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Tales from the travellers the diary of Team Marco Polo
Marco Polo Cycling Project aims for first-class honours from UCI
Africans race with Der Kaiser
By Gudo Kramer
You may know the Marco Polo Cycling Club from the races in the most unusual countries all over the world. But the racing program in Europe is becoming more important in the Marco Polo Cycling Project, although the travelling will of course always define the character of the Marco Polo Cycling Club! With all the travels the team did, they met very talented riders in countries where you would never expect them. Talented riders, with a passion for cycling, but no chances to do something extraordinary on international level. Cyclists that train for months and months for this one race a year in their country.
Over the past few years, Marco Polo Cycling gave some of these riders opportunities to race with us in Europe. With individual projects we had exchange riders staying with us, or with our friends. Jamsran Ulzii Orshikh (Mongolia), Damir Iratov (Uzbekistan), Kan Koon Hang (Hong Kong), Ervin Lika (Albania), were among the first of our visitors, together with the riders from New Zealand and Australia, that formed the 'backbone' of the Marco Polo team here. With the Hong Kong Cycling Association we started a more structural cooperation. And their riders came over for intensive racing sessions.
Last year, Marco Polo Cycling ran a project with the Eritrean Cycling Federation (Africa), with support of the ICCO organisation (Interchurch Development Aid) in the Netherlands. The two best Eritrean riders came over and started in amateur races in Holland, Germany and Belgium. They adapted so well that at the end of their four-month stay, they participated in professional races up to UCI .3 level! Read about their adventures below.
The experience over the past years has been that most of the riders that came over have an incredible fitness, but they lack the skills of riding in a big, nervous peloton, like in the bigger races in Europe. They also need to improve their technique in fast turns and most importantly, they need to get the "speed in their legs" from fast European races. This, apart from learning how to function in a team, the routines around the races and taking care of body and materials, have been the things we have been trying to teach them.
In 2004, the Marco Polo Cycling School officially did get started, with support of NCDO, the community of Valkenburg, our sponsors and many other organisations! Talented riders from non-traditional cycling countries, can get the opportunity in this cycling school to train and especially race in Europe, under the authority of experienced trainers like Nathan Dahlberg, our Technical Director and former Tour de France professional. The Marco Polo Fund and other subsidies made it possible for riders from poor countries to also benefit these programs. The cyclists from the MPC-School stay with the Marco Polo Cycling Team in our team house in the Valkenburg area. This is a great training area near the Belgian Ardennes.
We are working on a special training centre in our new residence near Valkenburg (known for hosting the World Championships in '98). Together with the Dutch Cycling Federation KNWU, we are preparing to get the 'National Technical Centre' label from the UCI for this accommodation.
Eritrea enters Marco Polo in 2003
Two stars from African cycling came to Europe and raced with the Marco Polo Cycling Team. Ephrem Tewelde and Habte Weldesimon are among the best cyclists of Eritrea, a yet unknown country in the world of cycling. Habte Weldesimon is the winner of the Giro d'Eritrea 2003.
The entrance of the Eritreans in the European cycling scene was made possible by the Dutch Interchurch Aid organization ICCO. ICCO wants to help the Eritrean Cycling Federation to build international contacts and gain expertise. Also ICCO aims to show in Europe that also Africans are people that set their own goals, work hard for it and can be successful. ICCO gave a lot of basic help (food) to Eritrea in the past and will continue to do so. For further development of a country that is not the only need, though. International acceptance and contacts are necessary. The Marco Polo Cycling Club, that introduced 'fair trade' into cycling, seems to be a natural partner in this.
Eritrea has a great tradition in cycling, as there is a strong Italian influence in this East African country near the Red Sea. Cycling as a sport started 60-70 years ago and is one of the biggest sports in the country. The weekly races in Asmara attract 15,000 spectators every Sunday!!
The Eritrean cyclists received a lot of attention since their arrival in the Netherlands. Attention from people from Eritrea, cyclists they race with and attention from the press, newspapers, radio and television. Many spectators came to their races and welcomed their sports stars. In Eritrea, Habte and Ephrem are famous sportsmen since cycling is the most popular sport.
Habte and Ephrem join trade team
Because Habte and Ephrem developed so well in the amateur races they did, we gave them a reward by signing them up in the Marco Polo Cycling Team (TT III). This gave them the chance to race in professional races. Their first races were the Versatel Classic and Sparkassen Giro in Germany. These UCI categorie 1.3 races have an impressive field, with many riders from the Tour de France. The top professionals start with their complete eight-men teams, for example Telekom with Erik Zabel, Fassa Bortolo with Petacchi, Francaise des Jeux with Baden Cooke, Credit Agricole with McEwen and Bianchi with Jan Ullrich.
The Versatel Classic in Dortmund and the Sparkassen Giro in Bochum had over 500,000 spectators altogether, according to German newspapers. Nobody of them could have missed the two riders from Eritrea, who both had the guts to attack the pro's in their first pro-races!
