Girona in the Catalan region of northern Spain is one of the prettiest and most beguiling cities in the country. The city is well known for its historic architecture, rich and independent culture and world-class cuisine. In recent years Girona has had a far more international feel to it, largely thanks to it becoming home to many of the world’s top professional cyclists and their teams who compete on the UCI WorldTour. And for the first time, two female cyclists from Southeast Asia have joined the roster of aspiring stars. Such is the rarity of that event, over the past decade you can count the number of riders from the region who have competed at the top level on one hand. Currently, only Eri Yonamine of Japan, a member of the Human Powered Health team, is on the circuit. Now she is being joined by Singapore’s Chelsie Tan Wei Shi, and Malaysia’s Siti Nur Aliaa Monsor. Going global Adding riders from the region to the pro peloton could be a huge step forward in the quest for the globalisation of a deeply Eurocentric and traditional sport, especially one highly resistant to change. As she quietly celebrated her 32nd birthday in January, four-time Singaporean champion Tan prepared for one of her first training rides with Team BikeExchange-Jayco. One of 14 teams that make up the WorldTour roster, it is the women’s section of the Australian-registered outfit that also competes on the men’s tour. Cycling officials keen for Tour of Greater Bay Area in November Members of the squad take part in all the major single and multi-day stage races on the Tour, and despite being a relative novice at international level, Tan is eager to get started. “It makes me thankful, humble, excited – and a little bit sad” she said. “Thankful to everyone who has helped my journey so far, humble to be representing Singapore/SEA at WorldTour level, excited to be given the opportunity. But a little bit sad that I know there are some amazing female cyclists in SEA and I wish more had been given the opportunity.” This is something she hopes her signing will lead to. “I hope that I can in a small way change the perception of cycling in the [SEA] region, so that more women will pursue this incredible sport and reach amazing goals.” Singapore getting on track Singapore is hardly a great place for road cycling, although a velodrome is being built, and those have proved key in the development of competitive cycling in many of the major, and formerly lesser-known cycling powers, including Hong Kong. Having a controlled and indoor facility allows for a closely monitored path to progression, and developments on the track have been central to the success of numerous road champions in recent years Last year, Singapore turned to Shayne Bannan, the former head of Australia’s high performance cycling and co-founder of Team BikeExchange, to lead their quest for cycling glory – and it would be hard to find a better-qualified man to do this. Hong Kong’s cycling family set sights on winning medal together in Hangzhou Bannan’s presence helped open the door for Tan, but the team has long since had a keen eye towards the region. In 2013 they came close to signing young Hong Kong sensation Choi Ki-ho, who ultimately quit the sport to continue his studies. Brent Copeland, the team’s general manager, said the organisation knew there were talented cyclists in Asia, it was just “a question of time before these athletes are found”. “In the meantime there has to be a programme for them to work towards, therefore we are constantly offering a platform for them to move into and to give them the opportunity to become professional cyclists,” he said. Signing Tan was a case in point, and Copeland said the relationship with Bannan and the Singapore Cycling Federation created “opportunities for riders to challenge themselves”. A crack at the big time Aliaa, a 21-year old Malaysian from the east coast biking hotbed of Terengganu, is another newcomer to the Girona cycling scene. Her home region’s well-supported cycling progamme, and a recommendation from former Terengganu Cycling Team coach Adam Szabo, has opened the door for her to race in Europe. In January, she and seven other young riders from nations not traditionally associated with professional cycling were presented as part of a development initiative and team launched by the WorldTour Canyon-SRAM team, which Szabo is now coaching. Team members applied to be involved, and media officer Beth Duryea said they had been impressed by Aliaa’s response and had then “asked some further questions and looked more closely into her track racing results”. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Siti Nur Aliaa Mansor 🇲🇾 (@aliaa.mansorr) For Canyon-SRAM, Aliaa’s development is viewed as a long-term project, with the team keen to see her racing at an international level on the road and developing into “a well-equipped rider”. “We have several riders from different cultures and together as a team we try to support one another and respect our differences,” Duryea said, adding she expected Aliaa to start her racing season in Spain on Saturday. Despite having spent time racing with the national track team at their base in Melbourne, this will be a whole new challenge for Aliaa. “I feel very excited to have this opportunity and I take it as a new challenge for myself,” she said. “I also hope I can manage my diet [halal] properly because I know it will be different to what I am used to, but my team already tries to understand my diet and support me.” “Of course being away from home is another part this challenge and I know it won’t be easy. But I am stoked to be a part in this.” Both riders will face major challenges over the next few months, but should they weather the initial storm, they will carry more than just their own hopes and dreams on their shoulders, they are effectively flag-bearers for aspiring women in Southeast Asia. They may even persuade some of the established and upcoming men in the region to step out of their comfort zones and tackle the challenge of the harsh world of European racing.