Image credit: Photogomez Sport

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The 7th edition of the Tour de France Saitama Criterium will finally take place without title holder Alejandro Valverde, who has been replaced by the winner of La Vuelta and world number one Primoz Roglic.

Chris Froome, who holds the highest number of participations in the event, started his stay in Japan with a visit to a school before heading for Mont Fuji to make a particularly wet reconnaissance of the route of the Olympic race.

Valverde in bed, Roglic ready
A few days before the Tour de France Saitama Criterium, which remains one of the only races he won wearing the World Champion jersey soon after his title last year, Alejandro Valverde has had to back out of his trip to Japan because of a heavy bout of flu, which also meant that his Movistar team-mates had to pull out too. The winner in the general ranking of the last Vuelta grabbed the opportunity and completes the list of participants in the event. So, the world number one will round off his 2019 season in Saitama. Although he has never ridden in Japan, Primoz Roglic had participated in his ‘previous life’ as a ski jumper of only 16 years of age in the Hakuba Grand Prix in 2006, in the region called the ‘Japanese Alps’ near Nagano. The Slovenian rider returns to the archipelago tomorrow morning together with three of his Jumbo-Visma team-mates in the peloton: Tom Leezer, Paul Martens and Lennard Hofstede.

Froome back on the saddle, and back to school
Although he could not take part in the Tour de France after his heavy fall in the Critérium du Dauphiné last June, the four-time winner will start to get back in his stride by competing in the Tour de France Saitama Criterium. He is the race’s most loyal rider, only having missed one edition since the event began in 2013. His track record and his regularity in the Criterium mean that he is so popular in Tokyo and the surrounding area, and he felt the warm welcome when he arrived on Thursday. The Ineos rider, who arrived before his team-mates, was invited to talk about the Tour de France and his work as a champion cyclist to schoolchildren in Saitama. The school organised a traditional Japanese music recital, performed by the children, as a gift to him.

An Olympic warm-up before the Criterium
“He who ascends Mont Fuji once is wise, he who goes up it twice is mad”. The Japanese proverb did not impress a bunch of contenders to the race in the 2020 Olympic Games, who took advantage of their stay in Japan to do a reconnaissance of the course where they will try and shine next 25th July… just one week after the final weekend of the Tour. In this expedition, a small team consisting of Chris Froome, Michal Kwiatkowski, Jakob Fuglsang, Romain Bardet and Rein Taaramae set off at dawn for Mont Fuji. However, the heavy rain dissuaded the riders to get on their bikes for a while, preferring to do their homework in the dry. The braver ones eventually took on the rain to attack the last 50 kilometres, in particular the ascent to the Mikuni Pass, a key point on the course to decide the title. “It’s really a course for climbers. The ascent is very hard and there is hardly any respite, that’s where the race will be sorted out”, says Romain Bardet, soaked but enthusiastic. His analysis is nuanced by Jakob Fuglsang, who thinks that “it’s still quite a long way from the finish line, the summit is at 34km from the finish, so it will be difficult to hold on unless you are out in front with a small group of climbers who can hang on in there”.