Yowamushi Pedal Limit Break – 06

After a one-week break (cycling – pre-empted by rugby?) Yowamushi Pedal is back with probably its best episode of the season.  At least if you’re a fan of road racing on bikes, as I am.  This series can be quite a geek-fest (hardly surprising as Watanabe-sensei is quite a geek).  You had a little bit of everything and a little bit of everybody from all the major teams here (apart from those already fallen).  And none of it got too outlandish, which is usually when Yowapeda is at its best wheel forward.

First out of the gate it’s Kaburagi and Doubashi in the spotlight.  And they’re fulfilling the exact role sprinters fill on real cycling teams.  The intermediate sprints are their time to shine, their moments of glory.  When the flats are left behind and the race heads into the mountains – which is where most grand tours are decided – they don’t have much of a role.  As such it’s Doubashi’s job to try and break Sohoku before the climbs, and Issa’s job to try and stop him.  This is the advantage Izumida has – which HakoGaku always seems to have.  They have more cards to play than anybody, and they can afford to take more risks.

Both sprinters are expendable, but of course Doubashi is more expendable than Kaburagi because, simply, Hakone has an extra rider in the lead pack and the entire team is better-rested.  It’s like an exchange of surrendered pieces in the endgame in chess – the fewer total pieces remaining on the board, the more the player with more firepower has an advantage – so even exchanges aren’t actually even.  The wildcard here is Abu himself who, despite being the captain, is theoretically an expendable sprinter himself.  So why is he still tagging along when the climb begins?  And even more to the point, why is Hakone having their ace climber pull him in order to keep him in touch with the front?

This is great stuff because what’s happening here is very much in-character for these two teams.  Sohoku thrives on chaos and adversity – they never seem content unless they’re improvising and hanging on by a thread.  Hakone is all about control in every sense.  Control of the race, control of their emotions.  They make everyone else react to them, which is the natural role of the dominant team in a grand tour.  But as any fan of those events will tell you, there’s a downside to that too.

As soon as the climb begins, Hakone starts to assert their dominance.  This is a marathon in every sense – a long, gradual climb to Kusatsu Onsen at about 1100 meters.  But that’s just the appetizer – the main course is the finish on Kusatsu-Shirane, at Shibu-Toge Pass, at 2172 meters the highest point on Japan’s national highway system.  And so begins the usual drama in these situations – one team consistently probing and attacking the other, not so much with the intent of knocking them out but weakening them slowly over time, like a boxer relentlessly delivering body punches.  Shinkai Yuuto is the most expendable of HakoGaku’s remaining members, and it’s he who takes point on the early barrage.

Hakone is like a poker playing holding four aces here.  Any one of Manami, Kuroda, or Ashikiba could be the one the others are setting up to take the final run to the summit.  Realistically only Onoda can keep up with them on the hors catégorie final ascent.  Only Onoda among Sohoku’s riders, that is.  Lingering a ways back, almost forgotten, is Kyoto Fushimi.  They only have one rider who can take on that final race to the gate too, but their entire system is built around that fact.  And Chimera-kun always has a plan.

In truth, Midousuji’s strategy – ruthless on his teammates as it is – is extremely smart.  He’s right in fearing a dominant Hakone more than anything else – they’re the one opponent that if left to their own devices can overwhelm him.  It’s in his best interests to help Sohoku hang with them as long as possible, to prevent HakoGaku having a literal free ride.  He’s letting Sohoku do the hard work in the hopes of sweeping in at the end to take advantage.  Chimera-kun knows he doesn’t have the firepower to fight Hakone on even terms so he’s letting Sohoku do it for him.  His “captain” Mizuta-kun is therefore himself expendable – it’s only the muscles freak Komari that Midousuji intends to take with him when he finally attacks the front.  And the both of them should certainly be pretty well-rested.