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Will Mollema make it two in a row in Japan's biggest one-day race?

Photo: Sirotti
22.10.2016 @ 00:07 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

For almost everyone, the road season is over but while most are enjoying the first part of their holiday, a few riders have travelled to Japan for Asia’s biggest one-day race, the Japan Cup. Held at a time when most are looking forward to their off-season, the event is rarely a big objective for the big-name riders in attendance but as one of only very few opportunities to see the WorldTour stars in the Eastern part of Asia, it is a hugely popular race among the Japanese fans and a perfect chance for riders to make use of their late-season form.

 

Most of the climbers ended their season at Il Lombardia and many sprinters brought the curtain down on their season at the World Championships. A select few have either remained in or travelled to the Middle East for the Abu Dhabi Tour and a small group of riders are even more ambitious. Every year an ambitious group of riders head to Japan for one final race, the Japan Cup.

 

Japan Cup is Asia’s biggest race and as a 1.HC event, it ranks highly in the UCI hierarchy. However, unlike many other races outside the European heartland, it is a standalone event and so there is no synergy that allows riders to include it in a bigger racing block. As it is also held more than a week after the final races in Europe, it has never had the appeal that its exciting course and UCI status deserves and for most riders, it is a bit of an appendix that can be used to kick start the holiday. Unsurprisingly, many Australians line up at the event on their way back to the home country.

 

The Japan Cup builds on the legacy of the 1990 World Championships that were held in the Japanese city of Utsunomiya. It was first held in 1992 and during the years it has managed to attract a number of star riders despite its inconvenient position on the calendar. Tour de France stage winners, overall Giro d’Italia champions and World Cup winners have all traveled to Japan for the final race of their season. In 1996, the race was even part of the now defunct World Cup series and so had its best line-up yet. Among the winners are Claudio Chiappucci who won three times in a row in the early years, Damiano Cunego who has won the race twice, Riccardo Ricco, Dan Martin, Ivan Basso, Nathan Haas who is also a double champion, and Bauke Mollema.

 

As a UCI race, the race offers valuable points which are easier accessible than they are in some of the major races in Europe. That has opened the door for continental riders to challenge the WorldTour stars that are usually far from their best condition. At the same time, it is a huge goal for the Japanese riders that have their only chance to go up against the best riders on home soil.

 

The race is held on a hilly circuit in Utsunomiya and is a very spectator-friendly event. The riders usually arrive several days in advance and nowadays they all line up for a criterium one day before the main event. This has turned the race into a bit of a cycling festival that attracts huge amounts of spectators, showing that road cycling is growing in a country that has now had WorldTour riders for several years. In 2016, the race will probably get even more attendance as it marks Fabian Cancellara’s final race as the Swiss has opted to do his first and only race after his Olympic triumph in Japan.

 

Last year’s race was won by Bauke Mollema who beat Diego Ulissi, Yokiya Arashiro, Floris Gerts, Jan Polanc and Sebastian Henao in a sprint.

 

The course

The Japan Cup has always been held on a hilly circuit in Utsunomiya but for the 2015 edition, the course was changed. A shorter circuit was introduced and tackled a few more times than it had done in the past, and this meant that the riders went up the main climb more times than usual. This made the race harder and apparently the organizers liked the outcome as they have opted to use the new route again in 2016.

 

The 10.3km circuit in the Utsuomiya  Forest Park will be tackled 14 times for an overall distance of 144.2km. The circuit includes the climb of Kogashi in the early part and then descends to the finale. A small chance means that the sprint is now slightly uphill.

 

 

The favourites

Like most other late-season races, the Japan Cup is pretty hard to predict. The event comes at a time of the season when most are tired and as many riders haven’t raced for a while, it is very hard to know how they are going. Some are arriving straight from the Worlds and so have a decent condition but for riders that last raced in Europe, it requires quite a bit of motivation to have kept traiing all the way to this final race of the season.

 

This uncertainty has been reflected in the past results. Very often, the race produces quite a few surprises and has often allowed domestiques to go for a result. The team hierarchy is usually less fixed and many teams have a very open approach to the race.

 

Last year the race was made a hit harder and it now includes more climbing than it has done in the past. The previous course already suited the Ardennes specialists and the tougher route means that there is less room for he heavier guys. That was reflected in the outcome of last year’s race where the elite group in the finale was made up of pretty good climbers. Nonetheless, the presence of Floris Gerts who is not a puncheur or climber, showed that surprises are always possible if you have good form.

 

The 2016 edition of the race will take place in excellent weather conditions which will make the race slightly less selective than it has been in previous years that have been marred by bad weather. Nonetheles, we expect a pretty selective race. Last year’s winner Bauke Mollema must be motivated to defend his title and so his Trek team will probably try to make it hard. Lampre-Merida also have a solid group fo puncheurs and should have similar plans. If Davide Villella has maintained his form, Cannondale should also be keen on making thigs selective and Sky must have ambitions too. That should set the scene for a gradual elimination.

