There have been a few constants during the 2022 cycling season, none has shone brighter than Eri Yonamine’s beaming smile. An athlete with a fierce will for competition on the bike and reliable compassion off it, the Japanese rider always has time for teammates, staff and above all, fans.
A trailblazer for the sport in her country, Yonamine returned to Japan for the national championships – three months after they were controversially postponed – and sprinted to a silver medal on the Hiroshima course.
“When it was postponed in June, it made me down mentally but it made me more motivated to get stronger after all,” she says. “It was difficult to keep training mentally after worlds for an October championship, but it will be strong motivation for next year, I’m a person to cope well with adversity.”
The result was a disappointment for the five-time champion she revealed in typical forthcoming honesty on Twitter, but affirmed afterwards that the silver medal did not leave her feeling as down as it may have in the past.
“Usually if I couldn’t win, I would feel more disappointed, super down and cry,” she said the morning afterwards. “But yesterday I didn’t feel so much that I lost. I felt I did well, survived, and in general satisfied for the whole season in 2022, so I was relieved in my heart.”
This perspective and sense of ‘survival’ have been gained by the 31-year-old, who had been in extended recovery mode ever since invasive surgery in late 2021.
It had all started earlier that year for Yonamine when she felt something was off while racing across the Strade Bianche. Initially, she went down the avenue of researching the obvious clues that lead to her symptoms of fatigue and cramping. Was it her nutrition? Overtraining? Or that she just needed more rest?
Finally, she found the root of her issue was iliac artery endofibrosis, an underrecognized but frequent condition found in cyclists where the groin arteries’ innermost membrane thickens, leading to discomfort and a significant loss of power.
“Being a foreigner in Europe made it difficult to find the specific doctor,” Yonamine says of the type of vascular condition that most general physicians don’t look for in a professional athlete. “It was hard for sure because I knew my leg was not okay, but I could not miss racing my home Olympics. To be honest, before COVID and surgery I was thinking to finish my career after those Games if they were actually held in 2020.”
Although she lives in the Netherlands, Yonamine eventually had the surgery she needed in Italy, and used her friendship network to build herself back up after going under the knife.
“My friend is Japanese in Italy and his family looked after me – as well as my coach who is the most helpful person, a friend on my cycling journey.”
However, the uncertainty of the condition resulted in Yonamine being once again faced to juggle with questions of retirement at the end of 2021.
“I got the phone call that I was out of my former team when I was lying down on the bed at the hospital,” she says. “But Human Powered Health was my angel to save my life after surgery and I promised myself I’ll do everything to pay it off for the team.”
Then came Yonamine’s chance to bounce back. The high point for her season came almost a year after the surgery when she finished second on GC at the CIC-Tour Féminin International des Pyrénées and then backed that up with a strong performance at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.
All this time she has been racing with the legacy of her surgery, a seven-inch scar running the length of her lower abdomen that acted as both a physical and mental hurdle for Yonamine.
“I hated this scar, not as a professional rider but as a woman I still hate it. On the other hand, I could be proud of it through this season, because I couldn’t come back without it.”
Although Yonamine initially worried that revealing the images of her post-surgery body would amount to looking for “an excuse, compassion or attention etc,” she felt it was important to show to those who have similar anxieties about scars and injury.
“I’m not a social person, so these days it’s very useful to talk about it openly on social media because I can say exactly what I want to say,” she explains of her candor. “This injury is not like broken bones so I understood the comeback and recovery would be very personal and it was important to share my experience as I didn’t get enough information at the time.”
Every injury and recovery process is singular to that athlete but there are overarching themes that we can follow for both mental and physical rehab.
“During recovery, I took some distance from social media, where we see mostly the positive side and I tend to think I’m not as good as others. Now, I can simply trust what I do. Now, I’m able to do cycling without any pressure, only pleasure. Sometimes I feel stressed but I can’t control that and besides, zero stress will stop my growth in training.”
These are some of the lessons Yonamine has taken from her first year with Human Powered Health.
“In the last two years I learnt there are so many things I can’t control, I can’t change people, I can only change myself. If I’m in a place where I can’t smile or enjoy cycling, it’s unnecessary to be there. Life is too short. I have no time to be in the place I don’t want to be and that’s why I’m very happy to be part of Human Powered Health.”
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The only Japanese rider in the Women’s WorldTour, Yonamine’s aforementioned compassion is even more impressive when you factor in the desire, commitment and work ethic it takes to make it to the very top of a predominantly white, heavily Euro-centric sport.
“It’s much harder to live in Europe as a Japanese rider because of visa, language, culture and so on, but I wanted to live out of Asia since I was a child so I don’t feel stressed by those hard things,” Yonamine explained. “I often think I’m the luckiest person because I can live in Europe as a professional rider, my dream.”
And with that, Human Powered Health can confirm that Yonamine will continue with the team through 2023, two years after she thought she would quit the sport. We’re sure the smile will be as big as ever.