Ahead of yesterday’s press conference in Hong Kong, OGE General Manager Shayne Bannan spoke with Cycling iQ about how his team pulled off the remarkable feat of signing Shen Jinkang protégé Cheung King Lok.
Images: Tanaka Sonoko and ORICA-GreenEDGE
When news broke late last week that WorldTeam ORICA-GreenEDGE had signed Hong Kong cyclist Cheung King Lok, it may have taken some pro cycling observers by surprise.
After all, very few East Asian* riders participate in road cycling’s premier division and the last signing from the region was in November 2014, when Taiwan’s Feng Chun Kai was offered a 12 month contract with Italian squad Lampre-Merida.
Indeed, the entire WorldTeam peloton is less a mirror of globalisation than a reflection of a barely-yielding Eurocentric legacy.
WorldTeam riders from the Far East can currently be counted on one hand. Lampre-Merida accounts for three of those fingers with Yukiya Arashiro (Japan), Feng and Xu Gang (China); Giant – Alpecin’s Ji Cheng (China) broke into the top league in 2013; and Trek – Segafredo is current home to affable Fumiyuki Beppu of Japan.
With the exception of Beppu, who broke into the ProTour (pre-cursor to the WorldTour) with US squad Discovery Channel in 2005, all current WorldTeam riders from East Asia are relatively new signings. Anecdotally, it seems the professional peloton appears more open than before to the possibility of recruiting even more.
Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu shake hands after the 2016 Asian Road Cycling Championships Elite Men’s Road Race, which Cheung won.
ORICA-GreenEDGE has been more engaged with Asia than most WorldTeams since it launched in December 2011, but its signing of Cheung can’t necessarily be attributed solely to ‘globalisation’ – rather, it can be dated back to events in the late 1980’s.
“Back in 1987 (when Bannan was a coach with the Australian Institute of Sport), I took a team to the amateur Tour of Italy,” recounts Bannan, speaking from the Hong Kong Sports Institute ahead of yesterday’s press conference. “Mr Shen Jinkang (Head Coach of the Hong Kong National Cycling Team) had a Chinese team there for the first time. We stayed at the same hotel together and formed a relationship. I was really interested to understand more about Chinese cycling and he was interested to learn about the western culture and our training methodology and so on. So we formed a relationship back then and that has continued.”
Coach Shen, as he is known, is an icon in the Chinese-speaking cycling world – equal to Wong Kam Po, who he also coached. Shen’s ability to unlock the potential of Hong Kong’s riders is legendary, and he has also had a significant hand in the development of riders from mainland China.
Hong Kong head coach Shen Jinkang with Cheung King Lok
In the years following his first encounter with Shen, Bannan kept an eye on developments in Asia and noticed the first signs of the region’s emergence in cycling around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“Certainly from about 15 years ago, I started to see really good progression in Asian cycling and cyclists,” said Bannan. “I saw a shift in mentality and that intrigued me as to where Asian cycling was going.”
After being appointed by Gerry Ryan to lead the (then named) GreenEDGE team into its WorldTour debut, Bannan wasted no time in reaching out to Asia’s best road cyclist at the time, Fumiyuki Beppu.
“Thinking back about that particular time, we felt that as an Australasian team we needed some Asian identity. That was one part of it; the other part of course is that he’s a pretty talented and likeable guy and we felt he would really fit into the team at the time, which he did.”
‘Fumy’ proved to be a great hit with fans, staying with the team for two seasons before moving to Trek Factory Racing in 2014. Would Bannan liked to have kept Fumy on the roster?
“That was certainly a consideration. When doing a roster, it’s a real jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes you have to let riders go when you don’t really want to, and he got a pretty good offer from Trek – Trek’s really big in Japan – but I think he was very good for us and we were very good for him. It was a good partnership.”
Small crowd, big ambitions, at GreenEDGE’s Melbourne launch in 2011.
Korea’s Jiyong Kang was the next Asian rider given an opportunity to race with the Aussie team in mid-2013, through an initiative which first materialised via the ORICA-AIS women’s team.
“We have a connection via (Sungeun) Gu,” explained Bannan in July 2013. “We first started a relationship with the Korean Cycling Federation (KCF) through our women’s team and, in discussion with the Federation earlier in the year, we decided also to make an opportunity available for one of their male riders. Basically, we will be receiving the name of one Korean male rider probably next week, because we have to register that rider as a stagiaire before August 1. The rider will be coming over, we’ll be having a look at him, doing various physiological testing and then he’ll be riding in the Tour of Alberta in Canada (AmericaTour UCI2.1, held from 03-08 September) on the ORICA-GreenEDGE team as stagiaire. It will be a great opportunity to have a look at him, a great opportunity for the rider to gain some experience for the future and, you know, highlights ORICA-GreenEDGE’s responsibility for the globalisation of the sport.”
The 25-year old Jiyong Kang was duly selected by the KCF and enjoyed a fleeting taste of WorldTour fame with OGE before returning to the Continental ranks the following year.
“We had him for about a six week period,” recalled Bannan on Tuesday. “We were asked by the KCF to assist and certainly to give him some experience – that was the main motive there.”
