Japan is full of bicycles and kerin racing is huge, but Fumiyuki Beppu is one of only four Japanese road riders competing at the top level.
Words by Edward Pickering
Portrait by Mina Ushida, race pictures by Graham Watson
Chigaseki is a seaside town located on a broad sweep of sandy beaches about 50 kilometres down Japan’s east coast from Tokyo. The Tokaido Main Line, one of the busiest railways in the world, which connects Tokyo to Kobe, runs through the town. The train journey from the capital runs through endless, contiguous metropolis – Tokyo, Yokohama, and then across to the coast at Chigaseki.
The city is a funny mix of commuters and surfers – while the gaze of the working population turns to the north, towards Tokyo, the city also looks east across the ocean. It’s one of Japan’s best breaks, and the beachfront road alternates cafes with surf shops. It’s packed with souvenir-buying townies in summer, and deserted and breezy in the winter.
Chigaseki is where Radioshack’s Fumiyuki Beppu grew up. I’m trying to place him in the context of his hometown, but he doesn’t fit. He’s neither hardworking salaryman nor beach bum. It’s just as difficult to place him in the context of the country in which he grew up – he sees himself less as a Japanese person than a citizen of the world these days, having lived in France for the best part of a decade.
“I sometimes forget my nationality,” Beppu says. “I lived in France, and I rode for international teams. I became very European and I forgot my nationality, except for one moment last year, the Japan Cup.
“There were 30,000 people cheering us. It made me cry with happiness, and at that moment I felt like I was Japanese again.”
Beppu’s one of three Japanese riders who are currently riding at WorldTour or Pro Continental level, along with Europcar’s Yukiya Arashiro and Skil-Shimano’s Yukihiro Doi. That’s rare enough to be striking.
Cycling isn’t a big sport in Japan, although bikes are one of the primary methods of getting around town – men, women and children alike ride heavy shopping bikes known as mamacharis, and pavements are generally shared between pedestrians and bikes, with no friction whatsoever. The keirin scene is huge – trillions of yen are bet every year on track racing. But road racing is way behind the biggest sports – yakyu (baseball), soccer and sumo – in terms of popularity. Hardly surprising, given the population density of all but the mountainous spine of the country – racing on open roads is impractical, and most road races take place on purpose-built road circuits (of extremely high quality and variety, incorporating hairpin climbs and descents, rolling terrain and smooth road surfaces). It’s a niche sport, but three professionals is still two more than when Beppu signed with Discovery Channel in 2005.
Beppu is renowned as being one of the nicest people in the peloton, almost too nice. He’s universally known as as ‘Fumy’, and allows himself to be photographed cuddling small dogs, while Twittering enthusiastically in three languages. He roomed with old Classics hacker Roger Hammond in his first training camp with Discovery, who reported back that Beppu was literally bouncing off the walls with happiness at having turned professional, and making up for his almost complete inability to use the English language by constantly repeating five of the words he did know: “Roger, I am so happy.”
But Beppu is no pushover. He makes up for being nice to the world by being hard on himself. As an Under-23, riding for the high-profile French team VC La Pomme, he finished 13th in the U23 Paris-Roubaix. Soon afterwards, he crashed heavily, necessitating 30 stitches in his face, and smashing his nose open.
“It hurt, but I had no broken bones and I could ride my bike,” he says, laconically.
It’s a bit of a Japanese thing. Gaman is one of the most important parts of the self-perception of Japan – it translates literally as “endurance,” although it’s broader than that. It involves dealing with adversity, not giving up, and most of all, not letting down one’s peer group. Beppu was determined to show gaman after his crash.
Three weeks later, he was down for the Japanese U-23 national championships, and he had been telling everybody, and himself, that the race was going to be the crux of his career. After two seasons in France, he was determined to turn professional, and prove to himself that he was good enough to do it. In order to do that, he had to prove he was the best rider in Japan – why try to be the best rider in Europe, if you can’t even be the best rider in your own country? Instead of postponing the decision until he’d recovered from his injuries, it made him even more certain that he had to win.
