“Err… Sue, what’s wrong?”
Our team translator Sue – or Bu Yeong, to use her Korean name, had been excited beyond imagination when I told her that she could come along to watch the racing from the team car during the stage five team time-trial at the Tour of Korea.
Sue’s enthusiasm was quite something. As we’d driven up to the start and sat in the team car queue to wait for our riders to go, she had been virtually bursting with excitement, yelling out of my window to her friends, and fulfilling an Asian stereotype by taking pictures of absolutely everything.
Summing up our bemusement at her high-decibel excitement, James chipped in from the mechanics seat that it was “refreshing to have someone so enthusiastic in the car, I suppose.”
Sue had indeed seemed to be a welcome boost of energy after four days of relative quiet following the Tour of Korea peloton, at least that was, until the stage got going. With only 7km to the finish of the 25km team test, as I blared the horned and yelled at the riders in front of us out of the car window, I’d glanced at Sue and noticed that she’d started crying.
After I enquired as to what the problem was, she fought back the tears to manage a response, “They… they… are trying so hard…”
At that moment the penny dropped and my concern instantly disappeared. Moments earlier as the riders had rounded a hairpin bend, we’d caught sight of the agonised face of Elliott Porter and, even for someone with twenty years of cycling experience, it hadn’t been a pretty sight. For Sue, a bike racing first timer, it must have looked terrifying.
Down to only four riders on the road, the Rapha Condor JLT team was in a tight spot. We had come to the race with a very young team, made up of riders who were in their very early twenties, with very little experience of international racing. Two had dropped out with sickness earlier in the week, and another had been left behind on the first climb of the TTT. As per the rules of the race, we needed all four of the riders who were left now to finish together – and poor Elliott was struggling, while his team-mates were doing the opposite.
It was going to be an agonising run to the line for Elliott, who only twenty months earlier still held a third category licence, and as he’d pulled out of the bend seconds earlier he’d shot a glance toward the car that said all that. It was the unmistakable pained look of a struggling cyclist; it said he was dying, it said he was petrified; it said he was hurting, really hurting, and he just wanted the pain to stop. That was the look that Sue had seen, and that was the face that had made her cry.
It was a tense moment, and for a split second I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with a tearful passenger in a speeding team car, on what was to all intents and purposes, only my fifth day on the job.
The issue resolved itself though when James and I burst out laughing, and I jammed my hand back on the horn.
“But Sue, this is what we pay them for! This is what they do!”
I didn’t want to appear sadistic, but I knew that for as much as she was really trying, Sue didn’t quite ‘get’ cycling. Sue was typical of the staff that I met on the race; her enthusiasm for the event was off the charts, and she really wanted to understand what was going on, but despite the best intentions, there was still a lot of learning to do.
One of the four “Asian Tigers” that has enjoyed rapid industrialisation over the past two decades, Korea is a country that is literally on the rise. On the day of our arrival in Korea, as we drove to Seoul from Incheon airport, and I marvelled at rows of giant tower blocks that were seemingly sprouting out of the ground, ‘James’ Hyungjoon Kim (another of the race’s seemingly infinite number of translators) leant over and told me;
“These buildings are going up all the time. Korea is really changing. I’ve just got back from seven years in the US and the country is almost unrecognisable to me. It is so different.”
Funnily enough, about the time James left for the US I’d been in Korea myself, not as a manager or a journalist, but as a rider, when I took part in the second edition of the Tour of Korea. Back in 2007 the race had been an incongruous affair, notable to me only for the biblical downpours throughout, and for the fact that after half distance on most stages the dropped riders were picked up by the broom wagon, driven to the finish and allowed to start the next day.
I seemed to remember too that at the closing ceremony of the race, the president of the organising committee had promised us that the Tour of Korea was going to grow, and that eventually the race would be three weeks long. I recall really hoping, as I stepped on the bus for our 300km transfer back to Seoul after the ceremony, that I would not have to be a part of that.
Thankfully (for me) the twenty-one day Tour of Korea never did materialise, in the six years since I took part in the race though, the Tour of Korea has evolved into a solid UCI 2.1 stage race. Weighing in at 8 days and 1,078 km, the route for the 2013 edition was varied, including a hilltop finish, three “mountainous” stages, and a team time-trial. The field was made up of a mixture of the best Asian Continental teams, some Asian national teams, a smattering of American and European Continental teams, plus a couple of Pro-conti outfits, namely the Chinese Champion Systems team, and the South African MTN Qhubeka squad.
