Ex-Rider Interview: In the 80s and 90s there were a few Australian, British and American riders in the European Pro Peloton, but there were not many Japanese… and certainly none in a Grand Tour. Then Masatoshi Ichikawa came along and finished the 1990 Giro d’Italia, a first. Ed Hood found out more.
Masatoshi Ichikawa climbing in the Giro d’Italia
The first Japanese riders to finish the Tour de France were Fumiyuki Beppu and Yukiya Arashiro in 2009. But the first finish in a Grand Tour by a Japanese rider came nearly three decades previously. In 1990 Masatoshi Ichikawa riding for the Frank-Toyo team finished ‘The Pink Race’ in 50th place – here’s his tale:
PEZ: How did you get into road cycling in Japan Masatoshi; did you ever consider keirin racing?
Masatoshi Ichikawa: When I was 16 years-old, a road bike shop opened about five kilometres from my house. That shop was run by the Nemoto brothers who were members of the Waseda University Cycling team. They started a cycling club called Norossa and my cycling adventure started from there. One day a rider in the club showed me Miroir du Cyclisme. It was the first time I learned about European racing. I can remember a photo of the pro peloton going through beautiful scenery – my dream to be a European pro started from there. I have a lot of friends who were pro Keirin riders but I have never tried or thought to turn into a pro Keirin rider. If I wanted to be a pro Keirin racer, I would have had to graduate from Keirin school. It is not the same license for Pro road races and Keirin races.
On the track
PEZ: How would you describe yourself as a rider?
Back then, I was an oddity — an adventurer from the Samurai country. Despite coming from overseas into a strange land and culture I never gave up. I was a strong climber, but I was also capable in small group sprints. I have a background of endurance track events like the points race, in Japan.
Racing in Switzerland
PEZ: How did you come to be in Switzerland in ’83/’84?
It’s a long story. In ’83 after graduating from university, I headed to Milano with Tetsuzawa who was also looking to become pro in 1983. We stayed in the small town of Gessate about five kilometres from the Colnago and Rossin factories. Back then, I knew a Japanese person who worked for Rossin as a frame builder. I talked with him in Japan; he promised to take care of us, but he could not do anything for us when we arrived in Italy. So we had to change the plan but we didn’t have any connection with any cycling club or the Italian Cycling Federation. One day, we found a bike shop which was run by Colnago so we tried to ask them to find a team. We couldn’t speak Italian then, so we asked a Japanese acquaintance to write on the paper, ‘Please let us join a cycling club and take us to races.’ We visited the Colnago bike shop three times each day with that paper. We met Ernest Colnago’s younger brother Paolo who worked as a mechanic in the shop. It must have been annoying for him, these two Japanese visiting three times each day and interfering with his work. Maybe he thought we were determined or crazy!
Win for Mavic-Gitane in Spain
One day, Giovanni, the president of Carugate Cycling Club, a city on the east side of Milano visited the shop and he was interested in us. He took us to a race and we finally competed in Italy, it took a month to get to that point. I still have good contact with Carugate guys. We did pretty well in their category, but I wanted to race at a higher level, so I moved to Switzerland. In 1983, the Worlds were held there and I assumed that there were many hard races to be found there. I was surprised by the difference in level between amateur and pros in the Swiss open races. I raced as an amateur in ‘open’ races which were handicapped, we started earlier, but pro riders caught us in the early part of the race and went blowing by. [In Swiss Open races the system was: amateurs start one-second per kilometre ahead of the pros; If the race was 100km then the amateurs start 100 seconds earlier than the pros to a maximum of 150 seconds.] There were many Cilo-Aufina guys like Beat Breu, Erich Mächler and Serge Demierre in the pro peloton. I didn’t have any interest to go to Switzerland again when I was back in Japan in the winter of 1983. But a friend of mine encouraged me to go again and he sponsored us.
I raced as a private team member, MITIHO – the name of my friend’s wife – with two Japanese riders.
And another win
PEZ: You rode for Sugino in ’85 – where?
Yes, the Sugino factory was in Osaka up until June in ’85 but moved to Nara in July of that year. So I also moved from Osaka to Nara where I worked and raced for Sugino.
