Saitama (Japan) – Sunday, November 5th 2023 – Tadej Pogačar wrote the epilogue of a success story and the prologue of a new one. Racing in his Tour de France Saitama Criterium debut, the Slovenian rider came out on top in the Japanese city, the end point of a record-breaking season in which he picked up a whopping seventeen victories, including two Tour stage wins in July. In his final appearance in the white jersey —he will age out of the best young rider’s classification next year— the world number one outsprinted Sepp Kuss for the win, with Peter Sagan on the bottom step of the podium. A short while earlier, Pogačar and his UAE Team Emirates teammates had finished second in the team time trial, which went to Yukiya Arashiro’s Bahrain Victorious.
The champions of the Tour headed to the other side of the world for the last bout of the season, riding in summer-like temperatures under the watchful eyes of tens of thousands of Japanese fans. The ninth edition of the Tour de France Saitama Criterium roared to life as soon as the flag went down. Ten years after becoming the first winner of the race while clad in the yellow jersey, Chris Froome fired the opening salvo on the first of seventeen 3.5 km laps, right after the very first turn. His gutsy ride and relentless attacks throughout the race earned him the combativity award.
Cavendish and Ciccone hunting for points
The peloton reeled in the first breakaway shortly before the first intermediate sprint, where Mark Cavendish, a 34-time Tour de France stage winner racing alongside Froome in the Legends squad, took the first step in his ultimately successful challenge for the points classification. Meanwhile, Giulio Ciccone (Lidl–Trek) was determined to do justice to the polka-dot jersey he won last July. Mission accomplished for the Italian, who featured in multiple breakaways and grabbed enough points to become the king of the mountains.
Sagan and Kuss attack but Pogačar has the final word
Egan Bernal, second in Saitama in 2019, and Chris Froome were the driving force behind a new breakaway that was caught just before the last intermediate sprint, won by Peter Sagan (Legends). The Slovak kept the momentum going to charge full steam ahead. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo–Visma) joined the three-time world champion a lap later, with 7 km to go. Cofidis set a frantic pace at the front of the peloton to close the gap, but it was not to be. Not fancying his prospects in a sprint, Kuss tried to outsmart his fellow escapees with an attack from 2.5 km out. Sagan had no answer to this and had to settle for third, but Pogačar held on and came around the American to ride to victory and into the gorgeous sunset.
Arashiro’s clique beats the clock
The day had got under way with a time trial that put the spotlight on homegrown talent and the stars of para-cycling, as well as giving the pros the chance to warm up and get a feel for the circuit, lined by massive crowds. „It was mind-blowing, there were spectators everywhere, not just at the finish“, said a happy Thomas Champion, third in the team time trial with Cofidis. Yukiya Arashiro’s Bahrain Victorious outfit took the spoils in 3′43″42‴, three seconds faster than Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates. „In Singapore, we finished third, behind UAE Team Emirates and Cofidis. We were determined to win today“, explained the 39-year-old Japanese, who had planned the turns with his teammates Pello Bilbao, Matevž Govekar and Kamil Gradek in painstaking detail. It was Arashiro’s maiden win in the team time trial and his second overall in Saitama, following his triumph in the road race in 2019. The local hero, who has not missed a single edition of the event since its launch in 2013, has good reason to be proud. „Winning in front of the Japanese crowds means the world to me. Doing so once was already great, but doing so twice is even better!“