But, while the race looked to be quite uniform at first glance, there were plenty of little differences that let you know that the Tour of Korea wasn’t yet quite right.
The team time-trial may have been an interesting idea, but having a team test on the fifth stage of an eight-day race, is a little unusual to say the least. A glance at the stage profiles also revealed that while many of the stages contained long and very tough climbs, almost all of them came in the first 80km of racing, meaning that several of the stages had long steady descents over the final 50 or 60km, a sure-fire way to neutralise any real fireworks between the overall contenders.
The Tour of Korea was certainly trying though, and while the race may not grab the attention of the world media on it’s own merit, the tour, much like Korea itself, seems fairly ambitious when it comes to self-promotion. In 2007 it was a mid-retirement Lance Armstrong (version 1.5, I assume) who was drafted in to start the first stage, and in 2013, it was Lance’s former chum Pat McQuaid who was on hand to lend the opening ceremony a PR boost.
But in light of the recent nosedive in popularity of the president incumbent, McQuaid’s patronage may have been a mixed blessing for the race. The presence of Alan Rushton however, another man who has played a large, if less publicised, role in the development of Asian racing, was perhaps a better omen for the long term health of the race.
Rushton is the man behind events such as The Kellogg’s Tour of Britain, the Tour of Beijing, and the Tour of Langkawi. Rushton’s company Television has been hired to help with the safety issues that plagued the race in previous editions. Up until I first spoke to Rushton shortly before the fifth stage the safety issue was something that I had thankfully been unaware of. However, Rushton’s explanation of the issues in previous editions helped explain why in 2013 the race may still be finding its feet, even after all these years.
“KSPO (the Korean Sports Promotion Foundation) are the sponsor, and they also do a lot of the organisation and work with the Korean Cycling Federation. KSPO’s income (and there is a lot of it) comes mainly from Keirin racing, which is a formal gambling system in Korea, which generates big cash for all sorts of sports. Part of the philosophy of running a gambling organisation carefully is to keep the staff turned over, and they do this every three years at a minimum.”
“At a bike race this presents a problem because they are acquiring knowledge every year and if you take that person out then you are back to square one again.”
Losing members of senior management every three years is far from an ideal way to help a stage race grow, and it is something that Rushton seemed very keen to make sure wouldn’t be happening for future editions, and fortunately for all involved, the Tour of Korea seems very willing to learn.
While I may have been in Korea to manage a team, and not to ponder the details of the race itself, up until stage five I’d had an unusually large amount of time to think about such things while I was sat behind the wheel of the Rapha Condor JLT team car. The problem was that for the first four days the race felt like it had no real shape or form. The Asian racing was so unpredictable that there was little I could do but say the same thing each night in the team meeting.
“Okay boys, you did well today – but tomorrow is another day. The GC break can go at any moment, and at any stage. You need to be in every single break that goes, and when you’re in that break, no matter how good it looks, be ready for it to come back for no reason, and have to attack again.”
The fact that no one was really watching by the roadside, and that the roads and countryside never really seemed to change at all, made it feel like we were just replicating the same stage day in and day out. With no race radio, back in team car number ten, we felt we were merely spectators, and despite the pom-pom girls and the fireworks at the start of each stage it was hard to really get into the spirit of the race, if there was one to find. However, as the riders pressed for home at the end of stage five and Sue started to regain her composure, something had changed.
From the very start of the TTT, the skinny, youthful figures of our youngsters clad in their all black skinsuits had looked extremely fast. Despite the fact that we had no time checks until the final few kilometres all of us, bar perhaps Sue, knew that the team were going to do an excellent time. Sure enough at the finish the quartet of our young British riders finished an excellent third, only three seconds behind MTN Qhubeka, and one single second behind Champion Systems, both of whom had started and finished with six riders. Our best placed rider, the relaxed and affable 22-year-old Mike Cuming, son of former British professional David Cuming, had moved into fifth place overall. Very quietly, we now all knew that we had something to work towards.
The next day everything changed again when ten kilometres from the finish of a rain-soaked stage six to Yangyang, Chris Wherry, the Champion Systems Directeur Sportif, pulled his race-issue silver Kia Sedan up alongside our car, and yelled at me, “Congratulations! You got yellow, man… Well done.”
