Life in the fast lane
The holy grail of cycling, the Tour de France, has never featured a Hong Kong rider. But news this week that Champion System, a team formed in Hong Kong, had been accepted into the Professional Continental Team category, the 'second division' of cycling, brings that dream one step closer to reality.
Two Hong Kong riders - Wu Kin-san and Asian Games BMX champion Steven Wong - are part of Champion System, who are hoping that in the next few years the team can win 'promotion' to the top tier of cycling, the Pro Team division, from which the majority of squads are picked for the three biggest races in the sport - the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta (Tour of Spain), collectively known as the Grand Tours.
Champion System are the only Asian squad in the 22-strong Professional Continental Team category; the 18-strong Pro Team division has no Asia-based squad. 'Our target, of course, is to join the ranks of the Pro Team one day and we are very happy with the progress we have made so far,' said Wu, 26. 'Champion System was only set up this year and we competed in the Continental Team category [the International Cycling Union's third tier] so to be accepted so soon into the Professional Continental Team category for 2012 is already a remarkable achievement. This has opened the door for us to compete in more top-level events next year. We have a five-year plan to become the first team from China to compete in Grand Tours.'
Hailed as one of the future stars of Hong Kong cycling when he was picked by Lampre-Fondital, an Italy-based Pro Team squad, as a trainee in 2006, Wu has made steady progress over the past five years. He was chosen to represent Hong Kong at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where he was one of only four Asian riders to complete the gruelling, 245-kilometre individual road race, eventually finishing in 88th place.
His time was well off the winning group led by gold medallist Samuel Sanchez of Spain, but considering the high rate of attrition, just finishing the tough course in sweltering heat was worthy of praise.
'I am proud of what I achieved at the Olympics because only 89 riders out of the 143 starters were able to complete the race from downtown Beijing to the Great Wall in the northern part of the city,' he said. 'I love road racing which is one reason why I quit the Hong Kong team in 2010.'
Road racing has been forced to take a back seat in recent years as the Hong Kong team switched focus to track events. 'I don't like racing on the track, although I am pretty confident I could handle the switch and do a decent job,' Wu said. 'But my heart is in road racing so remaining with the Hong Kong team was not really an option for me. The Hong Kong Cycling Association's priority is to qualify riders for the Olympics and Asian Games. My target, however, is to race against the best riders in the world and you can't do that by competing just in Asia to earn qualification for the Olympics.'
While Wu was looking for competition in Europe after leaving the Hong Kong team, he was told that a new professional team would be set up with their base in Hong Kong. 'I jumped at the chance and joined Champion System, where I have met quality riders from all over the world,' he said. 'The professional set-up is different from the national team, where you train under a coach and are served by a long list of support staff. You are more or less on your own in a professional team in terms of training and have to learn through the experience gained in competition. I believe I have enough self-discipline to succeed in this environment.'
Wu considers the Tour of Philadelphia in the United States this year as one of his most exciting experiences. The International Cycling Union (UCI) Hors Category single-day road race featured more than 180 of the world's top professionals, including those from the Pro Team category. Wu was in the leading pack for a while but could not keep up with the strong field and finished 43rd - still a creditable result.
'The race was very demanding with 10 steep climbs,' said Wu. 'That didn't scare the top riders; in fact, they treated the entire race as if it was on a flat course. It was incredibly tough keeping up with them. But it was a great experience for me, one I would never have enjoyed if I had been riding only in Asia.'
Champion System have moved their registration from Hong Kong to Beijing for the 2012 season to gain wider recognition and exposure and will be led by the experienced Jaan Kirsipuu of Estonia, a former multiple stage winner in the Tour de France (1998, 2000, 2001, 2004) who has also won 130 UCI-sanctioned races.
'I know the management is talking to some top riders from Europe for the new season as we will now be competing in the Professional Continental Team category,' said Wu. 'We've had some good results this year and are looking to build on those performances.'
The team will formally announce their plans in the next few years in Beijing next month before moving to Hainan Island for a pre-season training camp. Their first race will be the Tour of Qatar in February - one of the few Hors Category races in Asia.
'The racing season is long and demanding and will not finish until October,' said Wu. 'I plan to race more in the latter part of the season at events mainly in Europe. I have loved challenges ever since I took up the sport at the age of 15 and determined to work hard.'
Wu has not ruled out the possibility of rejoining the Hong Kong team one day. 'If they need my services in an important race, I will definitely consider it,' he said. 'There were no hard feelings when I left the team, and in fact I must say I have learned a lot from head coach Shen Jinkang. I would not be where I am without his guidance over the years.'