Curtain Call

Japan Cup brings Rapha’s Team Sky journey to an end.


Emotions often run high at the Japan Cup. The race is the last in the pro-tour calendar and is traditionally a celebration of the spirit of cycle racing as much as a competition. This year’s 25th anniversary edition of the race proved especially poignant - it signified the end of Rapha’s four-year partnership with Team Sky. The team also bid farewell to domestique Xabier Zandio, one of the longest-serving riders on the squad, who chose to make the Japan Cup his final race as a pro-rider.

The Japan Cup is one of the best-known races in the Japanese cycling calendar, and loved by riders, who are afforded rock star status by the thousands of adoring fans for the one-day classic. They wait at hotels with gifts and autograph books. David Lopez, Alex Peters and Lars Petter Nordhaug of Team Sky soak up the atmosphere backstage as they wait to be interviewed at the team presentation.
Team Sky set the pace in the early stages of the race as it wound through the Tochigi countryside. Alex Peters joined the breakaway in the closing stages, finishing in sixth place and 14 seconds behind winner Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) who attacked late and stayed clear to beat second-place Christopher Juul Jensen (Orica-BikeExchange).
It was an emotional day for Xabier Zandio, who had chosen the Japan Cup to bow out of professional racing after 18 years as a domestique and one of the few original Team Sky riders left in the squad. “I will miss the people and the camaraderie you form on the road with the team but I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to move on,” he said. The legendary good nature and friendliness of the Japan Cup made for a fitting finale. It was smiles all the way for Xabier.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Japan Cup and attracted around 135,000 spectators to the streets and countryside around Utsunomiya. Many of these spectators are devoted followers of Team Sky, and delighted to receive gifts from the team car. In Japan, however, the giving goes both ways. One female fan stands outside the team hotel handing out green tea-flavoured Kit Kats.
The Japan Cup is as spectacular as it is technical. Riders wind up through narrow forest roads lined with spectators. At least the weather stayed dry for this year’s race. Last year’s event was a washout. Last year’s event was blighted by a typhoon days before which meant last minute changes to the course.
Xabier Zandio had made a lot of friends over the course of his 18-year career, among fellow riders, crew and the media. On his way from the finish line he paused to shake the hand of pro-tour photographer and old friend, Kei Tsuji.
The enthusiasm of the fans in Japan is, according to riders, unique. They know the names of every rider, arrive with handmade gifts and wait politely for a chance to secure a signature on one of the numerous items of memorabilia they have managed to collect.
The 185-metre climb through the forest was steep and brutal, proving a real test for the riders on each of the 14 laps of the 10.3km course. Spectators decorated the road with messages of support in an effort to spur the riders on.
Every year Rapha produces a limited edition cap for the event. The inspiration for this year's cap, marking the 25th anniversary of the race, can be found in the history of Utsunomiya. The cap is based on the Kibuna fish, a local folk toy and lucky charm dating back to the Edo period between 1603 and 1868. During this time, the city was gripped by a smallpox epidemic. Local folklore tells of a farmer who caught a yellow carp in the river Tagawa and fed it to his family, who were cured of the disease. Since then the fish has been a symbol of luck and can be seen around the town, including in the logo of the local bus service.