Tour of Japan Stage 4 - Dark clouds gather
Day 4 of the Tour of Japan saw the clouds gather over the race as the riders tackled the most demanding stage so far, a 148km stage based around a 12.2km circuit that consisted of a 3km climb and a long twisty, rolling descent back to the bottom to do it all over again... 12 times! Despite the inclement weather, the crowds turned out in significant numbers in Lida for the stage start and there were fireworks, literally and metaphorically to kick the stage off as the first attacks got underway to the sound of rockets and firecrackers; let battle commence!
Black socks means rainy day at the office
The very first climb of the day already had a number of riders in trouble with two of the Le Tua team immediately distanced and facing a long grim day ahead to battle for survival and finish within the time limit. Quickly onto the first descent and as riders desperately battled to regain contact with the main field, your correspondent here was treated to a ringside demonstration as to what makes John Herety such a unique and knowledgeable part of the sport.
As we descended the mountain, he demonstrated an almost telepathic understanding of where riders would appear from and more importantly where they would go, placing the team car in such a way as to ensure each rider passed with ease, even finding the time to warn those vehicles ahead of us of the oncoming danger. Fair to say our DS has a 6th sense for rider safety, amazing to witness.
Meanwhile, back to the racing and as the riders completed their second lap, the race began to take shape as first a break of three established themselves and various riders tried to bridge the gap until after 25km, we had three leaders pursued by a group of seven that went clear as the bunch climbed for the third time during the stage. Once again, that chase group featured Rapha Condor Sharp rider Kristian House who once again marked the move to protect the interests of Darren Lapthorne lying third on GC at the start of the day.
Rapha Condor Sharp ride tempo to peg back the break
By kilometre 51, the two groups had merged, giving us ten leaders whose lead quickly began to stretch out beyond four minutes. Not a good situation for Rapha Condor Sharp as the break contained a number of well placed riders on GC. Unwilling to allow the break to get too much headway, John Herety ordered the team to the front of the bunch and Graham Briggs, Dean Downing and Dean Windsor rode tempo at the front, pegging the break at 4 minutes until one of the other teams would pick up the chase. This status quo remained until the 70km mark when suddenly, the bunch seeming to come to life. The lead began to tumble and over the next 30km, the leaders were gradually pegged back and the bunch thinned out as the relentless pace began to take its toll.
As the race broke through the 100km mark, the Rapha Condor Sharp team began to pay for its earlier efforts as first Dean Downing and then Dean Windsor and Graham Briggs were dropped from the bunch and left to make their own way home within the time limit, each having contributed their all to the team cause, something Darren Lapthorne reflected on after the finish.
“The break started getting quite a dangerous gap and we decided to chase. The guys did a great job and as we got the ball rolling, the time gap started coming down a little, then other teams joined in and contributed until it all came back together. As far as the team went, I think we did a perfect job. All the guys worked so hard for me today and I really appreciate what they did”
So as the bunch came back together in the last two laps, Rapha Condor Sharp seemed well placed to deliver the result in the same way they had on each of the preceding stages. Two riders were clear of the main group, but only a few seconds ahead, a tense, but potentially advantageus position for the team. However as the bunch tackled the penultimate lap, first Zak and then Kristian were distanced leaving Darren like many other GC contenders, to defend his place alone on the final lap.
Taking the race by the scruff of the neck, Darren attacked on that final ascent, but unable to force the decisive split was left vulnerable to attack and a group six riders slipped clear over the top of the final climb, joining up with the two leaders and quickly amassing a 30 second lead that they held all the way to the finish where Suzuki of the Shimano Team won the sprint, taking both the stage and the overall lead whilst Darren, rolling in 15th on the day @ 32 seconds slipped to 8th on GC 36 seconds off the lead.
With a rest day tomorrow for the transfer to Mount Fuji, the team will have time to reflect on the stage and plan their next moves. John Herety however was confident that the team had performed to the best of their abilities and would continue to do so over the coming days.
“It didn’t go according to plan. We had to be quite defensive but that happens and it’s all about how you react to those situations. We responded very very well. Zak has assumed a kind of captains role, it’s not something we’ve spoken about but he is by nature a level headed guy and he played an important role out on the road today. Looking ahead to Fuji, the situation is actually better. We were being watched quite a bit so I think it’ll work in our favour. Fuji doesn’t settle the GC but it determines who’s in the mix when we get to the Keirin school. Both are short stages but promise big time differences and it’s mano-a-mano when we hit Fuji and Darren is climbing as well as anyone in this race”.
So, a transfer day tomorrow, then a mountain to climb. Join us on Friday for all the latest updates on twitter @raphacondor