Wherry’s congratulations were music to my ears. The previous seventy kilometres had been agonising in the team car. Cuming had slipped into an eleven-man break after 60km of the stage and had slowly opened up the gap on the race leader King Lok Cheung. The move had gone when the race was going hard, and Cheung, despite having no team-mates around him had refused to capitulate. Riding alone on the front of the bunch, Cheung had clawed away bravely as the race slipped through his fingers, and the time gap had steadily crept up kilometre after kilometre. If Cheung was going to be defeated, he had certainly chosen to do so honourably.
Knowing that Mike had been the highest placed on GC, we’d listened intently as Mike moved from a likely podium position until, with only ten kilometres to the finish, he became race leader on the road.
I hit the horn again, and moved up alongside the break, imitating all the managers I knew and who’d barked at me in the past, yelling:
“You’re in yellow – you’ve got to push all the way Mike, all the way. Don’t worry about the stage, push all the way.”
After we took the deviation and swung into the car park, I sprung out of the car to be greeted by a mixture of joy and utter deception. Mike had taken yellow with an incredible ride, but two more of our riders, Aaron and Hugh, had abandoned the race earlier in the stage. That left us with the joy of knowing that we would have the most coveted prize in the race, and at the same time the horrible realisation that the yellow jersey would have only two team-mates left to defend it.
Three quarters of an hour later, after Mike had finally come down from a podium presentation that included a raffle and a dancing competition, I watched him going through a Lost In Translation moment, patiently trying to respond through an interpreter to questions from a TV personality wearing a fluorescent orange baseball cap and thick black rimmed glasses, who bounced around almost uncontrollably, occasionally yelling “Fight for Tour de Korea!” and laughing. As this scene unfolded, much to my amusement, I started to wonder what the hell I was going to do.
When I came to Korea as a manager I was starting the job from scratch and the first four days that I’d been in charge of the riders it had been relatively straightforward. The part of the manager’s job that is logistics never changes, that is always easy as long as you know how to get yourself out of bed in the morning and be on time to things. The part of the job that was looking after the riders had been easy too – cyclists need to be confident, and motivated – you need to make each one of them feel like they are getting some sort of special treatment, and more than anything, you need them to know that you believe in them.
It had been easy to motivate these particular Rapha Condor JLT riders too. In my mind riders who are young and ambitious in the sport should be something like clockwork toys: you just wind them up a little and put them facing the right direction and their legs will turn as long as there is energy in them. That was all easy – and the tactic of covering all the breaks had gotten us this far. Now though my riders needed strategy, and they needed direction. Our abstract ambition of “doing well” with which we had arrived at the Tour of Korea no longer existed. Now we had a chance to win the race, and despite having three men to do a job that should take seven, anything less would have been an outright defeat.
Funnily enough the Tour of Korea had come to Yangyang in 2007. That night I slept on the hard wood floor of a dormitory in an old sports school, and after seeing the race leader (and eventual winner) Park Sung-Baek having a cigarette outside after dinner, I’d been inspired enough to escape the race and take the time to wander out of my hotel and go poking around the dried octopus stalls and fish shops in the town.
This time though, after the stage we went back to a plush hotel high up on a cliff, a long way from the town and I walked directly past all the riders huddled about in reception. I connected to wi-fi, and, off existing in some non-existent ether, and I went to my room to try to work out the next move.
Korea had changed. It certainly wasn’t what it had been previously – the slightly difficult adventure that it had been was now replaced with a good race that did everything almost right, that our whole team and I were desperate to win. My writerly thoughts of finding some part of the country that I could capture and turn into a perfect metaphor for the country was gone. What I was left with was a desire to win a bike race, and only three riders to defend a nine second lead over two tough stages of unpredictable racing.
As a manager of a World Tour team, I assume at least that things are a little easier, not only because the higher up the food chain the more controlled the racing is – but also because you know that when you ask a rider to do a job, you can be pretty sure he can do it. At continental level, and particularly in a development team like Rapha Condor JLT, you don’t know what your riders are really capable of yet, and neither do they.
