The sport of cycling is booming in Singapore.
And while novices and amateurs get suited up to take on the sport, a group of serious sportsmen are already blazing the global trail for the vibrant community.
They are also the country’s only professional outfit, known as the OCBC Singapore Pro Cycling Team. Yes, OCBC Bank, the sponsor of the successful annual OCBC Cycle Singapore event, is their sponsor.
The team’s next big target is the upcoming ‘Le Tour de Langkawi’, the jewel in the calendar for Asia’s pro riders.
The race, which features some of the world’s leading professionals, zips around peninsular Malaysia over 10 stages from 27 February to 8 March 2014.
The team started as an amateur squad in 2009, but with the help of OCBC, they gradually grew in size and stature to the point where in 2012, they were awarded a UCI Continental licence.
This landmark achievement allowed them to race in the ‘UCI Asia Tour’, the highest level of the sport in Asia.
Ho Jun Rong leading the pack
This small squad of mostly young Singaporeans made a good impression and gained valuable experience in that first year on the tour, but they did not set the fields on fire in terms of results.
A change in mindset and the addition last year of some veteran professionals, in particular Dutchman Thomas Rabou, took the team to another level.
Results slowly started to filter in as the young Singaporean guns received a ton of on-the-job training from their new teammates.
The highlights of 2013 were three stage victories and the overall title in the five-stage Jelajah Malaysia. That win by Malaysian Loh Sea Keong was the team’s first ‘UCI Asia Tour’ triumph.
The Singaporean-contingent of the squad is made up of Low Ji Wen, Kee Meng Ang, Ryan Chan, Goh Choon Huat, Benedict Lee, Lemuel Lee, Ho Jun Rong, Calvin Sim and Travis Woodford.
The team’s foreign legion now includes Australians Eric Sheppard and Mitchel Mulhearn, New Zelanders Rico Rogers and Cameron Bayly, and Ronald Yeung from Hong Kong.
Malaysian Loh has since left, and the exit was not seen as a loss but a success, because he went to join the ‘UCI World Tour’ squad Giant-Shimano. In doing so, he became the first Southeast Asian to ride at the first-division level that is the World Tour.
Low Ji Wen and Ho Jun Rong
DON’T WAIT FOR RACES TO HAPPEN
Singaporeans with aspirations to join their OCBC Singapore heroes are seriously disadvantaged by the lack of opportunities to race.
There were only five road races in Singapore in 2013, but OCBC Singapore Pro Cycling’s manager Justin Cheong said there are other ways to break through.
“Our team exists to provide Singaporeans who dream of being professional cyclists with a platform to chase their goals,” he said.
“If you wish to join the team, take yourself and the sport seriously.
“Race in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in all the amateur events you can afford to build up your resume. Then with the results that you have, apply to the team just as you would apply for any other job.
“Don't keep looking around waiting for races to happen in Singapore. If you want it, go out and fight for it.”
Travelling overseas to race might be out of the financial reach of some Singaporean youngsters, but Low believes it is possible to progress even within the limited Singapore racing scene.
“My advice would be to train hard for the races that do exist. Even if there is only one race a year, you should commit to it fully. And doing well in the big group rides can do a lot to bring you to people's attention,” he said.
CYCLISTS A FUNNY BUNCH
But dreamers beware, pro cyclists are a funny bunch. They are scarily skinny (Low Ji Wen weighs in at 54kg), have some strange habits (these superfit human beings don’t walk anywhere) and they shave their legs.
Low, 24, admits he has been shaving since he was 15 and when we asked him why, he came up with the standard response about making it easier for the daily massage (yup, they are quite pampered, too) and helping to keep wounds clean (crashing is an accepted occupational hazard), but there is more to it than that.
Low Ji Wen at OCBC Cycle Malaysia
“I think it looks better too!” he said.
Low, a two-time and current Singapore National Champion, is one of the local lads targeted for glory.
He won a lot as a junior, including in a five-month spell in a school of hard knocks in France as a 17-year-old, and he still has that winning itch.
“My biggest goal remains to win a race on the ‘UCI Asia Tour’,” he said, adding that the arrival of teammate Rabou and company can help him achieve that goal.
“The overseas riders have been a terrific influence on us. They’ve really helped us improve our mindset with regards to both training and racing. They are very hardworking and it rubs off on you. At races, you can see how confident they are of winning.”
INDIVIDUAL GLORY FOR SINGAPOREANS
Loh Sea Keong kissing the coveted yellow jersey
While cycling is a team sport, Cheong admits that a major goal is some individual glory for a Singaporean.
“Putting a Singaporean on the podium at a UCI race is an obvious target. If we do that alone in 2014, we will call it a successful season,” he said.
“Just as importantly, we would like to continue down the path we’ve taken and help develop more infrastructure and support systems that enable our riders to perform at their best and to develop even further as athletes.”
Even greater things are expected this year, and with extra sponsors coming on board, such as insurance giant Great Eastern Life and luxury watch brand deLaCour, the team’s roster has expanded to 18 from 12 last year.
Team manager Cheong has high hopes for the Singapore cadre at ‘Le Tour de Langkawi’.
“It is considered Asia’s most prestigious road race and one in which we always aim at doing well. Last year, our Singaporean riders featured very prominently in the majority of the breakaways throughout the 10-day tour. This year will be no exception. We hope to be able to showcase our Singaporean riders in full force come Langkawi,” he said.
Catch the team at OCBC Cycle Singapore 2014 | Date: 28-30 March 2014 | Venue: F1 Pit Building | Or sign up at https://manage.cycleasia.com/cs14/
Alan Grant has been in Singapore for nearly eight years. He first visited in 1991, then again in 1996 before his latest arrival in 2004. He has placed his journalistic hat down at such legendary Singaporean spots such as The Straits Times and I-S Magazine. He loves the local food, with his favourite haunts being the Indian vegetarian joints dotted around town.