road riding in Penang | Malaysia

Le Tour de Langkawi, 2007

February 2007 | by Kharis Idris & Darren Lee | photos by Kharis Idris


Koji Fukushima: The Harmonica Player


All right, so it may not sound as glamorous as "The Piano Player", but Koji Fukushima is certainly known for his harmonica playing skills, and on the final day of what has been a blazing hot Tour de Langkawi, Kharis Idris catches up with the Entertainer of Asia for a chat. Alternatively known as the Jacky Durand of Japan, Koji is a firm crowd favourite with his do-or-die (or maybe that should be do-and-die) attacks, which added to his crowd-pleasing routines gives you one popular package.

It is near midnight in Bangsar Baru, Petaling Jaya, and the Nippo-Meitan Hompo team is celebrating their performance in this year's Tour, capped with a fine individual stage win by Koji's elder brother Shinichi (Stage 7 - Kuantan to Karak). Also with us were Shinichi, Yukiya Arashiro and Directeur Sportif Akira Asada.

I have known both Koji and Shinichi for quite some time now since their their early participation in TdL. Koji is the more popular of the two brothers, working his charms on the hearts of Malaysians, whilst Shinichi is more reserved and prefers to let his legs do most of the talking. The public would have no clue about what the race is all about, but they still love Koji Fukushima.


Q: First off, can you tell us about the harmonica? Where did you learn how to play it and how did it become your pre-race crowd pleasing routine?

Koji: I learned to play the harmonica all by myself as a university student back in Japan. The first time I played the harmonica at a race was during my amateur racing days in France (but) it became a crowd-pleaser [particularly] when I played it at Asian races.

Q: People still remember your exploits from Stage 3 of the 2005 TdL, when you held off the peloton for the entire 173 kilometres going into Tanah Merah on what was a dramatic solo ride. On Stage 9 - you almost pulled it off again riding into Putrajaya before being caught 11 km from the finish in a thrilling chase. Ooh, that was close. Is this how you race - going on seemingly doomed escapes?

Koji: Yes. I love to attack. If I feel good on a particular day, I would discuss it with my manager and he would encourage me to attack from the start. That was what made me launch the winning attack on stage 3 in 2005 TdL. It was truly one of the best moments of my career as a professional cyclist.


Akira Asada

On Stage 9, as an appreciation to my other team mates (Bridgestone-Anchor Team) and my Director-Sportif, Akira [Asada]- I decided to go at it again. It is very important for Shinichi and I to show that we are capable of attacking and winning since we have been racing in France for the last 5 years. It is important for an Asian rider to show their capabilities in a sport that is dominated by the Europeans [and to a certain extent, Americans].

There were some good efforts by the Asian teams this year [Giant Asia won the team classification]. Team LeTua made some waves when they tried to contest for the sprints. While it showed that they are fearless, they still have much to learn on the fundamentals of professional cycling. It is very difficult to win bunch sprints against the much more physically superior Europeans. So maybe, a very good chance to win a stage is going out on long breakaways or strategically timed breakaways.

Q: Generally, what do you think of the Malaysian riders?

Koji: From my observation, the Malaysian riders lack endurance and strength to actually pull off attacks. Most of them prefer, or maybe it was team orders, to stay within the pack and conserve their energy. This should not be the way to race on your own soil. There are 3 Malaysian teams this year and they should at least try to work together to achieve something. They might not be successful, but it would have been interesting to watch.


Q: This is your 6th Tour de Langkawi. How would you rate the difficulty of this year's race compared to previous editions, especially since we have 5 ProTour teams here?

Koji: I have to admit that this was the most difficult Tour for me so far. The 5 ProTour teams did somehow raise up the level of racing, even though most of them are merely training here. Credit Agricole was particularly superior as a team. But also, the ProTour teams had become too focussed on the Genting stage that they do not want to work together in break-aways initiated by Asian teams. And if they do join the break-away, they would serve as a marker for their teammates in the peloton to catch them again.