 

There will only be five-rider teams in the race and this will make it hard to control. Furthermore, the fact that many teams don’t have a clear leader means that it is possible for a group to make it all the qay even if they attack from far out. Nonetheless, history shows that the best climbers usually escape in the finale and that the race is decided in an uphill sprint from what is often a handful of riders. In the past, solo wins have also occurred but they are rare.

 

Bauke Mollema won last year’s race and on paper he is both the best climber and the best Ardennes specialist in this race. This year he has even stepped up his level significantly which his great performances at the Tour and Clasica San Sebastian show. Unfortunately, he has failed to find his best form in the second half of the season and even though he rode solidly in Canada, he came up short in the Italian classics.

 

Nonetheless, we will put our money on Mollema to defend his title. He wasn’t terrible in Italy and last year he showed that he has the motivation to keep going for this race. The fact that he will wear bib number 1 will provide him with an extra incentive and we expect him to be at a decent level. Furthermore, Mollema is suited to the course as he is strong on short climbs and pretty fast in an uphill sprint. Last year he even managed to beat Diego Ulissi in the finale which is a testament to his finishing speed. This year the field is weaker so he may even be able to claim a solo win. With numerous options, Mollema is our favourite.

 

While Mollema may not have shown his best form in the second half of the season, things have been different for Davide Villella. The Italian has always been a talented rider for the hilly one-day races but he has had a slow transition to the pro ranks. This year, however, he has taken a big step up and he has been great throughout the second half of the season. In fact he was one of the strongest even in some of the hardest Itaiian classics. Of course everything depends on whether he still has the form he had three weeks ago but at least his base is solid. As a good climber with a fast sprint, he is tailor-made for this race and it will be no surprise if he takes what is a long overdue first pro win.

 

The local hero is Yukiya Arashiro who spearheads the Lampre-Merida team. Unlike many others, he definitely has the motivation and he should be arriving in good condition for a race that is important for his team. His form hasn’t been excellent in 2016 as he has been marred by a bad injury in the spring season but he has shown signs of progress, most notably at the Olympics. Of course there are better climbers than him but with a top 10 finish at Amstel Gold Race, he has proved how strong he can be in this terrain. As he is also very fast in a sprint, the course suits him reall well.

 

Another option for Lampre-Merida is Manuele Mori who has always been strong in this race. The Italian is mostly working as a domestique but here he usually gets a chance to go for himself. History shows that he is always motivated for this race and he has the skills to do well. He is a good climber and a fast sprinter. He even showed good form in the Italian classics.

 

Like Mori, Damiano Cunego has always done well in this race which really suits him. However, the Italian is not the rider he once was and the second half of his season has been a bit a disaster. On the other hand, he showed signs of progress in his final races in Italy and if he has maintained his motivation, he should be a lot more competitive here. With his punch on the climbs and fast spint, he has the ability to do well.

 

Sky have a small team that is led by David Lopez and Lars Petter Nordhaug. None of them have shown great form recently but on paper they are among the best climbers here. If they can both make it into the finale, they will be in a good tactical position and Nordhaug is even reasonably fast in a sprint.

 

Grega Bole is the back-up plan for Nippo-Vini Fantini. The Slovenian is known as a sprinter but he is actually an excellent climber. In fact he has been in the top 20 in mountain stages of the Giro so there is a chance that he can survive the climb. He will be very hard to beat in an uphill sprint but as his form has not been excellent, it is doubtful whether he will be there in the end.

 

BMC have a solid team with no clear leader and this opens the door for Joey Rosskopf to go for another result. The American has had a bit of a breakthrough in 2016 as he was better than ever in the Tour of Utah, won the Tour du Limousin overall and was even selected for the BMC team for the TTT in Qatar. However, he has been on form for a very long time and it remains to be seen whether he still has the lvel he had a few weeks ago. Taylor Phinney and Taylor Eisenhart are back-up plans. The course may be too hard for Phinney but if can survive, he has a good sprint. Eisenhart definitely climbs well enough to be up there but he is probably not able to finish it off.

 

Villella may be the Cannondale captain but the American team also have Matti Breschel. His form has not been great since his crash at the Tour so we don’t expect him to make the selection. On paper, however, the course suits him and he is very fast in an uphill sprint.

 

Orica-BikeExchange have a solid team with several cards to play but none of them are really fast in a sprint. This means that it will be hard to win the race but they may benefit from a good tactical situation. Robert Power is one of the best climbers and as he has barely raced this year he must be very motivated. Christopher Juul is strong in this terrain and in pretty good form but like Power he is not fast. The best sprint option is Mathew Hayman but the course is probably too hard for him.

 

***** Bauke Mollema

**** Davide Villella, Jasper Stuyven

*** Yukiya Arashiro, Manuele Mori, Damiano Cunego, Lars Petter Nordhaug, Grega Bole, Joey Rosskopf

** David Lopez, Matti Breschel, Taylor Phinney, Christopher Juul, Robert Power, Taylor Eisenhart

* Simone Petilli, Manuel Quinziato, Javier Megias, Benjamin Prades, Iuri Filosi, Mattia Cattaneo, Damien Monier, Ricardo Garcia, Oscar Pujol

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