A big cup and the leaders jersey
PEZ: Back to Switzerland with Mavic in ’86, how?
It was a little bit of luck. I had some good results in a hill climb race in Switzerland in ‘84. I had spent some time with Stephen Hodge and a Swiss bike rider called Willy Felix who Stephen lived with. He organised to get me on Mavic-Gitane in ‘86. He explained and negotiated with the team owner Jean-Jacques Loop. I got the invitation from Mavic in the end of May 85 by telex. One day my co-worker brought me the telex. It was a communication from Gerber, a bike manufacturer in Switzerland. ‘If anyone knows Masatoshi Ichikawa, please let him know that we have a spot for him. If he is interested in our team next year, please contact us.’ Loop asked Gerber to write without knowing I was working at Sugino.
Masatoshi and Stephen
PEZ: You were a team mate of Stephen Hodge?
Yes, in ‘86 we rode together for the Mavic–Gitane elite amateur team in Switzerland. It was the only time we rode on the same team. We were living at the same apartment over the course of nearly 10 years, but we were never on the same team after turning professional. When a rider comes from the Far East, it is necessary for someone to show him the ropes and guide him in a good way; he did that for me. He taught me not only racing but also about the European mind and way of thinking. He taught me well, because he had experience with Japan before; he understood the Japanese mind. I can say clearly if there was no Stephen Hodge I wouldn’t have become a pro rider without his help.
The Mavic-Gitane team
PEZ: Tell us about the role Swiss ex-pro and coach, Daniel Gisiger played in your career.
It was destiny to meet him. He was probably my greatest teacher in my racing career. He showed me how to get and keep condition; peak for a race, use a heart rate monitor and much more besides. When I look back I am still surprised Gisiger already used so many modern training ideas even before 1980 – his training methods were well ahead of their time. Before I met him in person I knew his name and his face; when I was 21 years-old, Shimano produced an aero component group called the AX model. His photo made the cover of the first page of the catalogue for the AX.
On the cover of CycleSport.jp with Claude Criquielion
PEZ: How did you get the contract with Hitachi?
In ’86, I was on Mavic-Gitane in Switzerland. I got some good results in Elite Amateur races; winning the first stage of Vizcaina where I kept the leader’s jersey for some stages; and second in GC in Ostschweiwer Rundfahrt. Thanks to those results, I got a contract with the KAS Team. I was going to be riding with Hodge with KAS in ’87. But on the 3rd January the French director sportif of the KAS, Jean de Gribaldy died in a car accident so KAS team went from being a French Team to a Spanish team. Back then there was a rule mandating 50% domestic riders, consequently some French riders and I were let go by the Kas team. After the accident, the Mavic French people were looking for a pro team for me. Because Jean-Jacques Loop of Switzerland was an importer of Mavic and had a strong connection with Mavic they introduced me to two pro bike teams. One was Hitachi and the other was Malvor–Bottecchia. I chose to go to Hitachi on the advice on the advice of the Mavic-Gitane Switzerland team. The DS of my team said; ‘Hitachi has many riders who are strong on flattish roads; but you’re strong in the climbs so you’ll get selected for hilly races and stage races and will have good opportunities there.’
PEZ: You rode the Worlds several times – tell us about it.
Yes, I actually rode the Worlds 10 times. It was always a very simple race for me because I was always free to ride as I wished. It wasn’t necessary to work in front of the bunch like the Italian or French team. It was always a hard race but otherwise it was easy to ride – I just followed the race. I liked to ride the Worlds very much; I lost a big opportunity at Chambéry when I fell twice on the descent.
Riding Liège for Hitachi
PEZ: Two wins in Switzerland in ’89, but no renewal with Hitachi?
At the beginning of the ’89 season, we heard the Hitachi team would disband at the end of season. I had the information from a friend in Japan that Hitachi would be going into sponsoring a baseball team in Japan for 1990. I was actually selected for the Hitachi team for the Giro but they switched to a Belgian rider at the last minute. I knew I had to race to get some good results to get a contract for the next year. I realised that I had to be stronger than the riders from team’s home country to get selected for big races. After I won the Schellenberg in Liechtenstein, I got offers from two teams. I changed the team just after the Worlds in Chambéry so I had already ridden some races in Italy with Frank–Toyo team at the end of 89.
