This month for our Meet the 2020 Athletes series, we caught up with two of Japan’s best medal prospects in cycling: keirin specialist Yuta Wakimoto and omnium rider Yumi Kajihara. The pair have emerged as genuine contenders for the Tokyo Games over the past 24 months, winning two World Cups apiece.
The Keirin Bullet: Yuta Wakimoto
The first WC victory for Yuta Wakimoto came in Santiago, Chile in December 2017 when he brilliantly held off the challenge of Ukraine’s Andriy Vynokurov. The Fukui Prefecture native followed up that success in Paris last October by claiming another gold medal, this time defeating New Zealander Eddie Dawkins by just 0.07 seconds. “I had never won a World Cup before Santiago so that was a huge moment for me,” Wakimoto tells TW. “It gave me a lot of confidence and showed me I could compete on the world stage. The victory in Paris then reaffirmed that feeling and made me realize that the first one wasn’t a fluke.”
Having practiced with middle-distance riders earlier in his career, Wakimoto is known for his stamina. He likes to get in front early and maintain a strong pace throughout. On form, he can be a very hard man to catch, though admits that his biggest weakness is his acceleration if he needs to kick on toward the end of the race.
Constantly striving to improve, his results over the past couple of years have been encouraging. He dedicates all his victories to his late mother, who raised him and his four brothers and sisters alone. From a financial perspective, times were tough, yet Wakimoto never stopped dreaming. “We had no money and our mom did everything herself,” he says. “That’s the reason I wanted to become a cyclist. I felt I could provide some support while aiming to compete at the Olympics.”
He realized that ambition in 2016, qualifying for the Rio Games in the keirin competition. A motor-paced cycle race that originated in Japan in 1948, competitors sprint for victory following a speed-controlled start behind a pacer (usually a motorcycle). It became an official Olympic event in 2000. Japanese riders, however, have struggled to make a significant impact.
Three years ago, Wakimoto and Kazunari Watanabe both went out in the first round. The former finished fifth in his heat before narrowly losing to France’s Francois Pervis in the repechage. Jason Kenny, joint holder of the highest number of Olympic golds for a British athlete, won the competition.
“If I can win a medal, I want to take it to my mother’s graveyard and show her how far I’ve come”
“Participating in the Olympics, I felt so nervous,” recalls Wakimoto. “The atmosphere was overwhelming. Being there in the middle of it all, it was different from what I expected. It was nothing like the Games I had seen on TV. I can’t really remember anything about the races as I was just too anxious. Tension is always my biggest rival when racing. Hopefully, things will be different next year. It’s going to be more exciting than I can imagine. My aim is to get the gold. If I can win a medal, I want to take it to my mother’s graveyard and show her how far I’ve come.”
With less than 12 months to go before Tokyo 2020, there’s a growing belief that this time Japanese athletes are finally ready to challenge for medals in the keirin event. Veteran Yudai Nitta is currently ranked number one in the world with Wakimoto slipping down from third to seventh. Japan currently leads the way in terms of team rankings and the Bridgestone rider credits the coaching of renowned figure Benoit Vetu and 10-time world champion track sprinter Koichi Nakano as the main reason for this transformation.
“The influence of Benoit has been huge,” says Wakimoto. “Before working with him I had my own training style, but his guidance has made me much stronger. It’s also been amazing to be able to learn from Nakano. He was my hero growing up. I feel the two of them have made a huge impact on racing in this country and as a result, our racers have become faster.”
The Omnium Natural: Yumi Kajihara
Aside from keirin, we are now seeing more Japanese cyclists challenge the elite across the board. One of the top prospects is Yumi Kajihara, currently ranked number two in omnium, an event featuring a scratch race, tempo race, elimination race and points race. The Saitama-born rider, who only began racing competitively at high school, is a natural athlete.
“I actually started out as a swimmer which was something I was very serious about,” she tells us. “My goal was to become the best in the country, then represent my nation in the pool at the Olympics. Unfortunately, third was the best I could manage. In the final grade of junior high school, I missed out on a place in the national championships, which was really frustrating.”
The following year Kajihara wanted to try something different and a teacher suggested she take up cycling. Though continuing to swim for a club team, she started spending more time on the bike than in the pool and her talent for the sport was obvious from the outset.
“It was my childhood dream to appear in the Olympics”
She won five gold medals at the Asian Youth Championships in 2015 and then followed that up with a silver at the World Youth Championships the same year. It was at that point, she set herself the target of becoming the number one racer on the planet. Though an ambitious target, she has already shown it’s no pipe dream, taking home two consecutive omnium World Cup titles in December 2017.
“I was absolutely delighted to win those races and was filled with gratitude for all those people who have supported me throughout my career,” says Kajihara. “I need to succeed at those big events in order to continue along my path and reach my targets of winning the World Championships and getting hold of a medal at next year’s Olympics.”
Kajihara, who finished sixth at this year’s UCI Track Cycling World Championships omnium race, believes reigning Olympic champion Laura Kenny (nee Trott) from Great Britain along with Holland’s Kirsten Wild, Italy’s Letizia Paternoster and American rider Jennifer Valente will be her biggest rivals in Tokyo next year. Overcoming those four will be no easy feat. However, with the home crowd behind her, the 22-year-old believes she has a chance.
“I’m really excited about the support from fans which I expect to be amazing,” says Kajihara. “I want to take power from that backing to produce something special. Watching the omnium event at the Rio Games; the speed, the intensity and the atmosphere was on a different level to anything I’ve been involved in. It’s more than just a race. To succeed I need to watch past competitions, analyze my rivals and then work out the tactics I’m going to employ. This is a fantastic opportunity. It was my childhood dream to appear in the Olympics. That’s something that hasn’t changed, even if my sport has. I must seize the moment and aim for a podium finish.”
Japan’s Other Cycling Contenders
Currently ranked the world’s number one keirin rider, Yudai Nitta missed out on a gold medal by 0.038 seconds at this year’s World Championships. The 33-year-old is expected to be a serious contender in Tokyo.
In 2018, Tomoyuki Kawabata finished second in the keirin event at the World Championships, becoming the first Japanese rider for 25 years to win a medal in the discipline.
Gold medalist at both the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games, Eiya Hashimoto is Japan’s best hope in the men’s omnium event. He finished seventh at this year’s World Championships in Poland.
In 2017 Yuka Kobayashi made history when she became the first-ever Japanese rider to win the Keirin Cup. She narrowly missed out on a semi-final place at this year’s World Championships.
Also missing out on a semi-final place was Riyu Ohta, though is currently ranked number nine in the world, one place behind Kobayashi. Both women also compete in the sprint competition.
The two-team relay event known as madison has been added to the women’s schedule at the Olympics for the first time and Kie Furuyama and Yumi Kajihara hope to challenge for a medal. They won the Asian Championships earlier this year.