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The UCI has long been looking to Asia and to China in particular as the next frontier in cycling, offering the world governing body what it sees as the best opportunities to expand not only its brand but also its influence and to bolster its finances.
Pat McQuaid had first hand experience and knowledge of the Asian scene as race director of the Tour of Langkawi, the Tour of China, and the Tour of Philippines before he became President of the UCI in 2005.
Indeed, it was this experience combined with the desire to open up the Chinese market to the UCI that saw the formation of the Tour of Beijing in 2011.
That event, the third edition of which has just finished, was hugely unpopular when first shoehorned in as the final event on the 2011 World Tour, with several teams plainly stating that they saw no point in turning up.
The UCI responded with its usual finesse and threatened to strip those teams of their ProTour licenses if they failed to show in Beijing.
The teams responded in kind by demanding that the UCI postpone the implementation of the radio ban it had been ready to enforce.
Both sides backed down, thus saving face, and we saw a Tour of Beijing where what crowds there were found themselves far from the action.
Many of those present watching were said to have been bused in by the authorities in any case.
The inaugural Tour of Beijing was in fact a dull, staid affair that barely any real cycling fan had any interest in – much like the 2013 and 2013 editions, it could be said.
In Australia, where the cycling scene is more advanced than in Asia, there is the Tour Down Under, an event that can justify its place on the cycling calendar for several reasons, not least the competitiveness of the racing but also, critically, by the sheer volume of people that turn up to cheer the riders on.
Asia though demands a different approach. Even in the countries where the traditions of racing are quite well developed, such as Malaysia and Japan, there is nothing to match the depth of support seen at the TDU.
The kind of ‘trickle-down’ effects of top-tier multi-stage racing simply have not been shown to work in and real, tangible way here.
However, though the number of participants taking part in any sort of organised racing in Asia still remains relatively low, the number of people actually riding bikes continues to grow exponentially.
As someone who has lived in Asia now for 15 years, I continue to be amazed by the increase annually of the number of people out on the road (and in particular by the number of women).
These people are riding top-end carbon fibre bikes with all the gear on – they are just not racing, with too many feeling that the leap from weekend ‘fun’ riding to competition is just too great, which, given the lack of racing culture and the lack of entry-level events here, in most cases is.
At the level just below World Tour events – such as at the 2.1 Tour of Thailand, 2.2 Tour of East Java and the Tour of the Philippines – you will find Pro-Continental and Continental teams that, though certainly competitive, do very little to inspire any real interest in racing from the locals beyond cheering them past for a few moments as the colourful peloton speeds by.
They also bring in very little economic gain to the local economies, the teams being packed with young, jobbing pro riders who have very little expendable income and whom are also unlikely to return to enjoy the local culture with a family any time soon.
Not only that, some of these Asia Tour races are lacking completely in drug testing procedure.
I know because I’ve raced in them and, as times, not a single rider has been tested over the entire race.
The whole approach to the Asian scene is misguided, like much of what we saw coming from the UCI under McQuaid.
So how can we combine the UCI’s desire to expand into the Asian market with the top teams’ desire to keep their riders interested in the racing, and to inspire the local riders to step into competitive racing while also putting something back into the local community?
I’d suggest a series of one-day ‘Asian Classics’ held over a two week period throughout the region in or around the time period that the current Tour of Beijing is held.
Keep the racing exciting for the pros by having the races on courses that not only showcase the beauty of Asia – something the current events here just completely fail to do – but also choose routes that place similar demands on the participants as do Roubaix, Amstel or the Tour of Flanders.
To encourage locals to get out and participate also, an ideal format would be to have an early sportif on the Saturday, an amateur race version in the afternoon and the Pro version on the Sunday.
One event could be the Japan Cup, which has provided a very popular format of racing for several years now.
Another could be in Taiwan, possibly mid-week, a third in China and another in whichever country the UCI feels would most benefit from such an event – or possibly a second in China.
This would mean a bit of travelling for the World Tour teams but would guarantee interest here in Asia and, I believe, in the rest of the cycling world too, and is surely more appealing than grimly pedalling around Beijing for a week.
With one or possibly two races midweek, the whole ‘Asian Classics’ series could take place within a 2-week period, maximising the appeal to sponsors and riders alike – and to any fans intent on seeing every race.
On top of all this, include a women’s event and make maximum benefit from the popularity of cycling among women in Asia, which on visual evidence alone far outrstrips Europe.
This has to be an improvement on what we have now, a race that is foisted on teams particularly that don’t want to be there and one that stands isolated from the real fans and the wider community.
Races such as the Tour of Thailand and Tour of Singkarak and others like it that make up the UCI Asia Tour should continue, but with just a little more thought the cycling community and cycling industry could be getting so much more from the Asian cycling scene – and, crucially, putting something back in.
New UCI President Brian Cookson is already making some strides with the women’s side of the sport. Let’s hope that the UCI can start to reevaluate its approach to the Asian cycling scene.