Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard tucks into some well-earned cotton candy (which he made himself) during the Thematic Japanese Festival at the Saitama Criterium.

Fun and games and a ‘bike race’ at the Saitama Criterium

by Kit Nicholson

photography by Getty Images


The road racing off-season is in full swing, and a fixture of this decompression period for almost a decade has been the Tour de France Saitama Criterium in Japan. First held in 2013, the weekend-long event sees Tour celebrities gather for activities and cultural exchange before Sunday’s sunset exhibition race.

We’ve seen former Tour de France champions trying their hands at everything from sumo wrestling to archery in the past, and this year saw a few of the big names diving into the enigmatic world of Japanese game show TV. We were treated to Jonas Vingegaard munching on a puff of candy floss the size of his fist, retirees Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali comparing self-portraits, Didi the Devil’s trademark enthusiasm, Chris Froome in an enormous hat…

Oh, and there was a bike race.

Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard gets the Yowamushi Pedal treatment thanks to the writer-illustrator of the manga series Wataru Watanabe.
One of the main draws for the Saitama Criterium is the day of festivities, the Thematic Japanese Festival, that precedes the exhibition race itself. This year, a crowd of Tour de France celebrities past and present were decked out in kimonos and masks, and a small number of big names were put through a series of game show-related activities, including a quiz (Froome and Vingegaard on ‘Team Yellow Jersey’ vs Nibali and Valverde on ‘Team Legend’), a cotton candy contest and a drawing competition.
Feel like we should run a caption contest with this…
Heads down, lads.
Nice, umm, autograph.
No stem-staring, Chris?
Who wins? Answers on a postcard. (P.S. looks like Valverde has drawn a Team GB track bike…)
Froome looks imploringly at a cloud of spun sugar…
…while Vingegaard tucks in.
Fun fact for no reason at all: cyclists typically have pretty terrible teeth thanks to all those high-sugar gels and hydration powders. Don’t forget to brush, kids!
Retiring riders Valverde and Nibali join Marcel Kittel to share some local food and reminisce.
And back in lycra for the criterium. There are some pleasingly hairy legs on show here – sign of a relaxed frame of mind.
The Tour’s overall and mountains classifications winner, and Simon Geschke.
Local hero and Japanese national champion Yukiya Arashiro was naturally one of the most sought-after and celebrated riders in Saitama.
Cav didn’t race the Tour this year (harrumph) but with 34 stage wins and 13 appearances under his wheels, he can surely expect invites to criteriums such as this until deep into his retirement. And this year, these events – this and last weekend’s inaugural Singapore Criterium – could not come at a more opportune time for the Manxman who will be glad to put some distance between himself and the troubling news encircling his destination team for 2023. His agent might be rather busy though.
The very serious bike race ended in a very serious three-up sprint won by Jasper Philipsen who hadn’t read the script…
What’s a Tour de France event without Didi the Devil?

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