As the Giro d’Italia comes to a close with just four riders from Asia in the peloton, Cycling iQ looks at the role of the continent in pro cycling’s globalisation and asks managers from a diverse cross-section of first- and second-division teams how it might change in future.
‘Globalisation’ is a relatively recent buzzword in cycling and it comes packed with a great deal of ambition. It’s most often deployed by the UCI in press releases to reinforce the ideology that cycling is a sport that belongs to the world, not just a select group of European countries.
Indeed, a decade after the UCI changed the structure of pro cycling to address the “lack of universality”, there does appear to be evidence to suggest that something resembling globalisation is occurring – but only to a point.
Compared to a decade ago, when riders from Asia represented just 4.8% of UCI-registered male professional road cyclists, today that figure is almost 15%. Asia (with 471 riders in 2016) overtook the Americas (397 riders) as the second-largest supplier to the global peloton in 2013 and hasn’t looked back since. The bulk of this increase has occurred at UCI Continental level; riders from Asia now account for 20.6% of all third-division riders, compared to 6.7% in 2006.
But that’s where the headline figures stop improving – at least in a meaningful way.
The percentage of Asians in WorldTeams has risen from 1.4% to 3.2% in the last decade. However, removing Kazakh riders from the data changes this to 0.5% (2006) and 1.2% (2016). Pro Continental representation has plummeted from 2.5% to 0.8% in the same 10-year period; almost entirely due to the demise of the Chinese-registered Champion System Pro Cycling team.
Cycling’s version of globalisation appears analogous to a malfunctioning juicer – more apple is being added alongside the oranges than a few years ago, but the product poured out still looks and tastes like 100% orange juice. Only after the glass is full do we realise the apples are still stuck to the bottom of the canister.
So why aren’t Asian cyclists going further? Is it a structural issue caused by some faulty components, or is it perhaps the ingredients themselves?
IS THIS THING PLUGGED IN?
“There is the fact that a WorldTeam like ours doesn’t get exposed to many Asians currently in the field here in Europe,” says BMC Racing Team President Jim Ochowicz, when asked what the barriers are to recruiting riders from Asia.
“Unless we are racing in Asia – we have attended the Japan Cup – we just don’t get a chance to see these young athletes race as much as we would see a European for instance. I wouldn’t call it a barrier, but it is a fact.”
It’s a different scenario for Australian squad Drapac Pro Cycling which attends several races a year in Asia and also has people in the right places.
“John Beasley is responsible for the majority of Malaysia’s high performance program – as is Graham Seers – so we have an Australian link and foot inside the door in terms of how we can work with (Asian riders), says Drapac’s GM Jonathan Breekveldt.
“We look into Asia every year, particularly because of those ties with the Malaysian Cycling Federation. We have good relationships with certain federations and good relationships with certain teams – we’re not biased to the source; we take every consideration on its merit.”
Breekveldt also points out that the team receives plenty of interest from individual riders and teams themselves as a result of its continued presence in the region.
“Primarily, we get interest from Hong Kong and Japan – probably as a product of the team’s presence in Japan since 2007. We’re quite front of mind with Japanese riders. Maybe culturally amongst all Asian nations, (Japanese riders) see the jump to a foreign team less daunting that say a Chinese rider or even a Malaysian rider. That’s also probably due to some of the links to the sports directors of some Japanese teams; they’re quite proactive in reaching out to us. It just depends on what different managers have at different times of year, to be honest.”
Like BMC, WorldTeam Trek – Segafredo may not race a lot in Asia and it is not firmly plugged into a single federation like Drapac, but it still appears to take an aggressive position with scouts based in the region.
“For sure support from a federation is important, and having the first right of refusal too,” says Trek – Segafredo GM, Luca Guercilena, “but I think the best is to know the riders before and involve them in a team at some stage in training camps. We have people over there to see which are the best talents coming out from Asia.
“What we feel, or at least what I feel, is we start not to be closed,” he continues. “So it’s not just about my riders and my country – times have evolved and now we select other riders. It is the first step that makes you better; you see the different cycling cultures, different kinds of organisation and different ways to think about cycling. This is the way in which you progress a lot. In the last 2-3 years this has become common, so I think that’s a big sign for Asian cycling to improve.”
Performance attributes, or lack of, are often cited by some commentators who believe that Asian riders simply aren’t up to scratch.
Japanese rider Fumiyuki Beppu cut a lonely figure in 2005 as the only ProTeam (WorldTeam) rider from East Asia and, even though there was more than a small element of commercial pressure behind the decision, he remains a 10-year veteran of cycling’s top division primarily because of his sporting credentials, according to the boss of his current team.
“When we decided to have Trek take over from Leopard, we decided also to be open to Asian cyclists,” says Guercilena. “Fumy was already a good rider in which we saw sport capacity; the reason why he’s in the team is for sure a sports reason more than others. It is clear that (sponsor) Trek is interested in the Asian – and we are really talking about the Far East – market but that is independent of Fumy because we think he’s a good rider.”
Is it fair though to say that some teams are overlooking sporting merit in order to tap into a different market? Guercilena doesn’t necessarily think so.
