After nearly six years as a professional, Eri Yonamine will ride her first international race on home soil at the Olympic Games this weekend.
While the men’s peloton at least has the Japan Cup, there are no UCI sanctioned women’s races in the country. Indeed, there are so few events for female cyclists in Japan that Yonamine’s first competitive race — after giving up tennis for cycling — was the 2012 Japanese national championships, where she finished second behind established professional Mayuko Hagiwara.
Now a multiple national road race and time trial champion, and the current reigning Japanese champion, she will be lining up against the world’s best in front of home crowds for the first time.
“For women, there have been no international races at all. No UCI, no international races, no European riders came here. So, I feel strange but I’m so excited, and I don’t know what will happen,” Yonamine told VeloNews on the way to an altitude training camp in Austria at the end of June.
“It’s a pretty strange feeling, too, because it’s not a normal year and they have been postponed. This year I’m not in the best condition, but I [will try] to do my best for the Olympics.”
As for many athletes, Yonamine’s preparation for the Olympic Games has been peppered with questions about whether or not it was going to happen. With rising cases of COVID-19 through April and May, which peaked at almost 1,500 new daily cases, the 30-year-old was sure that it would be canceled.
After some strict lockdowns were imposed, which resulted in the cancelation of the national championships, Yonamine became more positive that the games would go ahead. However, with several international athletes and support staff testing positive for the virus upon arrival in Japan, there is still a chance the global event could be canceled.
Yonamine can only hope she will be able to compete Sunday.
“I know the situation in Japan and also the situation in Europe. Information is pretty different,” Yonamine said. “People who live in Japan don’t want the Olympics. Also, the government is not sure. But everyone in Europe seemed sure it was going to happen.”
“My nationals were canceled because they tried to make [safe for] the Olympics. Lots of lots of big cities were locked down. It was frustrating but I always kept believing because it’s my home country, I am a Japanese rider, and it’s special.”
While Yonamine is looking forward to racing an international field on home soil, she admits that the Japanese public is less pleased about the event. They have had to make a lot of sacrifices, through strict restrictions, to help give the Games a chance and there is plenty of frustration.
“To be honest, people are not happy, because they [the government] waste so much money. I think the only people that are happy are the athletes,” said Yonamine.
Yonamine is from Osaka, which is about 500 kilometers south of Tokyo, but she has ridden the roads that the riders will face this weekend. The route will take the peloton from Musashinononmori Park to the west of Tokyo, before heading southeast towards the Fuji International Speedway.
She’s expecting some crowds may turn up for the start, depending on how tightly restricted the area is but elsewhere will be much quieter.
“I know the road for the road race. It’s a pretty quiet road with no houses. At the beginning of the race, there will be loads of people loads of houses around there. In the middle and also the finish area there will not be so many people,” Yonamine told VeloNews.
“I don’t know what exactly will happen in the road race because every team will have their own tactics. But in the middle of the women’s race, we have the longest climb. It is a little bit less than 10km, but it is a steady grind. In my opinion, Annemiek [van Vleuten] will go there, like two years ago at the world championships. She went 100km solo in Yorkshire.
“If nobody goes there then I think there will be a sprint or a small group.”
For the time trial, her assessment is short and to the point.
“It is a hilly course but it’s not super steep. It’s a bit of a drag uphill so I think the riders don’t need a light body, they just need power,” she said, adding that there will be no need for a road bike to tackle the climbs.
Yonamine, who is based in Valkenburg these days, will also be contesting the time trial. She is not feeling as strong as she was ahead of the original date for the competition, after being diagnosed with iliac artery endofibrosis earlier this year, and has modest ambitions for her home Olympic Games.
“If we had the Olympics last year, then I would hope to finish in the second group. Like if someone went in the break, like Annemiek or Anna van der Breggen, then I would hope to be in a second group. Last year, I was in pretty good shape. But to be honest, this year I’m not in the best shape. So, I will just be my best.”
For anyone who is tempted to travel to Japan for a riding holiday after watching the Olympic Games – once the pandemic is over – Yonamine advises heading to the center of Japan’s Honshu island and the Nagano Prefecture, which boasts some very impressive mountain ranges.
“I really like to ride in the Nagano Prefecture,” she said. “You can ride altitude a bit, at over 1,000 meters, and in the summer it’s not too hot and not so many cars. There are some good professional riders that live there.”