Shortly after the Korean’s departure, it was revealed that ORICA-GreenEDGE had been in discussions with Choi Ki Ho of Hong Kong – a talented young bike rider in his early 20’s who was seen by key figures in the Hong Kong Cycling Association as the next Wong Kam Po. Elation at the prospect of Choi’s elevation into the WorldTour turned to despair when he turned the offer down.
“I think for him it was more about family and going to a really unknown world,” says Bannan, who remains impressed by Choi the man and athlete. “I had several discussions with him. He was a really nice young guy; obviously very, very, talented. It was disappointing on one hand but at the end of the day, people make decisions based on what their family values are and I really respect that. It could have been really easy for us as foreigners to not really understand the cultural differences and to be really critical but, in the end, Choi weighed it all up, he thought about it a lot, and it just didn’t feel right for him. I’d say it was a well-considered decision and bear in mind that road had never been travelled before. I know he did speak to Wong Kam Po quite a bit about it and he just felt it wasn’t for him.”
It would take another two years before Hong Kong’s high performance system produced another significant athlete in the shape of Cheung. Bannan’s “very good rapport and professional relationship” with Coach Shen meant OGE was looped in to the opportunity.
“I seek (Shen’s) advice in terms of what riders he feels has the potential to move into the professional ranks. It’s a real partnership, not just between ourselves but also with the Hong Kong system,” says Bannan.
Aside from the obvious commercial opportunities that a Chinese-speaking rider brings to a team with a placeholder as a major sponsor, Bannan is now channeling his efforts into Cheung’s integration while remaining cognisant of Hong Kong’s single berth in the Rio Olympics Road Race.
“From (Choi’s) point of view, the main focus is the Olympic Games. From our point of view, it’s his progression; to teach him about the culture in Europe, to gain his confidence within the team – all the simple things that we really take for granted, but each 1% makes a difference. He puts enough pressure on himself from a performance point of view and as I’ve explained to him our job is to take that pressure off and make him really feel part of the team in terms of understanding each other. That’s what I see as the main focus for this year. Next year will be more performance oriented, but this year is really trying to create a good environment and support network around him.”
Despite excitable local media openly discussing the possibility of Choi making next year’s Tour de France team, it “certainly hasn’t been discussed,” states Bannan, with a hint of weariness. “One step at a time. It’s about progression. It may be one of his goals and ambitions to ride a Tour de France, but lets think about the processes. That may be six to seven years away. Let’s just think about the processes of getting him to a WorldTour standard.”
More likely for Cheung is the possibility of a start at the HeraldSun Tour or even Tour Down Under next year. There are also some “initiatives” for sending the team to more races in Asia, but it won’t be possible to move on any ideas until the 2017 WorldTour and Asia Tour calendars are revealed – in the case of the former, Bannan wasn’t aware of any existing Asia Tour races that might be included in a reformed and expanded WorldTour calendar.
Bannan’s 30 year history with Shen, and Asia, has borne fruit at a time when the sport of cycling in Asia, and particularly in China, is on the cusp of a boom. Some may see it as a lucky punch, but it’s also a testament to patience, networking and the value of building long-term relationships in what can be a fickle, closed-door, sport.
“The progression that has been made in Asia in the last five years has been extraordinary with the number of continental teams and events growing,” concludes Bannan. “In the past, with the Asian Games, China Games, SEA Games – all really big events supported by Governments – chasing pro contracts probably wasn’t the highest of priorities. Now that’s shifting. Professional cycling is gaining a higher profile in Asia and the mentality has changed.
I think the Hong Kong Cycling Association understands for an Asian cyclist to be at a world standard that they need to be in the best competition. WorldTeams have also professionalised in that time, in terms of their caring for riders, the coaching and the concentration on the progression of the athlete.
Now the time is right to make these decisions, to jump in and play our part. Hopefully with Cheung, we can give him a really fantastic experience and he can lay the foundations for young cyclists in the future.”
Q&A with Cheung King Lok
How have Hong Kong’s two cycling legends Coach Shen and Wong Kam Po influenced your career?
At first, I’m very respect to them. Mr Shen Jinkang was the soul of Hong Kong China Cycling Team, his knowledge helped us so much, for cycling and all about our life. If Mr Shen Jinkang didn’t come to Hong Kong and be the coach, I believe that we couldn’t develop cycling in this good environment; even wouldn’t have the another legend, Mr Wong Kam Po. They are also a very special person, they keep the faith all the time, then made many success and miracles. I just keep the faith like them, and I hope I could be another cycling legend.
Will you be able to ride the 2017 China National Games in Tianjin? Is this an important race for you still?
Yes I will be able to ride the 2017 China National Games in Tianjin. Coach Shen will discuss with Mr Shayne Bannan of ORICA-GreenEDGE, for the race schedule between Hong Kong Team and ORICA GreenEDGE. It certainly was for me an important game. I’m still a Hong Kong Team member, so I will fight for any games for Hong Kong.
What is your number one goal in cycling this year? What about in your future cycling career?
My #1 goal in this year is learn different things in pro team, and hope to finish my first Olympic Game on Road Race. It was a difficult task to do, but I believe in ORICA-GreenEDGE and my Hong Kong Team head coach, Mr Shen Jinkang.
My #1 goal in my future is race in Tour De France, be a world champion, win more gold medals in any Games or World Class Race. Dream high, Ride high!
*’East Asian’ used to exclude post-Soviet states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.