Japanese road race champion and Tour de France star Yukiya Arashiro shows us that it’s still possible to do things the lo-tech way and succeed as a pro bike racer.
Little more than decade ago you’d be unlikely to find a European pro team venturing out before March, let alone travelling halfway around the world just after the New Year in top racing form; but times have changed.
The competitive end of road cycling has become increasingly dependent on high-tech equipment. Bike racing and even the world of the weekend warrior has become computerised and monitored, it’s now a place where athletes are selected before they have a chance to develop a passion for the sport and they are then monitored, tested and developed accordingly.
It’s become a sport of marginal gains, where watts and body fat percentages and technical analysis of myriad factors has taken over; to a large extent I think cycling has lost its soul and spirit.
The great news is that it doesn’t have to be that way; it can still be about the lure and challenge of the open road. It can be fun; even at the front end of the pro peloton things were passionate and fun, and it wasn’t that long ago either.
One man who still does things the old-fashioned way is Japanese Road Race Champion Yukiya Arashiro of Team Europcar – a 29-year-old rising star of the once closed Eurocentric pro bike racing scene. Interestingly he tells us that he’s not alone in bucking the current analytical trend and you’d be hard pushed to argue with his results.
We caught up with him in Thailand, just days before his season opened at the Tour Down Under; a race he was called upon to ride just over two weeks into his planned and traditional two month pre-season build up.
Early wake up
Normally I have around six weeks of training in my legs before I start racing, but the team asked me to ride the TDU as I was already halfway there. This was good in a way because there were no real jetlag issues. It’s very early for me, but this is all part of the job.
The Low-tech Approach
I’ve almost always done things my own way; I don’t have a trainer or coach (some riders on the team have – like Pierre Rolland, but many of us do not), and have had almost no monitoring of my training and statistics during my career, not even the pre-season lab test that most riders undergo.
For a short time (a few months) I was given a power meter to use by my old Japanese team, but it didn’t last long. I prefer not to use it, and the same goes with pulse meters and even computers on my bike – I do have them, but do not use them. It really does take away a lot of the real enjoyment for me.
Over the years I’ve learned to listen to my body and I know what it needs and what works for me, so I just go totally on feel – when I’m tired I stop and rest, when I’m not I train harder.
Planning and the Feel Good Factor
Your body is not a machine; it’s important to listen to it and react accordingly. I do have racing plans for each season, and they are progressive and quite traditional; logical. But if my body tells me otherwise I have to change and be flexible, and recovery is very important so if I need it I take it.
For me the Tour de Langkawi is my traditional season opener, which is later than many riders these days. I don’t like the cold in Europe during the early season racing in the cold of Belgium, and the Tour de France is always my season goal, it’s the biggest race there is, and we are a French team.
My main duty is to ride for my team leaders; Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland, and also to try for a stage win on the rolling stages between the mountains and sprints. So my year is based around this, and my training is aimed at being on top form for that one month in July. I do also target several other ‘suitable’ races during the year, races which suit my punchy riding style, like the Tour of Limousin and also Amstel Gold.
Traditionally I end my season in late October, at the Japan Cup race. After that I stop completely for one month, even longer if I feel I need it. In order to keep motivated, fresh, to keep the passion and to recover from a tough season I need that time out.
During the season I’m away from my friends in Japan, and alcohol and eating excesses are very limited. But during this time I let go; I party, drink, put on 3-4kg and just enjoy myself. Even during the season I don’t pay excessive attention to my diet, I know what’s good and also what I like, it’s important to balance things if you want to keep your morale.
When early December comes around I get back on my bike, just riding as I feel, gentle, maybe two to three hours a few days each week, no real structure, just turning my legs over and getting used to it all again.
Base fitness is the key to everything in cycling. You need to build a strong base level of quality endurance in order to build upwards from there; it’s the tried and tested pyramid approach, and if that base is not strong you will fail later in the year.