I knew that the following day’s stage would be decisive. The way the rest of the race saw it, the yellow jersey had fallen into our hands somewhat unexpectedly, and having proved that the previous wearer was fallible, we’d showed that the race was up for grabs. The riders who were closely bunched in the top ten had become like hounds that’d caught the scent of a fox. There was Mike, the man in yellow – with only two team-mates and a first and second category mountain to get over, and only thirteen seconds in hand. It wasn’t just the former leader Cheung who wanted his jersey back, it was everyone else who fancied their chances of profiting from how exposed Mike would be.
In my evening of convalescence I came up with one idea: not to mark second place, or fourth or fifth, but just to follow one man, and to not let him out of our sights. The one man in question, Constantino Zaballa from the Danish Christina Watches-Onfone team, had been another rider who had profited from the previous days escape, and sat in third overall.
Christina Watches are one of those teams that have been around the UCI Continental circuit for a while: a team made up of good riders, who were either on their way up through the ranks, or had already been at a higher level and dropped back to the semi-pro peloton. It is the kind of team you’d expect to find in many of these lower level events in developing parts of the cycling world.
More importantly the Danish squad also had seven riders left in the race, and very little to show for their long journey to Asia, so far. If Mike could show that he was stronger than Zaballa on the first climb (which we knew he was) then I was sure that his team would ride to protect his position on the podium. It was the only solution that I could think of that would possibly work.
As soon as stage seven was underway and heading towards the first major climb of the day, I listened in despair as race radio called out the numbers of the riders in the first significant break of the day. Second, fourth, sixth, ninth and eleventh were all part of a ten-man move that was riding away from the peloton. By the foot of the climb the group had one minute forty seconds, and we had already burned up our third rider Elliott Porter, who said goodbye to the race.
Slowly though, the gap began to reduce; Richard Handley, another talented 22-year-old, and a close friend of Mike’s, was doing the ride of his life to peg back the break. Handley chipped into the lead until with one kilometre to the summit the break was finally reeled in. I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Then the radio crackled back into life, a new escape. Second overall had gone again, this time with another seven riders including two others from the top ten. The gap shot out.
Soon came the mercenaries – riders who knew that we were in a tight spot, and thought they could easily make some money from us. After a few individuals had appeared at my car window like seagulls around a trawler, banding about enormous figures for work that they clearly couldn’t do, my concern went from mild to out and out panic.
Finally though, the Danish team saw the whites of their enemies’ eyes and began to ride. The gap stalled, and then slowly but surely began to drop. Suddenly, and for the first time in the whole race there was control. The gap would only fall now and we knew it. It was like the moment that a wild horse had been broken by the vaquero. The race suddenly had a solid form, a shape. It would take the bunch all day to reel in the break, but when they did it would be too late for any more attacks. The race was ours.
That night we stayed at another ski resort, the third of the trip –Korean’s like to ski, evidently. With one more stage to go we knew that the race wasn’t yet won, but there was a feeling that somehow we had managed to crack it. The following day was a 90km flat run and now that we knew Christina Watches were committed to their podium, we had more than a fighting chance.
After dinner, the staff and I ventured out into the middle of the giant ski complex to find a barbeque area with live entertainment. As in any country apart from our own, people were singing and dancing despite sobriety. Being English, we sat in the corner and ordered enough beers to take the edge off our discomfort, and acted as if we had lots of important things to say.
In no time at all, Sue shot over. She wanted us to try Soju, a Korean drink that we could mix into our beers. I hadn’t seen her this excited since I’d told her she could ride along in the team car for the TTT, and soon enough she came back with a little green bottle and mixed it into our imported Danish lager. Its taste – despite its potency – was rather unremarkable, but as I drank it, the fact that it wasn’t quite right reminded me of where I was, and how far we’d come.
Despite the race routing issues, and the fact that we still had to transport our entire team, staff, bikes and equipment in a minibus that required protracted negotiations with our Korean driver each time that we wanted to drive to or from the dinner hall, or to the hotel, things had dramatically improved since 2007. The hotels were modern, dropped riders were eliminated (and not bussed to the finish) and the buffet each night was tailored to the needs of the European visitors as well as the Asian riders.
But while the Tour of Korea had done a lot to accommodate its visiting competitors, in truth by the end of the eight days our team would hardly have noticed, as the thrill of being in the race for the victory had taken over and consumed all of us, and the country that we were in had fallen well into the background. What I did know though, as we sat amongst the joyous singing Koreans on the eve of victory, was that we would be leaving with a sweet taste in our mouths, one that had more than a little hint of Korea in it.