Habte even did get a nice word for his riding by Jan Ullrich personally! After about 140 kilometres of racing, on one of the steep climbs, Jan came up to Habte and told him he was doing really well. Habte rode strong in the front of the field, holding his position between some very famous riders. Ephrem even attacked alone and rode about 20 kilometres between the front group and the peloton.
With the special concept of the team, the Marco Polo Cycling project gets a lot of media attention, especially the two cyclists from Eritrea. We had background articles in the biggest national newspapers in the Netherlands, articles in many magazines, interviews for national radio and regional television. But also serious attention from national television in the pro-races we did. One of the highlights was a background story about our Eritrean riders in prime time on the most popular national Dutch sports program, Studio Sport.
Ster Elektrotoer 2003
The Ster Elektrotoer was a special race for the Marco Polo Cycling Team. Not only because of the big teams (Mercatone Uno, Gerolsteiner, Fassa Bortolo, Landbouwkrediet, Bankgiroloterij, etc), but also because we found two great sponsors, JP Print & Design and Setpoint for this race.
The Marco Polo line-up was comprised of riders from no less than five continents:
Michael Carter, USA
Two stages from the 'Ster'
Stage 3 - September 12: Valkenburg a/d Geul - Valkenburg a/d Geul, 176 km
Amstel Gold Race kind of course and the race would be more controlled. The Bankgiroloterij team had guys in the early break and Fassa Bortolo and Mercatone Uno were controlling the gap. At km 100, the race exploded and there were groups of riders everywhere. Oggi and Ephrem landed in the last group, but Habte, Kay, Ben and Wong lasted long in the front. When their group also broke, Wong went backwards, asked Kay for a drinking bottle and cruised back to the first part of the group, passing pro's that were getting dropped. There were less then 40 guys in the front now and all our sponsors were waiting on the Cauberg (6km to go). Wong did not want to sprint as he is afraid of the big European riders and their pushing and shoving...
At the top of the Cauberg, Wong attacked and reached the top with a small gap towards the pack, that was lead by Bankgiroloterij and Fassa Bortolo riders. The sponsors shouted their lungs out, but Wong got caught again. With just over one km to go, he went again. For a moment it looked like he would win, but then Rik Reinerink of Bankgiro jumped and passed Wong. Wong stopped and looked back, then also Thomas Dekker from Rabobank TT3 jumped and passed Reinerink too. Dekker wins, Reinerink second and Wong finished in the back of the group... an exciting stage!
Stage 4 - September 13: Valkenburg a/d Geul - Verviers (Bel), 203 km
At one point before the start in Valkenburg, there were about 40 people (fans, photographers, collectors, TV crew, sponsors) around our team car, wondering just who these amateurs were. We could just understand their remarks on this, as they were talking in Italian, with the teams next to us, Fassa Bortolo and Mercatone Uno, receiving almost no attention!
The fourth stage went into the Ardennes. We thought it would be a Liege-Bastogne-Liege course, but it was way harder. Never a flat kilometre, never a rest in the race and always narrow roads, twisting, steep up or steep down. What a savage course, incredible! Also more technical then we thought, which was no good for Ephrem, he got dropped on every downhill before passing half the field on every climb.
The field split after some climbs and Habte (22) and Ben (20) were in the first group (about 45 riders). But two little groups formed off the back when the break had just been established, Ben in the first and in the second Habte... both said that it was 'just' bad positioning that got them dropped... a good lesson guys!
That was then, this is now
This year, there are even more riders coming to our center in the Netherlands. The strongest young guys raced Olympia's Tour in May. Nine days, UCI 2.5, Dutch echelon riding, quite a challenge! After one week, 7 out of 7 riders were still riding, so we were quite happy. The day after however, the field went into bad weather, strong winds: 19 foreigners and one Dutch rider were eliminated! We lost 4 guys at once.
Tim Wilson made some long breaks though, so he got the team and sponsors good publicity - national TV in the Netherlands again! Apart from this race, the team went to many kermesses and criteriums, but also one day races like the amateur version of the Omloop Het Volk in Belgium, some 1.3 races in Estonia and the Ronde van Overijsel in the Netherlands. Stage races like the Tour du Nord Isere in France were also on the program.
Now the Tour de France is finished, the pro crits and 1.3 races in Germany and Holland are coming again! We believe in racing! Of course training is important, but fitness is normally not the problem of riders from the 'non-traditional cycling countries'. Technical skills and experience is the best we can give to our guys!
At the moment, there are guys from Hong Kong, Mongolia and Eritrea in the Marco Polo Cycling School. They are racing a few races a week and some of them grow very quickly from trying to finish, towards winning good prizes.
Support is getting better and better with the Olympic Support centre in Limburg getting involved and a gym, cycling track, medical monitoring around the corner. If the UCI approves our application to become a national technical center, we hope to have a lot more guys around next year, so they get a chance to find out what their possibilities are in cycling.
For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: www.marcopolocycling.com