Wong poised to answer the big question

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 1997, 12:00am

Wong Kam-po and five other Hong Kong riders face their biggest challenge when they take part in this month's Marlboro Tour of the Philippines.

Wong has been one of Asia's leading cyclists over the past two or three years, finishing fourth at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima and winning last year's 1,100-kilometre Tour of Taiwan.

However, his physical and mental capacity will be tested like never before in the Philippines, an 18-stage, 2,500-kilometre journey through varying terrain and weather conditions.

It is the fourth-longest multi-stage race in the world, and with organisers this year opening up to overseas riders for the first time, the Tour is seen as Asia's answer to cycling's ultimate race, the Tour de France.

For Wong, it's the race he has been waiting for.

Although events like the Olympics and Asian Games are more important, the US$350,000 Philippines Tour will give him a chance to discover exactly what his limits are.

'We are all very excited about this race,' said Wong, second in this year's Tour of Taiwan. 'It is the biggest race in Asia and we all want to compete in it.

'There will be a lot of good riders there, especially from Malaysia and the Philippines. The local riders have been taking part in it for a long time so they know what it's like to race 2,500 kilometres.

'It will be a new experience for me and I hope I can do very well. But it will be tough.' The six-strong Hong Kong team for the Tour will experience the heat of Mindanao and Manila and the cool, thin air of the Baguio mountains during the race.

The journey will take riders through some spectacular scenery, including the famous rice terraces of the northern Philippines.

The Hong Kong riders are preparing for the race by training on the flat roads of Zhuhai, China and the territory's highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, to work on their hill climbing.

Wong and his teammates' presence in the Philippines race did not seem possible several years ago because of a 29-year old factional split within the governing body there.

Similar to the in-fighting which has plagued Hong Kong judo for the past decade, the Philippines Amateur Cycling Association faced opposition from a rebel body led by Cornelio 'Paddy' Padilla, a former Marlboro Tour champion in the 1960s.

Peace was made last year when Padilla held an olive branch to the governing body and proposed that the Tour expand to include Asian riders.

Although the length and challenges of the course could entice top riders from Europe - Swiss star Tony Rominger has expressed interest in taking part - Padilla said organisers prefer to restrict it to Asians for the near future.

'This is especially for the Asian riders,' said Padilla. 'There are other tours in the region for international riders, like Langkawi. We want this Tour as a stage for Asian riders to show their ability.

'We have the support of the [world governing body] UCI after we told them that our emphasis is on the Asians.

'The governing body is now united on all fronts and working towards making this event a success.' The race begins on April 16 with a four-kilometre prologue in Cagayan de Oro City on the island of Mindanao.

After two more stages in Mindanao, the field, which will include teams from Japan, Korea and Mongolia, moves to Luzon.

The course takes riders up to Baguio City, La Union's San Fernando, around to Ifugao and then back down to Manila, where the race finishes at Intramuros.

The race includes two individual time trials and one team time trial.