Torch Runner in front of Mt Fuji_Ichikawa film
Torch Runner passing the front of Mt Fuji, from the Kon Ichikawa film, Tokyo Olympiad. Click on the image to see this scene at the 9 minute 30 second mark to see.

In 1964, the cycling road race in Hachioji, a suburban area in Western Tokyo, was considered too easy, which allowed too much bunching of elite and mediocre racers during the bulk of the race. In 2020, the road race route “will be tough, with a lot of difference in elevation,” according to this Japan Times article.

More importantly, for the viewer, the backdrop will be wonderful. The 2020 route will take Olympian cyclists by the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture. According to the article, the 270-km course will start near Musashino Forest Sport Center (not far from ASIJ, the school to which my son cycled to every day), and continue through National Route 413 all the way to scenic Lake Yamanaka and Mt Fuji.

According to Cycling Weekly, the organizers said that the race might even include a climb up Mt Fuji.

The final major obstacle of the men’s road race should be another long climb of around 15km, going half way up the side of the iconic Mount Fuji. This is likely to be crested with around 36km to go, half of which will be a descent before a flat or rolling run-in to the finish line back on the Fuji Speedway circuit. If this mountainous course is confirmed by the organising committee, the men’s race will feature more than 5,000m of climbing and be the longest race since professional riders were allowed to compete in 1996.

Reports are that the women’s 143-km road race will also have a similar route but will have less climbing.

In 1964, Mt Fuji was certainly one of the top five things a visiting Olympian would know about Japan. Some may have seen it on the plane ride into Tokyo. But most could not see it even if they wanted as the Tokyo skies were filled with the soot and dust of industry and construction. Additionally, it rained a good part of the Tokyo Olympics.

In July and August, 2020, the competitors in Tokyo will still unlikely be able to see Mt Fuji – the skies usually don’t become clear enough until the Autumn and Winter months. But the cyclists will have a front row view from their bikes.

As a side note, I did as well in the Autumn of 2005. I stupidly joined a bunch of young but experienced mountain bikers who convinced me that biking up and down Mt Fuji is a blast. As you can see in the picture below, I did not fare well, wondering how I did not break any bones hurtling down steep slopes of lava rock.

Ah, Mt Fuji….

Fujiyama2_November2005

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Cycling Olympic games-1964-Tokyo
Part of the road cycling route on the Hachioji Highway.

In 1964, there were 20 new countries participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Malaysia was participating for the first time, a newly formed federation that included Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo.

If there is one thing you need to know about Malaysia, it is a part of Southeast Asia, which means temperatures are high. As they say in that area, there are three seasons: Hot, Hotter and Hottest. October in Malaysia is probably in the season “hotter”, with temperatures routinely around 27-30 degrees centigrade (80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Unfortunately, on the day of the 190 kilometer road race in the Western part of Tokyo, it was rainy and cold.

The new Malaysian Olympic squad had 9 cyclists, including Hamid Supa’at of Singapore, a long-distance road racer. Hamid found the conditions very difficult. “My cheeks were red. My hands were very cold. And I could see smoke coming out of mouth,” he told me. “My coach told me to stack newspapers under my shirt to keep me warm. I had never raced in that weather before. It was always hot, hot, hot for me.”

Jpeg
Hamid Supa’at, third from the right, with his teammates at the Cycling Village in Hachioji, not far from Mt Takao_from the collection of Hamid Supaat

Hamid was a spry 19-year old, someone who had raced long-distance road races many times. In fact, he had participated months before in the Tour of Malaysia, winning two stages and two time trials. But nothing prepared him for the cold. And the lack of experience didn’t help either.

Hamid Supaat 5The Europeans were all up front, and most of the Asians were in the back. The roads were wet, so it was very slippery. In the first few kilometers, we were all in one big bundle as we entered the first climb, where the road was very narrow. A few cyclists crashed, so those in front sprang ahead, while the rest got stuck.

Hamid was fortunate that he did not fall, but he had to do quite a bit of waiting before he could pick up any speed behind the crowd. He said he remembered everyone talking in many different languages how they were stuck and couldn’t do anything. In the end, the cold, wet weather took its toll on about 25 of the 132 cyclists who failed to complete the 190-kilometer course. Hamid told me he lasted only about half the race before he bowed out.

But he said it was a great experience as he had a clear view on how the Europeans, the best in the business, ran their race: what gears they used in the climbs, how they took turns, what kind of bicycles they rode. “The Europeans were all very tall and strong,” said Hamid. “If we were motorcycles, they were 1,000cc machines, and we were 500cc.”

Hamid had similar feelings about being in Japan. As the bus took the Malaysian team from

Individual Men's Road Race_Merckx
Eddie Merckx in the blue shirt and Belgium tri-colors (at least I believe it is). From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

Eddy Merckx is called the greatest cyclist of all time. As listed by Sports-Reference.com, he had won or had tied for the most championships in “the Tour de France (5), Giro d’Italia (5), World Championship road race (3), Milano-Sanremo (7), Gent-Wevelgem (3), La Flèche Wallonne (3), and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (5), and in that list, only Merckx’s five Tour de France wins has been surpassed, intially by Lance Armstrong, with seven, prior to his doping disqualifications.”

