Before the 2016 UCI AsiaTour gets underway, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the last year of racing and try to make sense of everything that happened.
As some of you might know, the Cycling iQ blog took a breather for a little more than two years while I took up a job in Europe. The occasional post trickled its way onto here, but there wasn’t enough time for deep engagement with the sport of cycling.
It has been quite overwhelming trying to make sense of what has happened in that time. So, rather than attempt to absorb all of the races, events and news since late 2013, I’ve drawn a line at 01.01.2015 – the symbolic beginning of the 2015 UCI AsiaTour season. The objective: get up to speed with what has happened in the quickest-possible time, whilst exploring what the AsiaTour has become and what it all means. And it all starts with a simple question.
WHAT IS THE ASIATOUR?
Well, there’s some history lessons here and here, but let’s focus on the 2015 version.
In summary, the 2015 UCI AsiaTour took place over 4 regions (Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Middle East) in
13 countries (in order of appearance, Philippines, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Korea, China, Kazakhstan). It comprised 30 Races (31 if the Asian Cycling Championships are counted), meaning 90 General Classification places were on offer to a diverse group of 108 UCI teams that participated. There were 160 Stages – 163, if you include cancelled stages. A total of 571 invitations sent by organisers were accepted by teams and a total of 3326 stage one rider sign-ons occurred over the season.
The information that follows is mostly visual but if you’re short on time, here are the key findings:
1) in absolute terms, more European teams (49) raced in the AsiaTour than Asian teams (38), however;
2) Asian teams received twice as many race invitations (six on average) than European teams
3) with 150 out of 571 team places, China had the most capacity, followed by Japan (91) and UAE (68)
4) 40% of all teams participating in the 2015 AsiaTour raced in UCI2.2 events, compared to 7% in 2.HC events
5) Middle Eastern events featured the lowest numbers of Asian teams (35%), followed by China (45%)
6) 45 of all 160 stages were won by riders from Italy
7) Chinese riders had the lowest ratio of race starts to stage wins (96:1), followed by Japan (89:1)
8) Iranian riders are not as dominant as media reports suggest
9) there appears to be little progress in bridging the performance gap between Asian and non-Asian riders
Before focusing too much on the 108 UCI teams that raced raced in last year’s AsiaTour, it’s worth noting that they represent roughly half of all 217 teams that were registered with cycling’s governing body in 2015 – ie, 109 pro cycling teams didn’t tap a cleat on Asian soil for the entire year.
Logically, if there were 571 team places spread across 30 events then you’d conclude there’s probably a good chance that some teams rode multiple UCI AsiaTour races. And you’d be right. In fact, Asian-registered UCI teams that received invites to the AsiaTour raced an average of six events, while European teams only raced an average of 2.8 events. American teams fared only slightly better with 2.9 average starts, though teams from Oceania managed 3.75.
So, even though European-registered teams outnumbered their Asian-registered counterparts (above), those Asian teams got twice as many invitations to AsiaTour races.
Hang on, what’s that tiny purple patch being extruded from the ASIA column in the above graph? Oh right, it’s Astana… it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact that Kazakhstan is part of Asia.
Moving on, it’s time to see which teams from which continent made the most appearances. You can see from the graph below that many European teams get one or two invites to AsiaTour races, but teams from Asia make up the distal outliers. Taiwan’s RTS-Santic Racing Team participated in an incredible 15 races. Equally incredibly, if not for Tino Thömel’s four stage wins, the team would not have won a single stage all year.
Here’s another interesting takeaway for cycling fans from Oceania who wonder aloud whether the respective UCI calendars of Asia and Oceania should merge. The short answer: it remains a complicated matter.
However, consider this: eight out of ten UCI-registered teams from Oceania raced in the 2015 AsiaTour. As a percentage, this is only topped by Asia, where 38 of 42 UCI-registered teams (90%) got an invite to one or more of the 30 events. Only one-third of American teams were given the same opportunity, so it’s surely not all bad to come from Down Under. Besides, you actually feel worse for the four Asian teams who didn’t get a start on their ‘home’ calendar.
We’ve established that: most UCI-registered teams from Asia got to race in the 2015 AsiaTour (and perhaps we won’t see the four who didn’t in 2016); European teams are in demand by certain race organisers (more on that later) and China has a lot of capacity (above) compared to most other countries. So far, so simple.
You may need to enlarge the above graph (and the one below) to see the detail more clearly, though it should be legible for most readers. It’s a little on the busy side, but the aim is to zoom out and get a macro view of where the action took place.
