Tour of Qinghai Lake, China.
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Aussies Racing the Spice Road

A steady stream of Australian riders and teams have been racing the Asian circuit in recent years; a route less ridden, but one which is proving highly successful for them.

Just a few weeks back, young Tasmanian rider Nathan Earle of the Huon Salmon Genesys team, put pen to paper and signed on the dotted line of one of the most sought after contracts in pro cycling; the one which see’s him slip into the black and blue kit of Team Sky for 2014.

His signing came in the wake of an impressive stage victory in the Tour of Japan, one of the major stage races on the thriving UCI Asia Tour roster. This result backed up an already long list of wins for him and the team during the first half of 2013, in their National Road Series (NRS) and Asia Tour races.

Five years earlier Cam Meyer won the overall General Classification in the same race while riding for the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) team, and Matt Lloyd also won a stage there in 2006; both results point to the prominence of the race for both Australian riders and its timely recognition by major WorldTour squads. However, it wasn’t the tipping point in Earle’s contract negotiations, as his team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston explains; “It would have been a bigger story if it was the Japan result, but several teams had already shown interest in him, although after Japan a few more did enter the arena.” Surprisingly Orica-GreenEdge was not amongst those teams putting their hat into the ring for Earle.

During the past few years the team has made quite a name for its self, based not only on its results but on their amazing record in converting and packaging riders from a primarily domestic based Continental team and seemingly fast-tracking them to WorldTour contracts.  This is something that even the well funded and backed AIS system has not managed to top; “We have a very good contact network, and relationships with many teams and because of our record we also get a lot of resumes from riders each year. Most want to go the AIS route, but some just don’t have the opportunity, and tend to see us as the next choice.”

Both Steele Van Hoff and Nathan Haas also graduated with honours from the team and joined the American Garmin-Sharp, following in the faded footsteps of the Meyer brothers and Jack Bobridge—all AIS schooled riders who rode with the team during the Matt White era.

Losing a star in the making to the big league could seem like something of a lost investment, yet the team thrives on it; “That’s what the team is all about, and it’s very rewarding when it happens. We’re almost like a big family, and those riders who do move up still come to train with us and stay in touch.”

One of the major differences between the Genesys riders and the AIS riders is that the boys in orange have had virtually no experience of racing outside Asia and Oceania, whereas the state backed riders have been lead through the familiar back-roads and bunches of Italy. This is a well-beaten and proven path towards success and the pro ranks, making the Genesys team’s achievements even more remarkable.

Taking a whole team of riders to race and cut their teeth in Europe or the US is an expensive job, and not always an option for Australian riders or teams, as Andrew explains; “We would have to stay for a long while to make it worth the expense if we were to go to Europe, while in Asia most of the races are ‘free’ – in that race expenses are covered and we usually get a flight allowance too, which means that it costs us about the same as going to a regular NRS race.”

Many other Australian teams also race regularly in Asia, with Drapac and Budget Forklifts being seasoned regulars. From the team’s naming rights it’s clear to see that these are domestically sponsored squads. Given this, there are potentially no commercial gains to be made in Asia, especially given that most of the races don’t attract much Australian media attention, so how does that work with Genesys? “Two of our named sponsors also have business interests in Asia, so it’s good for them. We have 16 riders, and also do all of the NRS races, so adding in the Asian tours fills out our calendar nicely. The races also make a big difference to the level of the riders, making them much stronger all-round, which pays off in the NRS events too.”

What often comes as a surprise to riders is just how tough the Asian races are, and how good the riders are; “The Asian races are mostly stage races, and have much longer and tougher stages than we get in Australia. The style of racing is also a lot different than we have here; it’s a lot more European style.”

Tactics and team cohesion are a big part of Asian racing.”

Riders wait for the start of the Tour of Borneo.

At home they can often dominate a regular NRS race, but not in Asia; “Teams are bigger and have more structure to them (a sprinter, climber, GC rider), and they work together a lot, and there’s a lot more of them too. In Australia we’re very strong as a team, but in Asia there are a lot of teams of a similar overall level.”

