Regardless of their location in the world, road cycling clubs almost always face similar barriers to development; most common amongst them is a lack of financial resources. In this department, one aspiring team in Singapore has struck the jackpot.
Imagine. You’re a road cyclist in a small nation. It’s mostly flat, with a highest natural point of 166 metres. The weather is kind, aside from monsoon season. Form is built on a steady diet of criteriums and “training rides”. A handful of strong local clubs provide good competition, but your own club aspires to greater heights. So, you regularly visit neighboring countries to participate in stage races.
The travel and time away from work costs money but, in order to improve, participation at these races is essential. Sponsorship, especially in monetary form, is hard to obtain at this level. You need a secure sponsor who is prepared to invest long-term – after all, you have big ambitions to compete regionally – but how can you convince a local business your club is worth the initial and ongoing investment?
So far it’s a familiar scenario, right? However, rarely would its continuation involve a multi-national financial institution with SGD267b in assets stepping into the void. This is exactly what happened in Singapore in 2008, when OCBC (Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation) decided to support a local team.
The latest result of that initial support has been this week’s announcement of Singapore’s first UCI Continental road cycling team - ‘OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team’.
Ms Koh Ching Ching, OCBC Bank’s Head of Group Corporate Communications, stated in Monday’s press release; “Over the past years, we have concentrated our efforts towards helping children and young people realise their full potential. When we decided to sponsor the team in 2008, we had hoped to help a group of young cyclists achieve their dreams of competing professionally in the international arena. With this latest development, we are pleased that they are moving one step closer to their dreams. It is our hope that we could have one local cyclist on the podium of OCBC Cycle Singapore Professional Night Criterium in future.”
As Team Principal, Daniel Loy, explains “OCBC Singapore Cycling Team was birthed from a proposal mooted from within the Singapore Sports Council by one of its physiologists, Daniel Plews; the inaugural team had an average age of 21 and I was the second eldest at 25.“
[An enlightening document of Plew’s can be found here (PDF)]
Since its formation year, the team has developed into a consistent regional performer; proving its merit with high placings in regional and local races such as the Tour of East Java, Tour of Brunei and the Southeast Asian games. As a UCI Continental team, OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team now has the opportunity to benchmark its collective ability against WorldTour and ProContinental division teams, within the UCI Asia Tour circuit.
Operating costs will be met by sponsor OCBC, allowing the team to remain cost neutral for 2012, though the riders themselves are not paid salaries. [Cycling iQ has been informed that OCBC invests a combined figure of SGD1.6million in both the team and their annual event OCBC Cycle Singapore, but do not wish to disclose the breakdown of costs for each element.]
“Currently, we operate on a very lean structure” stated Justin Cheong, when asked by Cycling iQ for a cost-breakdown; “we have the Team Principal (Daniel Loy), Team Manager (Justin Cheong), PR Consultant (Lorna Campbell), the Singapore Cycling Federation has volunteers which aid in backend work and we maintain a list of race mechanics and masseurs who provide essential support during races.”
“In Singapore and specifically to the cycling industry,” continues Cheong, “OCBC’s sponsorship is the first of its kind in many regards; the scale of sponsorship, the ambition and the success it has been experiencing. They are very enthusiastic, supportive and hands-on which is quite unusual.
Sponsorship in the current climate for any sport is very difficult and cycling is still a minority sport here and most of the sponsors look to other sports such as soccer or golf as examples.
We are keen to attract more sponsors so we can continue to develop the team, provide as much support as we can to the riders and give ourselves the best chance of doing well. A professional cycling team is not cheap so we need all the support and backing we can get.
As we have established ourselves in the local cycling landscape, we have had growing interest by various organizations and products in working with the team and some kit and equipment companies have given us their backing. We do have to be careful about what sponsorship agreements we enter into, as it’s not just about the money, but also finding the right partners to work with.”
Kenneth Tan, owner of local cycling importer/retailer CycleWorx – and a local legend in Singapore cycling circles – is one such partner. CycleWorx is providing an additional SGD100,000 of equipment; most notably, 15 Opera racing bikes. F2P, Rudy Project and Sufferfest are also notable sponsors.
OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team has 12 riders on its roster, 6 of whom are full time. Australian cyclist, Nick Squillari, has the distinction of being the team’s sole non-Asian cyclist. Currently a high-level domestic rider, Squillari – an employee of respected bicycle manufacturer Baum – was recruited by Cheong based on his physiological profile and “emotional maturity to provide some captaincy to our team”.
As expected, Squillari is excited by the prospect of racing overseas, but doesn’t expect it to be easy.
“Riding at Conti level is certainly going to mean stepping up, however working full time at Baum is great. Not only am I around bikes all day (but) riding to and from work allowed me to put a big 2011 in on the bike, kilometres wise.
I’ve not actually had the opportunity to race in Singapore, or outside of Australia, just yet. I expect the conditions (primarily the humidity) to make it tough; at least initially. There’s also the matter of there being a lot more climbs in Asian races, so I’m going to have to make sure I learn how to look after myself on the big elevation days so I’m still there and ready to go when the finishes are a little more flat. Really looking forward getting the racing started though, as there’s no doubt the standard of Asian racing is increasing rapidly.”
Aside from the 29 year old Australian, and two Malaysian riders, the squad has a Singaporean pulse. Cheong’s aim is “to develop Singaporean Cyclists to be competitive regionally and we see Continental Status as being sufficient for us to achieve our goals in the near future. We still have much to learn and develop at this level. A long while back there used to be a Tour of Singapore! We hope to see it come back again one day, this time with the best in the region competing on our roads.”
When asked about the development pathways that exist for budding cyclists in Singapore, Cheong points to the significant role a high-level team such as OCBC can play in the sport’s development framework.
“Singapore is geographically a small country, and we rely a lot of good old-fashioned talent spotting by observing the races and local group rides! Selection to the team is both by talent spotting and application. It is only really in recent years, with the development of the OCBC team, that Singapore cycling has started to develop more structure and depth to match up to the demands of the team.
We have in mind a more comprehensive selection procedure which will ensure that we are continuously fed the best cyclists in Singapore, but that is a project still in its infancy. You have to be careful not to put the chicken before the egg in circumstances such as this.
But there are other programs run by the SCF (Singapore Cycling Federation), such as the Junior Development/Youth Development squads, which have so far produced a few promising talents. These kids are still juniors though and we don’t want to put too much pressure on them right now. But if they continue down this path, we definitely hope to have some of them in the team in future.”
OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team’s first big race for 2012 will be the UCI 2.HC Tour de Langkawi, held between 24 February – 05 March.
OCBC Singapore Continental Cycling Team roster
Vincent Ang (SIN)*
Goh Choon Huat (SIN)*
Ho Jun Rong (SIN)*
Nick Squillari (AUS)*
Loh Sea Keong (MAS)*
Ahmad Haidar Anuawar (MAS)*
Junaidl Bin Hashim (SIN)
Lemeul Lee (SIN)
Marcus Leong (SIN)
Timothy Lim (SIN)
Darren Low (SIN)
Ji Wen Low (SIN)
*Full time riders