Around Christmas time I head to Thailand where I spend around six weeks of high quality base building, putting in the hours on the bike. My loose aim is to ride three days en-block of around 200km each day and then take a day off, and then a day easy, and repeat. But if I’m tired I just stop, or ride two hours easy, depending on how I feel.
When I first joined the team I attended a couple of the early training camps, but prefer to do things in Thailand, it’s a good environment for training and the team has the confidence in me to do it right.
The Second Level
During the base training period there are always a number of us (Japanese riders) based here, so we ride in a group, at a steady pace that increases during this time. On most days we have a motorbike along with us, which we use as backup, and also as a pacer.
Towards the end of the ride, sometimes even halfway through we begin the motor pacing, in a line-out and we take turns behind the motorbike, much as you would do in a hard racing situation, swapping off.
Our pacer is very experienced and knows how to keep the speed just right, and when to really make it hurt. Doing things this way is almost like race simulation, which is difficult to do without the motorbike, which never gets tired.
Towards the end of the day the motorbike winds up the pace for about six to eight kilometres until just about everybody is dropped and then whoever is still there goes all out for the line (usually a local sign), much as you would in a race situation. This really prepares me for the intensity of racing.
By the time I start racing my base fitness level should be fairly strong, and I have some intensity in there too, so it’s not so much of a shock to the system. This year that will be different due to my early start, but I think I can catch up.
With racing each weekend to start the season, it’s hard to put in long hours of training without depleting your reserves, and that factor increases as the main mid-season comes around, when there are a lot of stage races. I can race between 90 and 110 days a year, which means during the season it’s mostly maintenance; the hard work is done during the build up.
During the season I rarely ride over four hours in training or do any motor pacing, or even interval training. Many of my teammates are based in the same area of Brittany, and so around half of the time we train together, usually three to four hour rides at a good pace.
My job as a pro rider is to work for my team leaders, and my role is to ride and keep tempo for them on the first part of the big climbs, after that it’s a case of survival and loss limitation, all part of the job.
On the days in between the mountains, on the rolling stages which are open to breakaway attempts I get my chance, and also get my freedom in other rolling or hilly races which suit my ability best.
Through experience and knowledge of the race routes I look ahead and plan some for these races, and then use the races where I don’t have so much freedom as a build-up towards them.
For example; as I don’t do interval training I would ride harder than normal on the short climbs, even attack, and really push myself in races in the build up to my target, effectively in-race interval training, which works much better for me.
Mixing It, or Not
Many riders do some form of cross-training these days, and although I come from a triathlon background I do no cross training. I focus purely on the bike, and that in itself takes up enough of my reserve.
Stretching is something I do all year round, but nothing special, just regular stuff, and I’m not strict with it; I don’t stretch every day.
Something I do find very beneficial to my recovery and flexibility is massage, particularly Thai massage, and I try to have this a few times each week, particularly after a long and hard day in the saddle. It’s as relaxing for the mind as it is the body.
When I first went to Europcar I was considered a sprinter, and a poncheur. But things changed, and the team no longer needed me as a sprinter, it was more important for me to be an all-rounder who could climb – so that’s what I had to do, change my makeup as a rider.
Now my main job is to ride on the first part of the climbs, and to take my chance when plans fit with the team, which is decided on the morning of the race in the team bus.
It’s strange, my weight is exactly the same as it was when I joined the team, but through necessity I have changed my model and am much leaner too.
Apart from the team’s GC riders the Tour de France roster is never certain, often not until two weeks before, so we just have to hope that we show the right form to get selected, it’s a huge thing for everybody, and especially for me, as it’s the only bike race that the public in Japan know of, so it brings a lot of exposure for me and Japanese cycling.
The national championships usually take place just before the Tour, and winning helps to secure a spot. Last year the Japanese championships was held on a really tough circuit, 6,000 metres of climbing in 180km, and it rained heavily and was very humid. I knew I had to breakaway early with a group, and did so. I just ground on as the race got tougher—and won by six minutes in the end, and secured my Tour start.