The Japanese champion with the unbreakable smile

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She’s known for her elaborate race tweets with every possible piece of information neatly lined up in emoticons. She’s also known for posts about her cooking. Eri Yonamine is the Japanese road champion five times over: a world traveller living at the foot of the infamous Cauberg in Valkenburg, the Netherlands, and riding for the Italian-Slovenian team, Alé-BTC Ljubljana.

“It’s not so easy to get a visa as a Japanese citizen but the Netherlands are very welcoming,” she says. “That’s why I ended up here. I also love this part of the world as some of my favorite races are here like Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I do want to stay in the Netherlands after my career is over.

“I just started Dutch lessons but the language is very hard to learn. The pronunciation is tough but I know how to say ‘bitterballen’ (a deep-fried, crunchy meat snack), and ‘oude kaas’ (matured/old Gouda cheese) — two of my favorite Dutch food items,” she adds with a smile.

Food is a common subject on Yonamine’s social feeds. “Gyozas are definitely popular, yes,” she laughs, “but I used this COVID period also to buy a pasta machine and make my own noodles. I love noodles and make loads of them now.”

Yonamine is 29 years young and hails from Osaka, one of the biggest cities in Japan. Cycling was not her first sport.

“Cycling on the roads in Japan is pretty dangerous and uncommon,” she says. “You can’t ride two abreast and there is a speed limit of 30 kilometres an hour. I once rode 40 when I was back home a while ago and was stopped by the police.”

She started off as a tennis player through high school and in her time at Tsukuba University, 60 kilometres north of Tokyo. “I studied general sports science,” she explains. “The university is suited especially for athletes. The level in tennis was pretty high though. There was a point in my tennis career I couldn’t grow anymore so after university I started to look for another sport. My uncle was a bike rider and he suggested I could do that too. That’s how I ended up on the bike.”

Japan has a tradition in track racing, and especially keirin racing, but Yonamine never had ambitions on the track. “The competition is strong and it’s hard to get on the national team,” she says. “I prefer road racing too.”

In 2013 she rode her first world championships. In 2015 she was scouted by the management of the French FDJ team. “It was just a bit too early to go to Europe,” she explains. “I really wanted to go the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro but needed UCI points. I decided to try and obtain those in the United States (riding for Hagens Berman-Supermint) and that’s what I did.”

She finished 17th out of 53 finishers in the Rio de Janeiro road race and 15th in the time trial. Yonamine’s face lights up when we discuss the Olympics because the next edition will be in her own Japan.

“It is special to race in Japan for the Japanese national team,” Yonamine explains. “I have never done that so I can’t imagine what it feels like to be part of such a big event in my own country representing our flag. Of course, I still have to get my place but Japan has two spots so that’s reassuring.”

Yonamine moved to Europe after the Olympics in 2016 and has now been part of Alé-BTC Ljublana for the past two seasons. “I am the rider who stays with the leaders in the final,” she says of her role on the team. “I also often try to go in breakaways. I am not much of a sprinter.”

When looking at the Japanese rider’s results it immediately becomes clear she hardly ever abandons a race. Sometimes she is outside the time limit but hardly ever is she a DNF.

“Having a bad race makes me sad of course but even if I drop from the peloton, I will always try to complete the race,” she says. “Or else I won’t have gained anything from that race. That’s my rule in racing.”

With the season re-start drawing closer Yonamine has been training hard in the hills of the Dutch province of Limburg, or just across the Belgian border on the steep Ardennes climbs.

“Those three races – Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – suit me well,” she says. “It’s always great fun because many spectators on the side of the road know me and cheer me on.

“My first race will be the Strade Bianche. It’s a race I have great memories of. I raced it every year since I joined FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope in 2017. Last year was one of my best days on the bike when I came in 13th.

“I also have fond memories of La Course in 2017 when we went up the Col de Izoard. There were so many people cheering us on. I was 11th that day. On race days I never know how the legs are until after an hour or so. Then I know if it will be one of those great days or not. That day on the Izoard was definitely one of those great days on a bike! It was also one of the few times my family could see me race on Japanese television.”

Normally Yonamine would have travellled back to Japan for the nationals which take place at the end of June but that was cancelled because of the COVID-19 situation. “I am still waiting for the decision from the Japanese federation if I can keep this jersey,” she says. “It’s so beautiful, don’t you think?

“This year my family would also travel to Europe to see me race. Sadly, that was cancelled too. I normally travel back home twice a year, [for] nationals and after Worlds but this year the season will be until November for me. As the situation is now, I can travel to Japan but not back to the Netherlands. This situation will also probably make me the only Japanese woman at the World Championship in Switzerland this year.”

Yonamine is always smiling when you see her at the races or when you talk to her. Her love for what she does shows in her racing. “Unfortunately, the sport is not big for girls in Japan,” she says. “I would love for young girls to come up to me or write to me on social media to ask for advice on how to become a professional bike rider. But sadly nobody did so far.”

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