After eight days and 880 kilometres of racing, the 2012 Tour de Korea peloton returned to the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, for its farewell stage. Though much had unfolded over the week prior, yellow jersey Sung Baek Park’s lead over his two closest rivals was so tenuous that today’s stage was far from being a procession; as so many final days in stage races are. The 45.8km course, from Yeoju to Hanam, provided 55 minutes of scintillating suspense; from which Park ultimately delivered the best return on investment possible for joint team owner and Tour de Korea organizer, KSPO.
IMAGES: Aaron Lee
Beginning the day three seconds and four seconds, respectively, behind Park on general classification, Alexander Candelario (Team Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies) and Maximiliano Richeze (Team Nippo) appeared to have only two options to unseat the KSPO rider.
The first, and most unlikely, option was for both men’s teams to join forces and launch an attack on Park’s KSPO team which, as evidenced in previous stages, would not have the cohesive ability to respond. This scenario, if successfully executed, would see the two squads gapping the field with sufficient time to allow Candelario and Richeze to fight it out for yellow, whilst devouring all available time bonuses.
Instead, Nippo and Optum chose the more practical option two; invest all energy into containment of breaks, keep the peloton together until the end, then lead out their respective yellow jersey prospects for final time bonuses in the bunch gallop. Still, nothing was certain. Whilst Candelario and Park were stage winners, both victories were by-products of successful breakaways. In a mass finish situation, all three men – Candelario, Park and Richeze – appeared equal, with each securing top five bunch sprint finishes in the race so far.
The unremarkable urban parcours offered virtually no strategical or topographical assistance to breakaways, but this didn’t prevent Jelly Belly’s Charles Huff and Seoul Cycling’s Joon Yong Seo from launching themselves down the road only metres into the stage. The pair gained 20” after 6.5 kilometres, whilst the peloton, under the duress of chasing, narrowed and grew in length.
After 15.2 kilometres of racing, an ambiguously-marked intersection resulted in riders straying onto the wrong side of a divided motorway; so a temporary rolling neutralisation was enforced, allowing mis-directed riders to regroup on the correct side of the road. Two kilometres further down the road, the stage was again opened for racing.
Approaching the intermediate sprint at 33.8km, Hong Kong’s King Lok Cheung (Hong Kong National Team) was first to challenge his 108 companions. Cheung established a 200-metre gap, but Champion System’s Jaan Kirsipuu stormed past, with several riders immediately on his wheel and the peloton splattered across the road behind.
Smashing apart the field behind him, former blue jersey Sun Jae Jang (Korean National Team), trumped Ho Ting Kwok (Hong Kong National Team), Maximiliano Richeze (Team Nippo) and Ken Hanson (Team Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies) in the intermediate sprint. This served as a launch pad for front chasers Ying Hon Yeung (Hong Kong National Team), Alexander Khatuntsev (Rusvelo), Sung Jun Kang (Korea National Team) and Michael Cuming (Rapha Condor-Sharp) to form an attacking group.
The four men dangled 300 metres in front of the peloton for several kilometres along the dual-lane motorway; perhaps unaware they were progressively descending to the finish, 60 metres lower in elevation than the starting point of their attack. Admirably, in spite of being outnumbered 26:1, the leaders made it to within five kilometres of the finish before they were absorbed by the chasing peloton.
As Misari Motorboat Racing Park – host site of rowing competitions in Seoul’s 1998 Summer Olympics – drew near, last year’s points jersey winner, Paul Odlin, sent his Subway Cycling team mates to the front in the hope he could salvage a result from an otherwise disappointing week.
At the same time, Team Optum’s race strategy was unravelling. Caught out by final-kilometre technicalities that were not apparent on paper, Candelario was unable to reach Hanson’s wheel in time to launch his own sprint. Having faced a similar situation in stage seven, Hanson again rose to the challenge; edging out Alexander Serebrayakov (Team Type 1 – Sanofi) and Chan Jae Jang (Terengganu Cycling Team) for the stage win, and handing his team its third stage victory this week.
When approached for comment several minutes after he’d finished the final sprint in 16th place, Park began to speak of his good fortune in finishing second on general classification. When informed that he had in fact kept his lead and won overall, an expression of genuine disbelief gradually broke into a broad smile.
Sung Baek Park, 2012 Tour de Korea winner and KOM
“I feel lucky. Really, really lucky. Normally, to win the general classification, you have tough climbs, you get gaps, but this time every stage has had a sprint finish. I don’t feel like I’ve won the general classification; it’s more like a sprinters jersey. Sure, I have the KOM jersey also, but only by one point. I was not aiming for the KOM; I was only looking for the stages.
In 2007, I wasn’t in yellow until the final stage. This year, I had to protect the leaders jersey for a few days. I really have to thank my team, as they made it seem easy. Our team is just an amateur team and we need to develop, but Europe is too far. We will probably go to Japan later this year to do some racing.
After the Olympics, if there is a chance, I want to find a team in Europe again. The last time I was in Europe, in 2009, I was alone. I was homesick. I couldn’t stay, I just wanted to come back home. Mentally, I am stronger now. Physically, I have much better legs. Three of four years ago, every race I was full gas – every day – and I would run out of energy before the race finished. But now I understand myself better, and I’m looking for more races, more tours, like this.
I haven’t spoken with any of my family yet. My sister in Melbourne is calling me and sending me messages every day asking, “How was it?! How was it?!”, and I’m like, “really sorry, I was so busy!”. Her husband loves cycling; every day he is checking the UCI pages and the cycling websites for results, so I’m sure she knows already.”
Individual General Classification (Yellow jersey): Sung Baek Park (KSPO)
Points Classification (Blue jersey): Maximiliano Richeze (Team Nippo)
Young Rider Classification (White jersey): Kyung Gu Jang (Arbö Gebrüder Weiss-Orbendorfer)
King of the Mountains Classification (Polka-Dot jersey): Sung Baek Park (KSPO)
Teams General Classification: Team Optum presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies)
Asian Teams General Classification: Uzbekistan Suren Team