On the Cameron stage [Stage 3: Kuala Kangsar - Cameron Highlands], we had the eventual winner, Anthony Charteau in the break-away with the other Asian riders. Initially, he would be tactically serving as the marker for his leader, Francesco Belloti, but because none of us were that strong to work with him, he fled off alone and won the stage by a commanding 4 minutes!



Shinichi Fukushima

Q:Compared to the previous editions, you were little "quiet" this year. Is there a specific reason?

Koji: Yes. I was not in an expected good form this time around. I have done well and peaked during the Tour of Siam where I won stage 2 through a breakaway 20km from the finish, but my brother Shinichi [left] had peaked at this race - and as a result he had won stage 7, also through a breakaway move.

Q: Was the training camp you held in Chiang Rai [Thailand] in December beneficial preparation for this Tour?

Koji: Yes, of course. Chiang Rai has been our training camp for the last 3 years now. A very good place to start your season off with the tough routes to ride. We ride an average of 150km per day. We also found ourselves to be back here every now and then in the season, in between the summer breaks when the race [season] stops for Tour de France. This year we have extended invitations to those interested to come and train with us. As a fellow asian, we are always willing to share our knowledge and experiences to those who aspire to be a great cyclist. We have our aspirations too!


Q: Tell us a little about your Nippo-Meitan Hompo team.

Koji: The Nippo-Meitan Hompo team is a merger of 2 teams. Team Nippo had 3 riders and the rest is made up of the former Bridgestone-Anchor team riders. Akira has always been our Director Sportif. We still have the same staff. It is important to have [a good] continuity in a team, so we know each other's expectations and needs.

Obviously, our early season targets were the Tour of Siam and Tour de Langkawi in which we won a stage each.

So I would say that we're off to a very good start. We would try to compete in at least 100 races in Europe. Our next target would be the Coupe de France and Tour de Limousin where one of our riders, Yukiya Arashiro was 3rd on the GC last year. Yukiya was also 14th in the World Championships last year in the Under-23 category.

Q: What do you think of Fumiyuki Beppu, the current champion of Japan?

Yukiya Arashiro

Koji: Fumi was a teammate for 4 years when we rode for Bridgestone-Anchor. Our DS, Akira had worked with him personally before too. Fumi is a very talented time triallist. It is good to see that he has been acknowledged by a ProTour team like Discovery Channel. He only can get better at what he does with all the exposure of racing he has.

Q: Your brother, Shinichi, has also won the national championships [in 2005]. Do you intend to contest [and win] the nationals yourself?

Koji: Yes. It would be good to be the national champion too [at least once in my career]. But it is not my utmost goal. If I do win it, then I do. If I don't, well, I'll still be cycling and happy if another Japanese wins it.


Q: You are already 33 years old. People like Wong Kam Po are your contemporaries and as we can see, he is still going strong [he recently won the Doha Asian Games road race]. He indicated in a recent interview that he would probably continue on for another two years. How long further do you plan to compete?

Koji: I don't really have an answer to that question, really. I don't know [laughs]. What I do know is that I would still want to ride for as long as I can. To me, age are just numbers. There are still many things that I have not achieved as a professional cyclist. One of which is to compete in the Tour de France someday [smiles].

Q: What are your plans after retirement?

Koji: If and when I do retire some day, I would like to be part of a team that identifies young and talented riders - from Japan or Asia, to work with them and help train them to be the best. I don't think I'll be a directeur-sportif, but more of a public relations officer because I know I am very good at connecting to people.

Q: Finally, do you have a Malaysian girlfriend? Because you seem to be here an awful lot.

Koji: No, I don't. I actually getting married to my long time high school sweetheart in November this year. Although I love Malaysian women with all my heart. They are easily the most beautiful and kind-hearted women I have ever known. And I love Malaysians in general too. This is what brought my brother and I back here year after year. We have made good friendships over the years and we truly treasure that.

back to home :: cycling :: © 2001 to present, Darren Lee. Please request our permission before
reproducing contents in this website. Thanks.