Spanish world champion Alejandro Valverde comfortably beats Geraint Thomas in a sprint for the line as pair put on a show over the final laps of the Japanese criterium organised by ASO

Alejandro Valverde ran out a comfortable winner of the Saitama Criterium to end a busy two-day program for the WorldTour riders as they entertained the crowds in the Japanese city over the weekend.

With his leg warmers still on, world champion Valverde won by several lengths ahead of Geraint Thomas racing in his Tour winner’s yellow jersey. The pair had left it late to get in a break and were chasing down Bahrain-Merida’s Yukiya Arashiro as they went through the bell.

The Japanese rider finished third as he crossed the line with his team leader Vincenzo Nibali. Behind, German Marcel Kittel had given his three team-mates a quick workout as they set the pace for the final four laps before leading him out for the bunch sprint.

Having the two most famous jerseys in cycling cross the line first and second was the perfect scenario for the organisers who had been rewarded with crowds lining both sides of the road around the whole circuit and filling the grandstand down the home straight.

This is the sixth running of ASO’s Saitama event, and as discussions continue over future editions, the locals will no doubt hope it carries on. Six WorldTour teams – Sky, Movistar, Barhain-Merida, Mitchelton-Scott, UAE Team Emirates and Katusha-Alpecin – each brought four riders over to Japan and the local fans got their money’s worth.

Saturday saw a full programme of events with riders being bussed off to a falconry festival or a hospital visit in the morning, followed by the team presentation and then traditional cultural activities for the team leaders in the afternoon.

There was also a quick two lap race of the kids circuit, complete with obstacles, in the expo area. The riders dutifully rode round with kids as young as two or three while their parents took as many pictures as they could of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Not riding round dutifully was race ambassador Alberto Contador that is, who raced off the front from the start. He did at least slam his brakes on at the end to allow once child to nearly catch him. He’s clearly lost none of his competitive edge in retirement.

Geraint Thomas kids race Saitama, Japan. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

On the main stage behind the finish line Nibali, Kittel and Matteo Trentin were the first to get dressed up in order to try their hand at Taiko drumming before others had a quick lesson in baseball.

Vincenzo Nibali, Marcel Kittel and Matteo Trentin try Taiko drumming at Saitama Criterium 2018. Picture by Yuzuru Sunada

Later that evening after an official reception at the team hotel and race headquarters the six team leaders were taken to the town hall to appear on a local TV show where they took part in a Japanese game show. All in, a long day, but the fans enthusiasm never waned and the riders impressed by staying the course.

Geraint Thomas tries baseball at the Saitama criterium. Photo by Yuzuru Sunada

Following the riders around Saitama – by Simon Richardson
Saitama has the highest ownership of bicycles per capita of anywhere in Japan – one of the reasons this event has been held here since 2013. But although those  figures relate to transport and commuting rather than racing, the fans were as eager to get close to the riders for an autograph or selfie as much as any diehard fan back in Europe.

Marcel Kittel had posed for three selfies in the metres between getting off the airport transfer bus and the hotel door when he arrived on Friday afternoon. The race hotel even set up a cordoned off fan zone inside the entrance.

On race day spectators had started arriving from early in the morning setting out their spots by the side of the road. Two laps of the short circuit in the commissaries car and I was genuinely taken aback by the number of fans that lined the road. Estimates were placed at 100,00, but whatever country you’re in and whatever event you’re at, those numbers should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

The race itself may be as much of a show than anything else but with this crowd, and at this time of the year, it doesn’t seem to matter. Many of the riders get to bring their partners, Sky’s Jonathan Castroviejo even had his two young children in tow, and it’s a relaxed albeit well structured couple of days.

Placed in front of a different crowd multiple times in a single day, the challenge for Thomas who was centre of attention, is about delivering the same answer to the same question with equal enthusiasm throughout day. Even as the six team leaders were getting to the end of the game show at 10pm they were delighting the studio crowd with the tasks they had to perform.

Suffering from jet lag with just a few precious weeks left of their off-season to enjoy, the riders’ performances off the bike in Saitama were perhaps more impressive than their performance on it.