“My impression is WorldTeams are recruiting Asian athletes because we see cycling in general over there is improving quite fast,” he says. “There are a few years to go, but it’s clear that Asian cyclists are becoming better and better. I have had a few occasions to see some races over there and it’s clear that the structure in general and the talent especially are growing and these are normally the two indicators that the cycling movement is getting better and better. I think that in the future it will be super good.”
But not every rider who makes the step up from UCI Continental level to a higher division will make the cut.
“We have a little bit of experience with Malaysian riders Adiq Otham and Amir Rusli who were with the team when we first exposed ourselves to Asia at a Continental level,” says Breekveldt.
“Culturally it was very different. Beasley and Seers definitely helped break a few of those walls down but there were still some difficulties – though the discontinuation of those riders was nothing to do with those barriers.”
Drapac upgraded its licence to Pro Continental in 2014 and it was clear to Breekveldt that Rusli wouldn’t be able to step up his performance to the required level – though he suggests that Adiq met the team’s sporting criteria.
“Adiq was certainly the most talented of the two but he chose to go to Champion System at the Pro Conti level,” says Breekveldt. ”With all respect, we didn’t believe Amir was good enough.”
The sentiment from other teams yet to recruit a rider from Asia tended to be positive, with all denying that athletic performance was a barrier.
“Our riders are chosen not just on past results, but on their potential in the future, and their general character,” says UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling’s Chris Baddick. “With extensive racing experience in Asia, including the Tour de Taiwan and Le Tour de Langkawi, our team has had positive racing experience with many Asian riders, and consider them equal in all aspects to riders from any other part of the world.“
“We’re obviously interested in Asian athletes,” says Ochowicz. “We’re a global team, so we’re looking for global athletes. We haven’t identified anybody in that category yet in Asia, but I know they’re out there – there’s been a recent signing of a rider from HKG with GreenEDGE, so the athletes are there. We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on that athlete for the rest of the season.”
RESULTS BY BRUTE FORCE
Clearly, it has taken many years to get only a handful more Asian riders into Pro Continental and WorldTeam squads. Champion System Pro Cycling team attempted to accelerate that process, but ultimately the venture failed. Still, at least one team has had the appetite to lift a continent into view.
“I am not sure I am the right person to ask about why Asian cyclists are not more represented in the World Tour as I don’t know the Asian structure of cycling,” says Douglas Ryder, Team Principal of Team Dimension Data. “What I can tell you is that it takes someone with huge passion and commitment to invest in it to see Asian cycling breakthrough into the World Tour like the way we did it for African Cycling.
“We started small racing from South Africa until we reached a higher level, then brought riders in from other African countries. We became the best team on the African continent and then went and campaigned in Europe for a few years before finally raising the funds to go to the Pro Continental level. All the time we used international riders as mentors to help us bridge the gap and succeed.
“I do believe it is time that Asian cycling makes a breakthrough and I am sure in the next 3 years there will be far more prominent riders seen on international teams from Asia.”
Few Continental teams in Asia have publicly stated an intention to mimic the pedal strokes of Dimension Data, though Wisdom – Hengxiang recently told Cycling iQ that Pro Continental status was a near-term goal.
“(Sponsor) Wisdom wants to make a Pro Continental team, but I don’t want to go too fast,” said team manager Li Fuyu, himself a former ProTeam rider, in March this year. “I want to make Chinese riders stronger. If we want to make a Pro Continental team, we need good coaches – a foreigner is OK; maybe European or American – and another eight or 10 strong riders from Europe.“
REPAIR OR REPLACE
Despite the overwhelmingly positive language and diplomatic attitudes towards Asian cyclists, the fact remains there has been a net decline, in real terms, in the number of Asians riding in Pro Continental or World Teams between 2005 and 2016 – despite a four-fold increase of Asian cyclists at Continental level.
Is fully vertical globalisation in pro cycling simply a matter of making some small repairs to the existing model, or replacing it altogether?
“What we have to do in this sport first of all is create sustainability,” says ORICA-GreenEDGE’s Shayne Bannan, who earlier this year brought Hong Kong cyclist Cheung King Lok to the Australian WorldTeam. “At the moment, the average lifespan of a WorldTour team is maybe 5-6 years. What we have to do first is create a better business model for cycling teams, which hopefully means teams can be around or 15-20-25 years. Then once we get to that level, we can start talking about various other aspects which will make our sport better but the focus now is on making the business model better.”
Guercilena agrees with this sentiment, adding that the number of Asian cyclists is only likely to grow once Asian investors can be convinced that cycling is a good bet.
“I think for example China should be really important to develop a better cycling,” he says, “but if you talk about the sport business in China, investment is always made with the idea of some revenue. Sports like football give back revenue – it’s a business model of sport that you can put in some money and get back if the investment is going good. We know in cycling this is not possible, so it’s just a matter of image.”
An image that might continue to look very similar for some years to come.
Cycling iQ reached out to every World- and Pro Continental team for this article. Even though this was at the height of the Spring Classics, several managers very generously made themselves available for interviews by phone or supplied answers by email.