Masahiko Mifune is a pioneer. In more ways than one it’s a long way from Oudenaarde to Massa’s hometown of Okayama, but Belgium is where Massa plied his trade as a professional rider for nearly ten years.
He rode for nine seasons from 1995 and competed in more than 700 races as a pro, starting out with Belgian-based British team FS Maestro, then Belgian squad Tönissteiner-Saxon (later Tönissteiner-Colnago) and finally with another Belgian team, Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, until he returned to Japan in 2003.
Victories for team riders like Massa are rare, and he knew most of the races he entered would mean sacrifice for a greater good.
It was only when he came back to his home country that he would win, landing the Japanese cyclo-cross title among many other victories.
I find it surprising that road cycling is so small here when the roads are so good.
“Until recently, cycling in Japan was only the keirin, so it only meant gambling and it is not considered a sport by many. We have keirin, speedboat racing, and of course horse racing.
If I said five years ago, ‘I’m a professional cyclist,’ they would think I was a keirin racer. Only recently have people started to recognise road racing.
When you are a kid and a really strong cyclist, your parents want you to become a keirin rider and make money. You don’t make money on the road.
I was never interested in the keirin. My dream was to become a road pro in Europe. My father thought I was crazy.”
What inspired your dream?
“It was the Tour de France in the beginning – ’83, Laurent Fignon. Then I was just riding – not in competition, just riding. After I saw the Tour, I thought, I will do this.”
So how did you know your talent would be enough? Were you much better than everyone else in Japan?
“I did not know. I promised my father if I got top ten in the junior category, I would go. Every day I was up at five, motor pacing behind the car with my father driving.
Three hours on the bike in the morning, then I went to high school. Then 100km after school. Every day, 200km.
At the junior Ronde van Vlaanderen, I was in the first group, but it had already split because of the wind. I lost but I learned how to ride in the wind and eventually got top-20 finishes and prize money.
My father helped me financially for the first two years, but after that I had to win to make money.”
But you say that you spent five years
“Five years, and then almost ten years in Belgium. So for the first five years I was an amateur, and the next ten years I was professional, in Europe. And the first two years, I was with a British team, Maestro.
It was in ’87 that I went to Holland – I was 18 years old. When I was 14, my dream was to be a professional road cyclist. So the first year when I went to Holland, it was just the beginning of my dream. I was very excited.”
And you didn’t mind being so far away from home?
“I never got homesick, no.”
It must have been a big culture shock?
“No, not big. Just small things. I mean, maybe I was a little bit crazy – I was always thinking about only cycling, not the big differences between Japan and Europe, only bicycle things which are the same all over.”
So how difficult was it for you to break through in Europe, being Japanese?
“In the beginning? I think the big difference is for mindset for the racing. In Japan, if we get a very good result, we only get a certificate – you know, of congratulation – but in Europe, as a junior, you get prize money.
So everyone’s very hungry in Europe to get prize money: it was almost like fighting. But in Japan, never, because it was only winning paper.”
So there’s more hunger to win in Europe, you think?
“Maybe. The races in Holland are very dangerous in the beginning because everyone’s fighting. The first four or five miles, I was already a little bit afraid of crashing or something.
Actually, many times I was baulked and crashed and lost, but then later I was maybe the same as the Dutch guys, so I got more prize money and more results.”
And did they then not push you around so much?
“Sometimes maybe much more than another Dutch guy – but I had a lot of hunger.”