Although road racing on a major scale was a slow starter in Asia, it really has boomed during the past 10 years, and the standards of organisation and the levels of the local teams and riders had risen dramatically.

The first major player to make its mark was the Tour de Langkawi, a well-funded state backed and lucrative race, which was initially a rarity as an ‘out of Europe’ early season race.

Things have changed since then, and bike racing has become a significantly more global, with the Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman all taking place in that pre-Euro season gap. But Langkawi and its well funded and high profile exposure continue to make it a major draw for teams, including Genesys; “It’s the one race we’d really like to do. I feel that this year we had the climbing potential to maybe win the race, but we just can’t get an invite.”

Despite the Langkawi non-starts there are several other UCI ranked races in Malaysia and elsewhere that hit the spot. “We go to the Elijah Malaysia (the original Tour of Malaysia) and also the Tour of Borneo, they’re very close and easy to get to for us. The Japanese Tour is also a major race for us, as is the Tour of Taiwan (where Earle also took a stage win). We’d like to go to the Tour of Korea too, if we can get an invite next year.”

Needless to say the boom in Asian economies has gone a huge way towards popularising sport in general, and the image of cycling is a whole lot different than it was 20 years back, when it was largely seen as a poor man’s means of transport.

Asia has become a huge target for western companies, and the reverse is of course true, and growingly so.

This all adds up to a bright cycling future for the region, which is great news for the sport in general. The UCI’s (current) president Pat McQuaid has long since recognised this, and has been involved in the Asian racing scene for many years. He was pivotal in the founding of Asia’s first World Tour race, the Tour of Beijing; “I’m extremely aware of the potential of these countries, and of the athletes that could come from these countries.”

Tour of Qinghai Lake, China.

Many expected the Tour de Langkawi to become the continent’s first WorldTour race, but instead the honour was awarded to the new Beijing race, as McQuaid explains; “China has taken the focus mainly because the Beijing Olympic Games opened up China to the rest of the world. And it meant that after the Olympics that China wanted more interaction with the international sports world, and this gave us the opportunity, and therefore there are many provinces in China that are crying out for international events, and many governors that are approaching the UCI and we are reacting to that response.”

Many Asian races are heavily supported by local and regional governments and tourist organisations, which is not so common elsewhere in the world of cycling. McQuaid sees this as a major factor in the future of the sport as a whole, not just in Asia. “When you look at the current economic crisis in Europe and see the fact that local authorities can no longer invest in cycling the way they have done in the past (because they don’t have the money), it shows how important it is that we have that resource outside of Europe, and that we have governments and local authorities investing in cycling. It’s up to us (UCI) to ensure that the product is worth investing in, and we’ll continue to do that.”

It seems clear that the cycling resources and investment in Asia as well as its geographic proximity, are proving very valuable to Australian riders and teams. Moreover the continent is providing a larger and more varied crop of aspiring and accomplishing pro riders; it appears that a whole new ‘spice route’ has opened up to Australians – with the commodity being cyclists – long may it stay open and may those who follow it prosper. 

The Flip Side 

Australian coaches John Beasley and Graham Sears has been working with the Malaysian national team on and off since the late ’90s, and have taken a near non-cycling nation to World Cup victories and World Championship medals on the track, as well as making major gains on the road.

Having witnessed the development of Asian racing over the years, Sears sees great benefits and opportunities for Australian riders and teams racing in Asia. “It’s a big stepping stone. It’s not like going to Europe, and it’s not a long way from home; but its far enough and it puts riders in a completely different environment and takes them out of that home comfort zone – as it does when we take the Malaysians to Australia.”

This learning curve is something he sees as vital to a rider’s development; “They have to learn to do things differently; learn the pecking order, find out who’s who; it forces them to change. The racing in Asia is very aggressive from the start and Australians cope with that well, as they race similarly. The stages are also much longer so it has big benefits to a rider’s development.”

Is it a viable alternative to European racing? “I don’t think it’s an alternative, and Drapac do also spend time in Belgium. But it is a very good breeding ground and gives a great chance of exposure. It’s also fairly inexpensive to do; it’s not a major inconvenience and you can make it happen.”

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