Aside from seeing how each race organiser allocated its team places, two main stories are told here: how often WorldTour teams (predominantly European and North American) made the long journey south to race, and which races preference Asian teams versus teams from other regions.
It’s no surprise that 2.HC races held in the Middle East at the beginning of the year attracted large numbers (more than 60% of all team invites) of World Teams; many of them had already travelled to Australia for the Tour Down Under WorldTour race so it did no harm to hang around the area (loosely speaking) to pursue the reportedly-generous amounts of USD on offer in exchange for a bit of sand between the toes. Asian teams were largely spurned.
Most interesting, at least from this writer’s perspective, is the fact that race organisers in China appear to have an ideal ratio whereby Asian teams do not account for more than half of all squads participating. Tour of Fuzhou is the only exception, and only just.
There are myriad ways to interpret this, but it would seem that mainland races are more concerned with global media coverage (hence the greater number of teams from USA or Europe) than counterparts in Japan and Southeast Asia which appear to have more a regional development raison d’être.
Speaking of development, how do Asian nations compare to the more-seasoned and storied countries that have been immersed in pro cycling culture for decades?
Given this is only a single-year snapshot, that question can’t be completely answered. However, it is possible to look at how many times riders from Asia have either won a stage or graced the podium at an AsiaTour event to quantify the depth and breadth of the talent pool; it’s a blunt but effective benchmarking tool for measuring quality.
As bang-for-buck performance goes, the Italians stood out like white shorts in a Rapha-clad peloton. 215 Italian riders who participated in the 2015 AsiaTour yielded 45 stage wins and occupied 15 spots on GC podiums (either 1st, 2nd or 3rd).
At the other end of the spectrum, Japan threw 356 riders at the AsiaTour calendar but only managed four stage wins and the same number of GC placings; ie, a rider to stage win ratio of 89:1. China’s ratio was worse (96:1) but the disappointment was shared amongst fewer people.
Though we may think that Iranian riders (with 144 individual race starts) were prolific – and they were – Aussie cyclists got many more race starts (192), making Australia the second-most “popular” source of foreign riders after Italy. Furthermore, despite the perception that Iranian riders dominate the AsiaTour every year, win ratios of riders like Misrasam Pourseyedi and Hossein Askari are less than spectacular.
The reason the last two graphs focus on win ratios is simple: results create exposure for teams which, in turn, delivers ROI for sponsors, which hopefully leads to increased sponsorship. This creates bigger, better, teams which leads to more exciting racing, attracting fans who will hopefully invest in products and services offered by team sponsors, hence creating more profit dollars for those companies which in turn might be poured back into cycling. A virtuous cycle.
A hard truth is that sponsors (and the media) generally only measure and reward stage wins and GC placings; and this is what the above graph considers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, WorldTeam riders from Europe and Oceania had the lowest ratios of race starts to stage wins and/or GC results. Within the Asian rider community, Iranians outperformed all other nations. Korea’s Sung-baek park is a notable exception to this, while even strong riders such as Hong Kong’s Cheung King Lok needed a comparatively higher volume of racing to achieve the type of result that might attract media coverage.
So how to combat this imbalance where riders from other regions snaffle the glory (summarised above)?
One possibility, as observed earlier, is to tap into Oceania. And it is already happening: by merging with Australian Continental squad Search2Retain, Taiwan-based Attaque Team Gusto is essentially seeking to buy more wins. We’ll have to see how this works out, but ATG is at least trying something.
Not every team can afford to have a rider like Caleb Ewan (with a win ratio of 0.33; ie, two stage wins for every AsiaTour race entered) on its roster, but there is still value to be found amongst lesser-known riders from Oceania.
Consider last weekend’s winner of the New Zealand Elite Men’s National Road Cycling Championships Jason Christie (racing for Avanti Racing Team in 2015, but signed to Kenyan Riders Downunder for the 2016 season) who started three AsiaTour races in 2015, yielding one stage win and an overall GC victory. That’s a solid 3:1 ratio. Fascinatingly, the last time Christie participated in three AsiaTour races (2013) he also one a stage. Coincidence, or probability at work?
How does this relate to helping Asia as a region, let alone Asian riders?
There are many other riders like Christie who, with low race start to win ratios, are capable of generating the type of results which would add value to an Asian team; ideally, this may lead to an increased number of race invitations and more race days for Asian teammates. Even if their own odds for a win are long, the main point is to accrue experience and build race legs. To paraphrase; the best training for racing is racing. Besides, you have to be in it to win it.