“I said to myself that if I didn’t win the nationals, I’d stop cycling. Finish,” he says, and I think he means it.
“I rode for the first time a week after my crash, with bandages over my face. I looked like a mummy. But my legs felt fresh. I wanted to go back, and win by five minutes, to show how much better I was than the riders in Japan. If I didn’t win, I was going to stop cycling, go back to live in Japan and get a job in a restaurant.”
He travelled to Hiroshima, to the rolling 15-kilometre circuit where the nationals would take place. The local riders, including future professional Yukihiro Doi, watched him, and followed.
“I was smart – I waited while the attacks went. Then I attacked with Doi. With 45 kilometres to go I dropped him, and rode the race like a time trial,” he says.
“I won,” he adds with satisfaction, “by four minutes and 50 seconds.”
Then he went back to his base in Marseille, where the VC La Pomme management, having heard his threats of giving up, were worried they’d never see him again.
Beppu’s route into cycling was an unusual one. He tells the story of how a friend of his father Yasufumi once cycled the 20 kilometres between their houses when he came for a visit. This was an epiphany for Beppu’s father, who on the spot decided that he and his family would get bikes and go for regular rides.
Yasufumi, a night-school teacher and frustrated creative who dabbles in pottery and calligraphy, encouraged his three sons, Hajime, Takumi and Fumiyuki (to whom he gave half his name), to ride and race mountain bikes.
Beppu was a natural athlete – unusually, he was able to run well at both short and long distances. At the age of 14 he ran 11.9 seconds for the hundred metres, and a 4-35 1,500-metres, en route to winning his age group area championships.
At Japanese schools, every child signs up to a more or less compulsory cultural activity known as the “kurabu” – a transliteration of “club”. Clubs differ from school to school, but sports, music and artistic pursuits are the most common. At Junior High, Beppu was in the track and field club, but when he graduated to Senior High, he joined the cycling club. Older brother Takumi had already gone to Europe to race by this point, and Beppu knew that he wanted to follow.
Beppu’s talent outgrew Japan fairly quickly.
“I joined the Fujisawa cycling club, and trained every day. I won the Asian Games as a high school student, the nationals, everything. I went to race in Canada, and came up against the Dutch national team, the French, real racers,” he recalls.
“Kenny Van Hummel, Koen De Kort. Their style of racing was so organised.”
A Japanese expat in France, Akira Asada, who’d raced as a high level amateur in Europe and still works as a cycling manager, offered to help Beppu make the trip. He suggested he joined VC La Pomme in Marseille, where Remy di Gregorio, Philip Deignan and Remi Pauriol would be his team-mates.
It can’t be overstated how difficult it was for Beppu to transplant himself to France at a time he spoke no French, and there were teething problems. The free-thinking, anti-establishment culture of Marseille and Provence were antithetical to the general conformity and order of Japanese culture. Even after 10 years living first in Provence, and now in Beaujolais, he’s good-humouredly incredulous about the Mediterranean attitude to timekeeping.
“I learned that when they said ‘two minutes,’ they meant 20 minutes. Or an hour,” he laughs.
Beppu hasn’t yet won a race as a professional, He’s one of those riders who falls down the cracks between various disciplines. He’s neither climber, nor rouleur, nor sprinter. But he does have the fourth and most essential skill of any cyclist: eternal optimism. In every bike race, there are 200 riders. And when the terrain isn’t completely against them, all 200 start the race thinking they can win.
“I love cycling because it is three things: it’s Formula One, chess and a marathon, all mixed together. You have to think and use good tactics if you want to win,” Beppu says,
“Running a marathon is simple, but cycling is not simple. Breakaways can succeed. Everybody has a chance to win. Physically we are all almost the same…” he trails off.
Then he looks directly at me. “I can win a race. I’m ready, physically and mentally, to do it. My trainer has measured me holding 6.3 or 6.4 watts per kilo for 20 minutes – you can be a team leader at that level.”
