As professional road cycling continues to spread its global wings, it has been fascinating to witness the number of Asian, Australian and Kiwi cyclists breaking into the top echelon of professional road cycling; sometimes via quite long and convoluted pathways. Today, Cycling iQ looks at where “home” is for Asia’s top riders.
In the last edition of ‘How far would you go?’, we learnt pro cyclists from Australia and New Zealand have found their way into every continent that hosts UCI-sanctioned racing. This wouldn’t have surprised many readers; both nations now enjoy high profiles as cycling talent ponds, but only after decades of anonymity – and probably lots of jokes about sheep and dingoes from a largely European peloton.
Perhaps the challenges, barriers, successes and failures of Oceania’s riders will, in some way, inform the decisions of riders from Asia – a region on which the world now seems to depend in so many areas – as they, too, grow in numbers and stature. So, are Asian road cyclists up to the challenge and who’s out there right now trying to break through and up? [Note: As Asia is such a vast region, it has been split into three main sectors for this article: Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and Central Asia.]
For the 2012 season, there are currently 32 UCI-registered pro road cyclists from Southeast Asia racing across two divisions (ProContinental, Continental) of the global cycling calendar. Malaysian cyclists account for just over 50% of all UCI-registered riders from this part of the globe; they are also going further afield to explore opportunities. Singapore recently launched its first UCI Continental pro cycling team (OCBC Singapore Cycling Team) which makes neighboring Indonesia, with a population 45 times greater than Singapore’s, appear extremely sluggish in developing high-performance road cyclists. [Large version here]
It is noteworthy the lone ProContinental cyclists – Malaysians Adiq Othman and Anuar Manan, both riding for the Chinese-registered Champion System squad – come from the home of SE Asia’s only UCI2.1 stage race, Le Tour de Langkawi. We have yet to see any riders from this region break into an American of European based-team – even if it could be argued that Champion System’s operations (and beginnings) are extremely US-centric.
This is where it’s currently all happening in Asia. Japanese and Chinese teams are dominant in numbers, accounting for 70% (71 and 81 riders, respectively) of the 216 riders from this part of Asia – which, let’s not forget, also experiences “proper” winters. In development terms, Japan is higher up the pro cycling food chain; thanks to ProTeam riders Fumiyuku Beppu (GreenEDGE) and Takashi Miyazawa (Saxo Bank). In the ProContinental ranks, Cheng Ji (Project 1T4i) is perhaps doing more than any other Chinese rider to immerse himself in a Euro-style cycling apprenticeship. [Large version here]
When compared with China, Japan has a more widespread and sophisticated cycling culture – represented by way of three national racing series, mass-start “fun rides” with thousands of participants and a high-street bicycle retail scene that would make any aficionado weak at the knees.
However, if a strong cycling culture is the bread and water of professional cycling development, Taiwan deserves a special mention – the island nation of 22 million people is cycling crazy! It will be especially interesting to keep an eye on Taiwan’s young cyclists in the years ahead; some self-promotion would not go astray.
Some riders from South Korea are amongst the most powerful and attacking riders in the UCI AsiaTour peloton, but lack the racing etiquette and endurance of their Japanese peers. Two of South Korea’s three Continental teams are funded by local government, which at least infers a development program is in place. The local market is also changing; mountain bikes still comprise 80-90% of the adult bicycle market in South Korea, but road bikes have become increasingly popular in the last 2-3 years.
At first glance, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan appear rather insular – with the emphasis on Kazakhstan; all 26 UCI-registered Kazakh riders are employed across two teams based in the resource-rich republic, even if Astana (ProTeam) and Astana (Continental development team) are registered in Luxembourg and Ireland respectively! [Large version here]
Iranian riders are well-known for their big engines, endurance and UCI points; Amir Zargari and Mehdi Sohrabi went to ProTeams AG2R La Mondiale (France) and Lotto Belisol (Belgium), respectively, replete with points; greatly assisted by the four UCI2.2 stage races held in Iran each year.
Each of the above three Asian nations have development bases in-step with the ranks of ProTeam heavy-hitters ahead. As a side note, the absence of ProContinental riders is not a complete anomaly; even if it is a more “affordable” division, the global ProTeam peloton is 20% larger.
Earlier this month, the UCI published an info graphic illustrating the five-year development of UCI-registered teams across the globe. Rather than summarise the above or, harder still, forecast the next five years, a review of these figures in 2017 will be but one measure of professional cycling’s place in Asia.