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Marco Polo team diary

Sea Keong Loh (Discovery Channel Marco Polo)
Photo ©: Shane Goss
(Click for larger image)

The Marco Polo Cycling Club reports from races in non-traditional cycling countries with stories and reports from the Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team. Founded in 2000 and named after the famous traveller, Marco Polo, its mission is to provide talented cyclists from non-traditional cycling countries an opportunity to develop into world-class professionals.

After years of building, the team signed Fuyu Li, and his success and subsequent signing with the Discovery Channel ProTour team led to a partnership between the two teams, resulting in the formation of the 2007 Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team. The team provides a development path for cyclists beyond the traditional borders of the U.S. and Europe to the highest level of cycling competition.

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Curry, the King, and Coconut cocktails - the Asian spring 'classics'

By Thijs Zonneveld

This year the Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team traveled in January to Asia again for what are considered classic races - not the one day Classic we are familiar with in Europe, but stage races which are becoming well known around the world. They are building their name and making some cycling history. For us they are the Asian spring classics. First year Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team rider and writer Thijs Zonneveld wrote his impressions of his first Asian spring classics.

Jelajah Malaysia

The author, Thijs Zonneveld in Siam
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
(Click for larger image)

I suppose the alcohol of the excessive amounts of champagne was still circulating through my body when I found myself at the starting line of the first race of the year. Racing on the sixth of January: there's a first time for everything. Besides the influence of the champagne, a massive jetlag and the excessive Malaysian heat made my head feel like a ripe watermelon, ready to burst.

Ten minutes after some minister or prince fired the starting gun for the first stage of the Jelajah Malaysia, my initial headache made room for something worse: leg ache. The sauna temperature, the sudden change from training to racing speed and the ongoing attacks of the Asian riders turned my legs into two torture devices.

Gasping for oxygen, my face pale as snow, I tried to stick with the bunch. I looked around, in despair. Next to me, my brand new Chinese team mate Yu Tong was smiling at me. He had been attacking from the starting line, chasing down every single rider who tried to escape the infernal rhythm of the peloton. I glanced at him, and tapped his shoulder. "You: strong", I said to him, trying to express my respect. He shook his head. "Yu Tong!", he answered, pointing at his chest. For a moment, I hesitated about explaining him the difference between his name and the state of his legs, but I realised I was too exhausted. I already needed all my breath to supply my own legs with enough oxygen.

Chinese rider Yu Tong
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
(Click for larger image) Chinese rider Yu Tong  (Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team).

As we were 'speaking', a group of twenty riders got clear of the bunch, with Pol in it. I gave Yu Tong a little push and waved him to try to bridge the gap, knowing that the group probably would make it to the finish line. He nodded, put his chain on the smallest sprocket and closed the gap without any sign of fatigue, with only one man in his wheel - our sprinter Sergey.

Too bad, he, Pol and Sergey paid their efforts in the final and couldn't keep up with an Iranian and a Japanese guy. It turned out to be a decisive gap. Not only for the win in the first stage, also for the general classification. Even though the Japanese team resisted very well for a few rain soaked stages, finishing in bunch sprints, in one of which Sergey came in second, they broke in the big mountain stage. Three Iranians gave a cycling lesson, coming in first, second and third, despite the work of the DCMPT-riders in the elite chase group: Pol, Xing Yan Dong and the inevitable Yu Tong.

The mountain stage proved to be a hell for me. I don't know if it was the chilly monsoon rains that had been drowning my skinny climber legs for days in a row, or the chicken curry the evening before the stage. Anyways, the curry, as well as my breakfast, wasn't in the place it should have been: my belly. Instead of that, it was lying on the Malaysian asphalt, puked out by my sick guts. After ten kilometres of puking and a cramping stomach, my stage and race finished. That night, when the results came in, there were only three letters behind my name: DNF.

My sickness gave me two days off. Holiday, one could say, but I wasn't able to enjoy the pleasures of the hotel's whirlpool, sauna or cocktail bar, as I spent the day with my face above the toilet.

Meanwhile, the sea blue squad kept the rhythm going without me. Sergey showed his fast legs by finishing second again and Loh missed out on the victory as well in the final criterium. The final verdict proved to be simple: a lot of honour places, but no win. And no champagne. But to be honest, I didn't really mind, as I was still burping the New Year's bubbles. With a chicken curry flavour.

Tour of Siam

The Russian sprinter Sergey Kudentsov
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
(Click for larger image) The Russian sprinter Sergey Kudentsov  before the start of Jelajah Malaysia stage one in Bentung.

