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Photo ©: Sirotti

Tales from the travellers — the diary of Team Marco Polo

Camel signs in the desert - Marco Polo at the Tour of Qatar

Fuyu Li (Chn) and Maarten Tjallingii (Ned)
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
Click for larger image

The Marco Polo Cycling Team had a very successful start of the 2005 season in the Tour of Siam (Thailand), the first race in the new UCI Asia Continental Tour. The team won the team GC and Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh came third on GC! It was then onto the Tour of Qatar, where some of the the world's best pros line up for fast, windy races in the desert. It was very hard for the riders, but provided them with great experience and plenty of important lessons at a higher level.

Cyclo-cross preparation

We travelled with a group from the Netherlands, with riders Maarten Tjallingii and Rene van Oord, and commercial manager Rob Conijn, soigneur Francis Cerny and myself, this time as mechanic and masseur. The riders from the Netherlands would have a hard time to teh change in weather - from cold rain and snow to the balmy temperatures of winter in Qatar. At least Rene had a training camp in Spain, but mountain biker Maarten Tjallingii had only trained in the cold. Maarten did some cyclo-cross races this winter for the first time, getting fifth in the Dutch Championships between the Dutch cyclo-cross pro races!

On our arrival at Doha International airport we saw some of the Protour teams - some of the strongest riders in the world were going to be our opponents! It was a daunting thought, but it turns out we were right up to it!

The next morning we met the rest of the team who came from Thailand, straight from the Tour of Siam. Teammanager Allan Wolhuter and riders, Jamsran Ulzii-Orshikh (Oggi) from Mongolia, Chi Yin Leung (Kenji) from Hong Kong American Michael Carter and Australians Rhys Pollock and Eddy Hollands. And from China, our new Chinese rider Fuyu Li arrived, he would make the Chinese debut as a rider on a pro-team in a race!

Rene van Oord and Eddy Hollands.
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
Click for larger image

There were some problems going through customs in several countries - convincing the authorities that all these nationalities were welcome in a rich country such as Qatar proved a little difficult. But as we always manage to do, Marco Polo gets the job done and we were all together, ready to race. The team changed to the new Trek bikes, and our Asian riders all had to get their new machines ready. In Europe we prepared them as well as we could, but there are always minor tweaks to ensure everyone is comfortable.

Doha International Grand Prix

The races in Qatar were opened with a one day race at the car racing track near the capital of Qatar, Doha, the GP Doha. The Marco Polo Cycling Team was the first team to line up for the presentation. The teams were presented to the press and invited VIPs, including people around such as Eddy Mercx, one of the organisers of the race, and Dutch soccer stars Ronald and Frank de Boer.

Our invited sponsors had a good time watching the race and join us for some laps in the team car. The race started slowly, with an early attack by one of the Al Jazeera Sports Channel Team. This team was founded in Qatar as part of the development of cycling in the Arabic region. It is funny to see the Al Jazeera Team with also some riders from Iraq lined up next to the Discovery Channel Team from the USA, but that is the cool thing - US national Champion Fred Rodriguez (Lotto-Davitamon), in the stars and stripes, can shake hands with one of the Iraq cyclists, because sport can bring people together.

In the race, the Al Jazeera rider put a few minutes into the bunch, making it to the first big intermediate sprint. Then the action begins! There are a few breakaways which are chaseed down as the tempo increases and the whole field is strung out single file all over the windy circuit.
From the car we see Maarten Tjallingii taking some superhard turns at the front. And our Chinese rider Fuyu Li, who comes from a cold province in China, stays in a good position, even with the wind and heat. As the race progresses, the pace becomes faster and faster, and several riders get into some trouble, falling off. Some of our riders find it too difficult to hold the wheel of the top pros, and towards the finish we have a bad loss, with Eddy Hollands, our in form sprinter, suffering from a bad stomach and he drops out of the race.

Fuyu Li, however, makes a great impression by hanging onto a group with riders like Max van Heeswijk, even taking full turns to catch onto the main group again.
In the last lap Lotto-Davitamon and Quickstep take the lead and pull so hard that only 20 riders go into the final sprint, won by Robert Hunter from Phonak. Our riders learned today how damn hard these European pros ride! They now know what to expect over the next few days in the windy desert of Qatar.

Hong Kong's Chi Yin Leung goes alone!

The Tour of Qatar starts in the small harbour of Al Khor. There is a relaxed atmosphere in the nice sunny weather, and the start is slow again. But many riders must be nervous for what may happen when the going gets tough, especially with the wind.

Our rider from Hong Kong, Chi Yin Leung (Kenji), has no fear and is the first rider that attacks after just a few kilometres. It was a good attack from the second row and nobody followed him. He put the hammer down and soon he out by a minute - a nice gap that prevented others from joining him. The peloton keeps quiet and soon Kenji is up by two minutes, then five, and he keeps going strong, putting more time into the bunch in the empty desert. The only entertainment are the 'Warning: Camels' signs along the road, but Kenji has other things on his mind.

The team training in Qatar.
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
Click for larger image

Kenji was strong out front - he won the first sprint and his maximum lead increased to more then 10 minutes! But behind him the points sprint gets the peloton into gear, and the race pace is on the up! It's incredible how fast a pro peloton can go on flat roads! At the second points sprint, after 100 kilometres of solo riding, Kenji is caught by two riders and takes third in the sprint. Kenji is now the virtual leader in the Tour of Qatar! A Hong Kong rider taking it to the world's best pros - fantastic! He feeling teh effects of the tough ride, however; and the three stage races he did over the past month and a half are also taking their toll. In the screaming finale, with speeds of almost 70 km/h, Kenji loses contact with the peloton, and although Michael Carter tries to hold him in the field with some 'illegal' pushes, at two kilometres to go Kenji is dropped.