Start of the Giro
PEZ: Frank Toyo in late ’89 and ’90?
It was a small team, but it was the best team I ever rode for; Gisiger had a good organisation, and I had good team mates and good staff. It was too bad I rode only one year with this team. I rode the Giro with them and it was fun. It started in Milano, so it was the biggest stage race for me – just like for Italian bike riders. It had beautiful mountains and the dinner was good every evening! I had one very bad day on the second day in the Dolomites, I lost 30 minutes to the stage winner Charly Mottet on what was the Queen Stage. That stage crossed the Pordoi twice, I had diarrhoea the previous night and didn’t have any energy in my legs that day. Gisiger advised me to throw away everything in the pockets and ride with one bottle to save weight. I weighed only around 52kg. so throwing away all excess baggage helped. The people from Carugate came to watch that stage and gave me a big cheer on the Pordoi. Thanks to them, I got through that stage; without their encouragement I might not have finished that stage.
Giro stage finish
I finished the Giro in 50th place 1 hour 30 minutes down on race winner Gianni Bugno. But I think that if I hadn’t had that bad day, then I probably would have finished maybe 10 minutes behind Mottet on the Queen Stage. That would have placed me between 30th and 40th place on the Giro GC. I planned to stop my racing career at the end of ‘90; we had the Worlds at Utsunomiya, Japan that year. If I had finished 30-40th in the Giro and got a good result Worlds in Utsunomiya I would have stopped. But it didn’t work according to the plan so I decided to do another year.
Masatoshi and Andy Hampsten
PEZ: Swiss team Bleiker for ’91/’92 and three wins in Switzerland – a good season.
Yes, the team had good riders. Beat Breu, Urs Freuler, Sandro Vitali… In ’91 I finished 14th on GC at the Tour du Toscana just one week before the Giro. I tried to get on a team which was going to the Giro, but I couldn’t find one; instead we went to the USA at the same time as the Giro. We had a stage race in Virginia and the Philadelphia Core States USA Pro Championship. That was a very good experience. I saw Lance Armstrong in his last amateur season, and I enjoyed staying at the big university in Virginia. It’s a pity that many races in USA, like Philly – and some parts of Europe have gone.
Win for Bleiker – With teammate Karl Kälin
PEZ: An Italian team in ’93, Navigare Blue Storm.
I had a bad fall at the beginning of season and had to have a big operation; titanium wire and bolts in my face – I was one month in hospital I came to back to Tokyo the end of 93. I think I finished my serious racing career when I left Europe – I had a full time job with a company in Tokyo. I still went to races in Japan, but it was my hobby. I put on my Mavic–Gitane jersey at the races, we had only 10 races in the year, and I could only ride on the weekends.
PEZ: What path did you take after you stopped racing?
When I went back to Tokyo in ’93, I worked for a water filter company which my father organised. After he died, I started to import some bicycle parts and frames. I imported Serrota Bikes from the USA for 20 years. Ben Serotta is a very good friend even now. Now I run a small bike factory which makes custom frames CrMo or titanium, ‘Masa Masa’ is my marque. I would like to export the frames in the future.
PEZ: Which performances give you most satisfaction when you look back?
I’m more proud of the moments that I rode well rather than good results; races where I came close but suffered misfortunes, like the Clásica San Sebastián and Worlds in Chambéry – I had really good legs in both races. Winning the Schellenberg in Liechtenstein ’89 was satisfying; Jan Koba and Gerard Veldscholten were better sprinters in the decisive break, but I surprised them to win while they looked each other – it’s exciting to beat better sprinters in a sprint!
A happy pro – Meeting up with Stephen Hodge and the 7-Eleven boys
PEZ: Looking back, what would you do differently?
No regrets, I think I would go down the same path. I enjoyed being a pro. At one time, I thought maybe I should have chosen Malvor–Bottecchia. But if I hadn’t chosen Hitachi, I wouldn’t know the Northern and Ardennes classics and I wouldn’t know good people in Belgium like Jean luc Vandenbroucke. So I realise all my experience in Europe gave me a good opportunity. Perhaps one thing – I should have gone to Europe at a younger age.
Masatoshi, now in the office
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