Cyclists deserve room on the road
Government must recognise difference between riding as a recreational pursuit and as a formal training programme
One person furtively scopes the area, looking out for the long arm of the law before setting out on his mission. Another is not as lucky, is unable to sprint away and ends up being arrested and hauled off to court to face charges. It might seem like something straight from the Jason Bourne trilogy.
But these are no "criminal" acts, rather the daily tribulations our young cyclists face as they bid to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers such as Wong Kam-po, or, perhaps, Hung Chung-yam from an earlier generation.
Esther Fung Yuk-ki, 17, has been identified as an up-and-coming star by the Hong Kong Cycling Association (HKCA). She is part of the youth squad.
Unlike the seniors who are based in and train on the mainland, the youngsters have to make do with limited road facilities in Hong Kong. She was arrested for not cycling on a designated cycle path.
Ronald Yeung Ying-hon, a former member of the Hong Kong senior team, recalls how he had to "act like a thief" and make sure there were no police around before he went out training on the roads.
Yeung, who now rides for a professional team in Singapore, says whenever he returns home "I have to be careful before and during training, it was just like doing something illegal".
He is right, for what he and Fung were doing is illegal in the eyes of the law and the government's antiquated cycling rules, which have led the HKCA to say they were "killing the sport" and are detrimental to its long-term development.
Cycling has been one of the most successful sports for Hong Kong at multi-sports games in recent times.
Four years ago at the Guangzhou Asian Games, cycling won the highest number of medals overall, with four gold, four silver and a bronze.
Celebrated veteran Wong led the way, winning the men's road race. Hong Kong finished second only to China (who won seven golds) in the cycling stakes.
But the fact that the senior team have to base themselves across the border and train on the mainland speaks volumes.
While they benefit from the close ties built with the mainland's cycling apparatus, the fact is they have no option as there are no roads to train on in Hong Kong. That is, without running the risk of being slapped with fines and arrested.
Fung is not the only athlete to face the wrath of the law. Five triathletes were also charged by police when training in Ting Kok Road in Tai Po last year.
Road safety is paramount in a congested city like Hong Kong.
Despite the growing population and the increase in vehicle registrations, the number of road accident fatalities remains at a low level. Last year, there were 130 traffic accident fatalities.
Compare this to the carnage on the roads in Thailand during the Songkran festival, the Buddhist New Year celebration last week when there were 248 deaths and 2,643 injuries, and this just over a five-day period.
Hong Kong police figures show that between January and February this year, there were 366 traffic accidents involving bicycles, resulting in 376 casualties.
By and large, these incidents involve recreational riders and not members of the national squads who go out training accompanied by a coach.
The public use cycling tracks built purely for recreational purposes and with more people taking to cycling, numbers are growing. This has resulted in people like Fung and Yeung using the roads and not designated cycling paths, which in any case are filled with traffic.
"How can we conduct speed training on a cycle track when there are a lot of people there riding for leisure?" one cycling official asked.
The government must acknowledge the difference between cycling as a recreational pursuit and as part of a training programme with the end goal being winning a medal at a major event.
As Hong Kong Sports Institute cycling head coach Shen Jinkang observed, "elite training is very disciplined and is always led by qualified coaches and road training is also important for the development of our young athletes".
It did not help in Fung's case. She was accompanied by a coach when she was arrested.
The government must take another look at its stringent laws governing road safety and make allowances for our elite cyclists. The rest of you weekend cyclists will have to settle for the cycling paths and just hope that more facilities will be built.