Thailand is addicted. A junkie. The population is a big fan club of one man, and one man only: The King. Bhumibol is his name. His popularity is unlimited. He is God, Allah, David Beckham and Robbie Williams impersonated in one (super)human being. Everybody is wearing orange bracelets, marked with the words: Long Live The King. In Thai, of course. His portrait is everywhere. Dressed in a military costume, he watches with fixed eyes over his people on every street corner, in every bar and in every park. There is no escaping him. He is Thailand.

Bhumibol is sacred, and anyone who doesn't respect his holiness, commits an act of sacrilege. That's probably the worst you can do in a country like this. I do not know the exact sanction, but images of ritual whip beatings, amputations and lifelong imprisonment in labour camps occur immediately.

That's why I was a little disturbed when the organisation of the Tour of Siam explained the participating riders in a special communiqué, that the stage winners were honoured with a very special trophy: The King's Cup. This Cup was more than a metre high and weighed an elephant or two, because of the innumerable golden ornaments. Because of the fact that the King himself was represented by this trophy, the riders were told to handle the unmanageable cup with the greatest care possible. The punishment for dropping it was left over to our imagination. Knowing my own clumsiness, I realised a win would probably mean the last one of my life. But as soon as we actually started racing, I was dragged along in the unlimited enthusiasm of my team-mates. Of course. Losing a race is far worse than losing an arm.

And o holy Bhumibol, did we come close to that amputation. Our Siberian rocket Sergey sprinted to a second spot twice and Pol took a third in the hardest stage. So close. But close is not enough. The victory and the Cup proved to be too far. To make things worse, I managed to lose my top ten placing in GC by missing a seemingly unimportant breakaway the penultimate day.

We left Thailand as we came: without King's Cup, but with all our arms and legs and without scar lashes of whip beatings on our back. But also without a win. And maybe that hurt even more.

Tour de Langkawi

The fruits of Malaysia
Photo ©: Shane Goss
(Click for larger image)

A bounty island. Langkawi is nothing more, but certainly nothing less than that. Palm trees, white sand beaches, a deep blue ocean: it is the perfect spot for a relaxing holiday or to chill in a hammock with a coconut cocktail in one hand and a big Cuban cigar in the other -- 'Celebrating Malaysia', so to say. Just like the banners and flags that are literally hanging all over the place tell us to do as the state of Malaysia celebrates its 50th anniversary.

But enjoying the temptations of life on the island will have to wait. At least for the peloton that gathered on Langkawi for other reasons than tourism -- the Tour the Langkawi. Ten days of racing in one of Asia's biggest races; it should have been the climax of our Asian early-season campaign, but providence decided otherwise. Mongolian veteran warrior Oggi had to forfeit the race because of the of his father's death, and sprinter Sergey managed to catch severe bronchitis in the Asian oven, at the eve of the start. It left us without a sprinter, and with six out of ten stages finishing in a bunch sprint, one could say that the pain in Sergey's lungs was felt in all of ours.

Loh Sea Keong
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
(Click for larger image) Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team rider  Loh Sea Keong from Malaysia.

However, the Chinese dragon on the team shirt wasn't unnoticed during the race. Loh (his ongoing and relentless attacking spirit) was awarded with a 7th place in the only stage the early break maintained their lead until the finish, Pol scored nice results in stages, and I found myself after ten days of racing somewhere around 30th place in GC. On top of that, the spectacular crash that forced Xing Yan Dong to abandon showed that the dragon could fly as well.

When the Tour finished with the traditional Kuala Lumpur criterium, our Asian campaign ended as well. After six weeks of communicating in English, Chinese, Russian, Mongolian and a lot of body language, it felt extremely weird to board the plane to Amsterdam with my only Dutch team-mate, Pol.

Chinese rider Xing Yan Dong
Photo ©: Francis Cerny
(Click for larger image) Chinese rider Xing Yan Dong  (Discovery Channel Marco Polo Team) before the start in Bentung.

As the plane took off, I stared through the little window, silently. Houses, trees and cars got smaller and smaller as we climbed into the thin air. After a few minutes, Malaysia seemed nothing more than a giant green jungle, surrounded by white beaches. I tried to picture myself in the hammock in the shade of those palm trees near the sea. When the stewardess passed my seat row, I ordered a cocktail and the biggest Cuban cigar in the assortment. And even though I don't smoke and the strawberry cocktail (coconut was not available) tasted like dish water, I felt a little closer to that place under the palm trees. As I sipped from my cocktail, I closed my eyes and dreamt away. Smiling. Celebrating. Finally.

More info on Thijs and his team: