It’s spring in Osaka, and I’m meeting the Japanese National Champion of women’s cyclocross for a ride. Ayako Toyooka also competes in mountain and road bike races—often against men—winning high rankings in all. She has represented her country in Europe–at the Tour de Feminine and World Cup cyclocross races.
Ayako-chan is so cute—mecha kawaii! She arrives for our ride in her spandex kit wearing dangly pink earings, blush and eyeshadow. Mini Mouse patches cover the holes in her cycling tights that she ripped mountain biking. In a country where construction machinery is lavender or pastel green, garbage trucks broadcast a cheerful tune in a little girl’s voice, and cartoon characters market everything from snack food to bank accounts, the cycling champion’s cuteness seems not eccentric but matter-of-fact.
Osaka offers cyclists two training options: ride in the Japan Alps, or ride over the Japan Alps to get to a flat ride. Even on Ayako’s “easy day” in the foothills, I’m working hard to keep pace with her as we zip up stepped climbs and careen down long winding descents, past farmland and cherry trees bursting into bloom, and then loop back along the river into city neighborhoods. On the bike she is all business; we exchange few words.
After our ride we tour the bike factory that sponsors her—they build their house-brands Toyo and Testach as well as Ritchey and Rivendale—and then go to lunch with its president, Mr. Testach. My Japanese doesn’t go much beyond “awesome!” “delicious!” and “is this the Kyoto-bound train?” and Ayako’s English is awkward, but we are eager to talk to each other. She seems as excited to meet a foreign bike racer as I am to meet the Japanese National champion. We try to discuss bike racing, but the language barrier is difficult. She wants to know if I have a boyfriend. Do I have photographs? I pass over a strip of photo booth pictures. “He is ikemen—really cool guy!” she exclaims. Ayako doesn’t have a boyfriend she tells me whistfully.
She offers me a cup of hot ginger-drink, and I notice her spectacular fingernails: they are long, painted with three different colored stripes of glitter and adorned with tiny pink plastic bows. She shows me a magazine article featuring close-up shots of her manicure (with a different paint design), her leopard print arm warmers, and her pink bike. Ayako-chan is so cool—kakkoii!
Japan offers an 8-race cylocross season, with a women's field at the National Championships smaller than that on any good weekend in New England. Still, Ayako is tenacious and talented enough to compete at World Cup races in Belgium. I hope she will travel to the US for a ‘cross race! (Perhaps some of her incredible cuteness and toughness will rub off on me!)
After returning home to Rhode Island, I receive an e-mail from her. "Your bicyclelife is wonderful," she tells me; though it's her professional bicyclelife I admire. We keep in touch periodically. She updates me when she wins a race or has a date with a hot guy. I follow her blog, though I can’t read it. The pictures show her on the podium, tasty food she ate, and her latest elaborate nail polish.