The closest he has come was second place on a stage of the Tour of Romandy in 2007, when he was in his third year at Discovery Channel. He got in a break with Matteo Bono and Marco Pinotti, and they were left more or less alone by the peloton. Beppu rues not winning, and suspects Bono and Pinotti not exactly of helping each other, but maintaining one of those unspoken, subconscious national alliances which sometimes exist in cycling. In Beppu’s eyes, one Italian – Pinotti – attacked near the finish, and once Beppu had chased him down, the other Italian – Bono – was able to come off him and win the sprint.
“I almost won – I was strong enough to win the sprint, but it was too late. If the race had been 10 metres longer, I’d have overtaken Bono,” he says.
On a sporting level, Discovery Channel might have seemed a strange place for a new professional from an obscure cycling country. It was one of the biggest teams in the world, used to hiring potential Grand Tour winners as domestiques, rather than obscure Under-23 riders.
But Discovery management wanted a Japanese rider, and at that point, Beppu was their only option. Bruyneel called Beppu up at the end of 2004, and after initially persuading him that it wasn’t a practical joke, signed him for the team. There were rumours that Beppu had difficulty adjusting to life on the team, and that he had been forced on the squad, but they were either exaggerated, or he changed their minds, because after two years at Skil-Shimano following Discovery, Bruyneel signed him back for RadioShack.
“Life was straightforward on Discovery,” he says. “We could concentrate on cycling and competition. Afterwards, everything was done for us, so there was no stress. It wasn’t easy, but it was straightforward,” he clarifies.
He experienced a different atmosphere at Skil, where he rode in 2008 and 2009.
“Skil was a small team which still got in big races,” he says.
“I thought it would be good for my career. I wanted to be in the bigger races. A smaller rider in a big team sometimes has problems doing that, but I thought that being a bigger rider in a smaller team, I could get a better programme.”
Beppu rode the 2009 Tour de France with Skil. It was probably the highlight of his career so far. When the field famously split in the crosswinds at La Grande Motte on stage three, Beppu was there. And not only Beppu, but five of his team-mates.
“I showed my experience,” he says proudly. “I lived in Marseille, I knew the wind would be strong, and I told my team-mates all to be at the front. There was a big, big fight, and we got lots of riders in the first group. One of our riders had Contador on his wheel when it split – he was the last to get on, and Contador was dropped.”
The overhead television shots of the stage prove Beppu right – as the road turns and Columbia formed an echelon in the crosswinds, you can see a Skil rider madly sprinting to make it on to the back of the group. The junction made, he can ease up, while the gap, now established, yawns between the two groups. Skil rider Cyril Lemoine was third on the stage, while Beppu was eighth. And the Japanese rider also came seventh in Aubenas, after the field had split on the second-category Escrinet climb.
Happy memories, but Beppu’s memories of the team are not so good.
“On a small team…” he begins.
Generally, Japanese people are less direct than people in western societies, although there is a broad range and some overlap. There is a saying in Japan, ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’. But Beppu’s been in Europe long enough to have lost any inhibitions about speaking out.
“On a small team, you are always fighting with team mates, about races and about the race programme. It was war,” he says.
“The directors were critical, and the gossip was terrible. There’s always gossip on bike teams, but this was worse.”
Beppu leans forward and switches off the Dictaphone.
During 2009, Beppu made a decision which had serious consequences for himself. With another year on his contract with Skil allegedly still to run, he signed a contract with Radioshack. The resultant legal battle almost cost him a year of his career, and the resolution was protracted.
“It’s like [RadioShack manager Viatcheslav] Ekimov told me later. Never flick a Dutchman,” Beppu says later, laughing.
This is Beppu’s seventh season as a professional, and he has big ambitions.
“My goal is to go to the Tour and win a stage,” he says.
“It was a dream before. Now it’s an ambition.”
This article first appeared in Cycle Sport June 2011