In 1964, this cyclist from Belgium in 1964 headed into the Tokyo Olympics as a favorite to win the gold as he had won the Amateur World Championships in Sallanches, France. Merckx was called the “Cannibal”, for his ferocious competiveness, and his attacking, devouring style towards the end of a race. And at Sallanches, he showed early evidence of this aggressiveness according to author, William Fortheringham in his book, “Merckx: Half Man Half Bike“.

He fell on the quarter after a few kilometers of chasing. He had barely given himself time to breathe before he attacked again…one by one his erstwhile companions fell back. Accelerating again to the final climb of the road that climbed to Val d’Assy, Merckx forged a lead of a hundred meters in spite of the courage Luciano Armani showed in hanging on to his back wheel. It was enough of a lead to earn him the world title by a clear margin. He was the youngest world amateur champion to that date: nineteen years old.

From there, it was on to Tokyo with dreams of gold.

Individual Men's Road Race
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

The Men’s Individual Road Race in Tokyo took place in a twisting winding 194 kilometer-race, that was essentially 8 laps of a 25 kilometer course. This course took the 132 cyclists on a tour of Hachioji, a suburban town on the outskirts of Western Tokyo. According to an AP report, “the route took the competitors past the Tama Mausoleum of Emperor Taisho and Empress Teimei eastward on the Koshu Highway and through Hachioji City. The riders then pedaled toward the town of Hino and across the Tama River. They then sprinted on a three-kilometer flat stretch between the towns of Tachikawa and Akishima. From this point on, the road starts climbing on the Tama Mountain range, and winding then through a scenic rural area and returning to the starting point past the town of Tobuki.”

 

Roger Swerts and Eddy Merckx Olympic Village.gif
A quiet evening dinner in the Olympic village in Tokyo with two members of the Belgian AMATEUR cycling team: ROGER SWERTS and EDDY MERCKX.

Despite being a heavy favorite to win gold due to his recent Amateur World’s title, Tokyo was an early blip on Merckx’s legendary career. He finished twelfth in the men’s individual road race. As explained by Fortheringham, his cannabilistic tendency was not so apparent. And the author claims that Merckx was not yet so entitled that the three other members of the Belgian cycling team would naturally support him, and that perhaps a failed attempt to monetarily persuade led to his mediocre results:

Merckz achieved his dream of racing at the Tokyo Olympics later that year, but while the ambition to ride the event had driven him since his early teens, the race itself was anything but a defining occasion. As the amateur world champion, he was no longer just another rider. He was heavily marked by the entire field as he attempted to split the race apart – not the last time he was to find this happening. He suffered from cramp. He rode a less restrained race than in Sallanches, and was chased down by Gimondi when he made his move three kilometers from the finish. Fate had stepped in. the night before, his wallet had been stolen from his room in the Olympic village; in it were the 12,000 Belgian Francs he had brought to pay his teammates. That was the best way to be absolutely certain that they would help him to win. Instead the Belgian team rode for themselves: the gold medal went to an Italian, Mario Zanin, with Godefroot winning the bronze medal and Merckz tweflth. His meteoric amateur career was all but over. Merckx turned professional on 24 April 1965 for the Solo-Superia team led by Rik Van Looy.

The Hachioji Velodrome in 1964, from the book
The Hachioji Velodrome in 1964, from the book “THE GAMES OF THE XVIII OLYMPIAD TOKYO 1964 – The Official Report of the Organizing Committee”

The Velodrome was in Hachioji, a suburban town in Tokyo where the cycling events were held in the 1964 Summer Games. About 43 kilometers from the Olympic Village, or about 70 minutes of travelling time in 1964 traffic, the Hachioji Velodrome was made of cement mortar, which was considered suitable for all kinds of weather….since the velodrome was outside…and it rained a lot. As it turns out, on October 19, the cycling events at the Velodrome were postponed because of rain.

As described in this blog post, the Hachioji Velodrome is long gone, a deserted baseball park in its place. Hachioji did make a bid to bring cycling back to its neck of the woods, but it was not to be. Earlier this month, the IOC finally settled on Izu as being the location of the 2020 Olympic cycling events.

The IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee have been trying to figure out a low-cost way to keep cycling events in the downtown Tokyo vicinity. The hope was to have cyclists race by the Tokyo Bay waterfront. But the cost of customizing temporary infrastructure in prime property was thought to be prohibitive, particularly in a time when the IOC is working closely with National Olympic committees to make the Olympics less of an economic burden on city governments and taxpayers.

The Izu Velodrome
The Izu Velodrome

Thus the decision to move the cycling events, which include track cycling, mountain biking and BMX, two hours away to Izu. Famous more for its hot spring resorts, Izu is also the location of an existing modern cycling velodrome. There will need to be additions made to seating capacity, but that cost will be covered by local cycling associations.

It isn’t so unusual to have events away from the Olympic Stadium. In 2020. the sailing events will take place in Enoshima, basketball in Saitama, fencing, taekwando and wrestling in Chiba. Which is fine. Let’s spread the Games around. It is just as much Japan’s Games as it is Tokyo’s.