Tough Day on Mount Fuji for Rapha

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Tough Day on Mount Fuji for Rapha

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Tour of Japan, Day 5, by Paul Rowlands for team Rapha Condor Sharp

It was a tough day at the office on stage 5 for Rapha Condor Sharp as the bunch tackled the ascent of  Mt Fuji in a very short but brutal stage 5 of the 2010 Tour of Japan. Having transferred by coach from Lida the day before and reconnoitered the course that afternoon in torrential rain, the riders assembled at the foot of the mountain this morning under clear skies for the brutal 11km ascent to the finish line.

With the flag dropped and the race underway, a number of riders were immediately in trouble. The straight opening 3km of the stage delivering gradients of 10 per cent or more and the radio crackled into life to announce that the Kazakh team had placed three riders at the head of the race. As we awaited further information in the team car, riders drifted back in ones and two’s, each apparently unaware of our presence, each locked in their own private battle with the mountain. Unfortunately for them, there was no assistance to be gained from the slipstream of a car moving at less than 10mph.

Graham Briggs finds time to smile as he goes backwards on Mount Fuji

Finally, as the race passed the 3km mark, we were ushered forward. Normally we’d be in search of the main bunch but by the time we pushed on there, was no bunch to be found, just more bodies, pedaling forward in search of the finish line and in search of survival. For all but one of the Rapha Condor Sharp contingent in the race, todays stage was about nothing more than arriving within the time cut and saving a little strength for the coming days better suited to their strengths.

So it came as no surprise to see the tall silhouette of Zak loom into sight first, followed over the next few hundred meters by those of both Dean (Downing and Windsor) and Graham Briggs who, despite the task ahead of him, still managed to raise a smile as we  passed on up the mountain. Race radio by now was delivering news of only one rider, number 6, Christiano Salerno of the De Rosa team, who was alone in the lead and amassing a stage (and possibly race) winning advantage over his closest rivals.

As we passed 4km to go, Kristian House was the next Rapha Condor Sharp rider in our sights, he too having dropped back now but still comfortably in the first third of the riders out on the road. On we accelerated and before we hit 5km to go, we caught sight of Darren ahead of us fighting hard to limit his losses on what was clearly not going to be his best ever day on a bike. Speaking after the finish, Darren explained what had happened out on the mountain after we’d initially heard his number mentioned amongst the leaders on race radio:

I just pushed myself a little too hard to stay with the leaders and then the lights went out about half way up and I could never recover properly. I just couldn’t stay with them in the end."

It’s a sobering sight to see a rider give their all from the vantage point of the team car on a climb like today’s. Nothing you can do to assist, no words you can say that will lessen the pain, you just drive and hope, willing them forward, hoping they won’t crack. The ride by Darren today showed why he’s such a good rider and why he’s worthy to lead the Rapha Condor Sharp team. Many riders sit up when they realise it’s not their day but Darren used every muscle in his body to grind out a result today, justifying the work done by his team mates over the last week and representing the Rapha Condor Sharp jersey with honour.

Whilst we hadn’t seen an overall result at that time, (we’ve since seen the race communique and it was clear that Darren was now several minutes down on GC), I asked him what this meant now for his ambitions in the last two days of the race, something he was upbeat and positive on:

I think there are maybe 10 or 15 riders in front of me. I finished a good five minutes down I think, so GC is out the door now but there’s still a tough stage tomorrow, so I’ve got nothing to lose and hopefully a bit more flexibility. Hopefully I can get off the front and try and go for a stage win. Tomorrow’s another day...

One rider for whom this wasn’t the first visit to Mount Fuji was Zak Dempster, soaked through with sweat, he still had time to joke as he dismounted his Condor Leggero and sat on the tailgate of the team car. “I’m pretty disappointed with that. They should be gridding us for a stage like that, I feel robbed of a podium...! I think I said in Osaka that I’d be robbing my sorry carcass up this mountain and I think I well and truly achieved that!"

So, despite a tough day at the office, the team remained buoyant, aspirations of a podium place now looking unlikely to be fulfilled, the focus has already shifted to securing a stage win before they fly out of Tokyo at the weekend. With another hard, hilly day tomorrow and a fast and furious stage around Tokyo to wrap up, there’s something for everyone in this team before the end of the race, join us again tomorrow for more updates or follow the team via Twitter @raphacondor