Oggi and Maarten give the sprint a go, but some bumping and sliding in the hectic last kilometre prevent them from getting a decent spot - Tom Boonen wins the stage. It was a gutsy attack and solo from Kenji, who is completely exhausted at the finish. He gave it all he had and almost caused a sensation as a Hong Kong rider in the top five at the Tour of Qatar, with the best young rider's jersey, but almost does not count...

Again in the break of the day

Kenji gave the team a boost and they are ready to go for it. The next day the stage starts at the camel race track, and Marco Polo go hard early, again. It is Maarten Tjallingii that jumps in the break, and together with Credit Agricole rider Kaggestad and Shimano-Memory Corp's Marco Bos they give the break a try - the same thing happens, however, and the peloton is slow, giving the break a good five minute lead. I drive the second team car and can take our spot in the caravan behind the peloton, because Allan Wolhuter is behind Maarten in the break.
Maarten takes some seconds in the points sprints, but the peloton doesn't wait too long to bridge the gap.

At a turning point in the roads echelons develop again and they are in the gutter already. After regrouping, the field splits again in the tough crosswinds. 21 riders with Tour leader Tom Boonen reach the three man break and Maarten can take advantage of the seconds he won, staying in the group.
Behind the hammering front group, a second group wants to close the gap, with Mario Cipollini making a great effort, nearly making it to the small group. But the Quickstep-Davitamon team, with Boonen and five other riders, give it all and bring him to his second stage win. Maarten, who finishes 12th after his long break, moves up to a sixth on GC between and in front of many top riders.

But it's not all good news - Kenji, who has not recovered from yesterday's tough day, quits. Our Chinese Fuyu Li keeps on fighting, but finishes five minutes outside the time cut. In the GP Doha he showed how strong he was, but it is also a matter of positioning and technique to survive in the strong crosswinds, and riding in the gutter. Fuyu is disappointed but believes he learned a lot and will make sure he'll finish next time. Sponsor Todd McKean from Trek bikes tells him about Lance Armstrong's first big race in Europe, where he finished, alone, so far behind they were already packing up the finish line. Fuyu listens and just nods his head.

Tjallingii again

Objects in the mirror
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
Click for larger image

Stage 3 of the Tour of Qatar starts in Al Wakra, an old fishing harbour. I drive team car two again, behind the caravan, until we have another rider in the front group.
The first name announced on the radio is Maarten Tjallingii. He shows he is not tired after yesterday's long three man break, and is the first rider to attack. A few kilometres later a 15 man group has a minute gap, and of course Maarten has joined them. But then the race breaks open. Team CSC make their move, and how! They join the front group, and with six riders they squeeze it into pieces in the hard crosswind. Only 21 riders follow, with Maarten following - only thre riders from the first front group make it into this new break.

The whole field is shattered into pieces, this is like a battleground. Here and there we pass crashed riders and small groups that fall off. And in front of us we see the many echelons chasing each other. In the front group, Magnus Backstedt asks Maarten not to take his turns so hard, as the second group keeps chasing and stays within a minute for a long time - but then they give up and it is clear that this is the break of the race.
Team CSC pulls it in the wind one more time. With six riders on front, the last rider leaves the gap and the final is open. Tom Boonen just misses this and he and his teammate chase as hard as they can. Maarten joins in and keeps switching with them, but after a while he misses Boonen's teammate, getting dropped from their group. Boonen and Zanini kept at it for a while, but against five CSC riders there is no chance. Michaelsen won the stage and takes over the leader's jersey.

Fast start, fiery finish

Stage 4 began in Al Zhubarah, Doha. It's a great background for the start - an old fort from the 13th century, where battles were fought long ago - and today there will be more battles!
The start is incredibly fast. After an hour, 57 kilometres have been covered! And of course the peloton is split. Some of the main riders missed the break, with the Lotto team in particular having a bad day. Their fast men Robby McEwen and Fred Rodriguez missed the break, but (surprise, surprise...) Maarten didn't miss it and he moves up to fifth in GC! Rhys Pollock also joined the first group, but punctured at the wrong moment, and there wasn't a team car in between the main groups yet, so here he loses a very good spot on GC, and the team a descent position in the team GC. The second group slows down completely and loses a lot of time. In the first bunch, Mario Cipollini takes his victory.

Stage five was Robbie McEwen's day, after the disappoinment of the previous day, taking the win amongst white sand dunes and fires from gas installations - maybe it was the flames that fired him up! It was the end of an incredibly tough race, full of challenges for Marco Polo.

Hundred fold budgets

Credit Agricole..?
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
Click for larger image

There is a huge difference between our team and the Protour teams, and we noticed how we had to work with three staff, which means a lot of work until late in the night to keep all eight riders served well. Most other teams have six staff members, plus a massive supply of spare parts and equipment This is a result of our much smaller budget - but considering the differences in resources, to have a rider in the top five is an incredible result! It has given us plenty of motivation to continue striving for big results. With this result, along with the strong showing in Tour of Siam, we've gained a great boost in our publicity and ranking in the Asia Continental Tour.

Now it's time for a break for riders and management - everybody is dead tired. We did Tour of China in November, races in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong in December, then training camp in South China, moving straight to the Tour of Siam and Qatar. The Chinese Marco Polo Cycling Team will probably resume racing in April in Europe or in May in the Tour of Korea.

See you then!

More information:

Gudo Kramer

Marco Polo Cycling Team

Semmelinkstraat 69
6512 JS Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Tel/fax +31 24 3606301; email:

For more information on the Marco Polo Cycling Club and its travels, visit: