from the bottom and then the winner last year, [Marcos] Garcia, was attacking a bit and I was following him and I just felt really comfortable following him. But then everyone was mucking around a bit and then I just saw after he did one attack everyone just didn’t look great. And I just thought I’d just try to go off the front really and see if anyone responded.
As soon as I got pretty close to Dylan he sat up a bit then he did a turn for me. I think from about maybe six k to go I was solo. So still pretty far down.
— World Cycling Stats (@wcsbike) May 24, 2019
Mt Fuji is infamous in cycling circles for being a super tough climb. What’s it like to race up it?
Yeah it’s pretty brutal. The bottom section is pretty quick and you actually get a little bit of a sit. And then as soon as you get into the middle section there’s just these pinches which … they’re just brutal. We were running I think 36-30 and still you’re just grinding a tiny gear. You’ve got those steep pinches but then it normally flattens out.
It’s an unusually road short stage at 36km long — which is actually longer than it used to be. How are the dynamics different on a stage that short?
Obviously everyone’s fresh going into the base of the climb. I mean all you’ve got is whatever’s happened in the race earlier on in the week. But as far as the actual stage it’s not like everyone’s already got 120k or 150k in the legs. Normally I like doing climbs at the end of a hard day when people are already a bit more fatigued but it’s almost like doing a time trial with the bunch really.
This year one of the teams pretty much just decided that they were going to ride the front from the start all the way to the base of the climb. So it was a pretty straightforward stage.
You moved into the lead with your win on Fuji but there were two stages after that. Did you face any big challenges in trying to keep the lead?
The next day was actually super hard. That’s around the Keirin school and that’s definitely the hardest day of the tour. But it’s also the most aggressive I’ve ever raced it.
In the first two or three laps there were just teams going off the front and we lost a couple guys after the first lap and then it just took a long time for us to get it under control. And then from a bit over 30km to go I was completely isolated.
So yeah I was a bit nervous but the way the race played out it actually worked out really well for me. The guys sitting fourth and fifth on GC were moving up to third on GC but the guy behind was chasing to get back to third so they rode it which was good for me because obviously it stopped people from attacking.
And then the last stage was more of a sprint stage?
Yeah the last stage was very straightforward. I think 12 or 16 laps, but it’s just dead flat the whole day. We just let a small group go and then getting closer all the sprint teams all put a rider on the front so in the end we pulled a couple guys off the front and just did it with one. We sort of knew by the time you get to the last stage, unless anything crazy happens — which is very unlikely — you’ve sort of got it wrapped up.
Are you surprised you were able to win the race overall or does that feel like a natural progression for you?
I wouldn’t say surprised. Personally I wanted to do well and perform there but there wasn’t that pressure like ‘you’re going there to win this race’ sort of thing. It was more just a ‘see how your form is’ really, because I hadn’t raced for a long time before then.
So yeah I wasn’t surprised. I’d talked with Andrew [Christie-Johnston] and he said ‘Given what you’ve been doing in training I think you can definitely win up Fuji. It will just depend on how the other guys in the race are going really.’
It feels like you’re starting to build a nice little palmares with Nationals and the Oceanias win last year and now this. Does Japan feel to you like the biggest success of your career so far?
Yeah I think so. Just personally I was happy with how Fuji went because obviously in a road race a lot of tactics come into it but up Fuji there’s nowhere to hide really; it’s just who’s strongest. So it’s good for your confidence to get a win on something like that and nice to know you’re climbing well.
But even getting the week in and putting it all together I think is good and great for the team as well. I think that’s probably the most successful Tour of Japan we’ve had in a long time [ed. Ayden Toovey also won stage 2 for BridgeLane].
So you’re in Geneva now. What’s the plan from here?
Yeah, we just flew in yesterday to Zurich then Geneva and we just stayed here last night. We’re just waiting for a couple more guys to get here and then we drive into France a bit later on.
Which races will you do in Europe?
The next race is one in Romania actually called the [UCI 2.1] Tour of Bihor, which is in two weeks’ time. And then after that we do [UCI 2.2] Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc which is a couple weeks after Bihor finishes. The team’s actually doing [UCI 2.1] Tour of Hungary as well which we did two years ago. We didn’t do it last year but that’s sort of in between the two.
It’s a good little block of races. There’s eight or nine guys over here and we’ll just swap in and swap out depending on the race.
What do you want to get out of this next block of racing?
The next two races I do I’ll go there and target GC there as well. Savoie’s very hilly. That’s probably the one that I’ll put more focus on … not that I don’t want to go to Bihor and do well, but if I could pick a race to win for the year [Savoie Mont Blanc] would be it.
So yeah probably the same as Japan — rock up and hope to perform; go for the GC and have a look through the stages and pick where I think I can get some time.
What’s the plan after the European racing block?
I’ll stay in Europe, just keep ticking over, and then a group of us are heading over to America. We’re racing the Tour of Utah this year so we’re going to try and do I think a month at altitude before then.
Looking at the bigger picture, what are you working towards? Is the goal to race at the WorldTour level?
Yeah definitely. I mean the last couple of years it’s all been trying to step up to a WorldTour team. That’s still the main focus, step up to WorldTour.
It’s not my decision but hopefully it’s next year. I’d like to get there as quick as possible. I’d just love to race at that level and do these races you see on TV. I think it’d be pretty incredible.
Your director Andrew Christie-Johnston said on Twitter he thinks you’re capable of making that step. Have you had any WorldTour teams contact you yet?
Nah, not really. I mean, I try not to think about that anyway. If something pops up or I hear something … I talk to Andrew about that sort of stuff and then also my managers — Andrew McQuaid and Jamie [Barlow] at Trinity [Sports Management] — I speak to them about that sort of stuff.
That’s their area of expertise so I just let them [handle it]. If they need to tell me anything they just flick through a message and talk about it. Other than that I just don’t really worry about it too much.
Massive congrats to @chrisharper94 winning the @tourofjapan. This one was pretty damn special to me and hopefully is just a stepping stone to the highest level in this sport. This kid has what it takes 100%. Love your work mate.
— A.Christie-Johnston (@praties) May 26, 2019
That’s all the questions I had. Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Just a massive thanks to all the guys in the team for how they rode for me and then obviously all the staff for all their support. A big one definitely to Andrew Christie-Johnston — he’s been pretty pivotal in helping me find the right pathway to the WorldTour level so I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Hopefully this win is the start of that.