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News feature, February 12, 2008
Asian cycling strengthening with Langkawi success
By Greg Johnson in Banting, Malaysia
Cycling in Asia reached a milestone at the Tour de Langkawi on Monday when a group of five riders broke away from the peloton and resisted its pursuit to the finish line in Banting. After averaging 44.54 kilometres/hour over the 209.4 kilometre stage, Jae Won Lee (Seoul Cycling) became the first Korean winner in the Malaysian event's 13 year history.
"My manager told me not to look behind, but I couldn't help it," said Lee of the final kilometres to his history-making victory. "I'm very happy to win."
Such is the consistency of the Asian squads at this year's Tour that four of them are placed in the top six on General Classification. While they don't solely field Asian riders, Skil - Shimano, Letua Cycling Team, Meitan Hompo - GDR and Seoul Cycling hold third through to sixth in the standings.
The strength of the Asian squads at this year's Tour shows why it's important for the event to continue to field national outfits, in addition to the professional European teams, according to race director Michael Robb. "It does for sure, today the race was made by the Asian riders," said the Irishman. "They took the chance, they went early on and they managed held on to the very end.
"It was a very well taken win," he added. "Any of the five of them would have been a well deserved winner."
While Lee's victory makes him just the fourth Asian stage winner in Langkawi, the successful all-Asian breakaway also saw Anuar Manan (Letua Cycling Team) become the first Malaysian rider to wear a jersey in their home event, after he took the points classification lead. After winning three stages at last month's Jelajah Malaysia, Manan said he was disappointed with the outcome of today's stage after he finished second to Lee.
Manan is trailed in the points classification by another Asian rider, with Japan's Koji Fukushima (Meitan Hompo - GDR) currently holding second place.
The success of the Asian squads in Malaysia is the result of years of gradual development from competing against teams and riders from European nations that enjoy a rich tapestry of cycling history. Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni Giocattoli director Giani Savio was full of praise for the progression of the region's cyclists, saying that he feels the best is yet to come.
"It was a very good win," said Savio, whose team has won the event on two occasions. "A few years ago when we started here the Asian riders struggled to even stay with the main peloton. Now they are matching the European riders and in future I expect that maybe they will be even better."
Race leader Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom) joined the peloton in its praise for the day's escapees. The Frenchman, who leads to tour by three seconds over Australia's Mitchell Docker (Drapac Porsche), added that he knew the Asian teams would be on the attack, having raced against them during regular blocks in Europe.
"I know that the Asians come to Europe sometimes, especially the Meitan Hompo team," said Sprick. "They are known for being very aggressive riders and have a very good level [of fitness]. It's very good for cycling and for the Tour de Langkawi as well."
While four Asian riders remain within 13 seconds of the general classification lead - Shinichi Fukushima (Meitan Hompo - GDR), Baek Sung Park (Seoul Cycling), Hidenori Nodera (Skil-Shimano) and Tomoya Kano (Skil-Shimano) - it will likely take another leap forward in the region's progression before title hopes are realistic. In order to claim this week's race and join Tom Danielson, Christopher Horner and Ryan Cox on the winner's list, any of the four riders would need to outclass some of Europe's top teams; not an easy feat on a race expected to be decided by sprint time bonuses.
Speaking at the pre-race press conference, Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Androni's Danilo Hondo outlined that the key to Asian riders taking on the sport's European natives is by gaining more experience racing in Europe. In recent years teams from the greater Asia area have increasingly travelled to Europe for racing blocks that afford the team's riders to learn from the best, with Skil-Shimano and Trek Marco Polo the most frequent travelers.
"There are not many Asian riders who race in Europe," he said. "The most famous we've saw before was Skil-Shimano, they have the experience and quality of European racers."
Hondo, a former German national champion, added that he believes the best way for riders to learn is by attacking and learning through observation of other teams and riders' tactics.
"So for me, as my first time here in Asia, the only thing that I think and I hope is that they are very active, they look to go in front to learn about the quality of the race," he said. "I think for the future with the coming of more and bigger European teams the quality of the Asian riders will be coming up very fast.
"Cycling is a process, you know, it's not only to sit on a bike and make your condition, it's a feeling to see the situations," he added. "In the sprint, for example, it's not only the fastest legs, it's a feeling to see the situation to do the right things, not always the fastest will win."
Despite today's impressive result there's still some way to go for cycling in the region. However the peloton's expectations of things to come are high, which should only help to further motivate the pioneers of Asian cycling and as a result increase the rate of progression.