Jai Crawford: Taking the silk road to Europe

Jai Crawford is hoping to become an Australian pioneer by forging a new route in the path to...

An interview with Jai Crawford, March 7, 2007

Australia's Jai Crawford is aiming to re-write all the rules by making it to the ProTour via the Asian cycling scene. The Tasmanian sat down with Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson after his stellar performance at the Tour de Langkawi.

Jai Crawford is hoping to become an Australian pioneer by forging a new route in the path to cycling's elite level. The Tasmanian is aiming to reach the heights of cycling via the Asian scene, rather than the traditional European route.

Crawford may well be a little-known Tasmanian in the world of cycling, but he's hoping that by posting big results in 2007 the sport's power brokers will be forced to sit up and take notice. Le'ts set the future aside for a moment and look at the route that has led Crawford to this point.

Like a growing number of Australian road cyclists, Crawford comes from a background in mountain biking. In fact, it was his mountain biking prowess that saw the now 23 year-old offered a scholarship with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport in 2002.

But, despite some success in the discipline that included competing at the World Championships in Lugano, Switzerland , Crawford's exposure to road racing through the TIS program was ultimately the path that he would follow. In 2004, the decision was made - Crawford had his scholarship transferred from the TIS MTB team to its road squad.

"I didn’t have the technical skill to compete at the highest level in most XC MTB races," Crawford said in an interview at the time, "so the choice to try the road became an obvious one after many frustrating, poor MTB results."

The youngster's swap to the black-top kicked off a rapid spurt in his career that landed Crawford in a British UCI Continental team just 12 months later. At 21 years of age, already in a European squad, the path to a ProTour contract looked clear, but it was in fact the beginning of a downward spiral in his career.

"Put simply, the team in its first year had a lot of problems. I tried to overlook these and use the opportunity to race," he explained of his time with the start-up squad. "In the end things became so bad that even the opportunity to race wasn't being provided, and even if it was, you would arrive at the race with completely the wrong mindset."

With seemingly no end in sight to the problems, both Crawford and then teammate Luke Bettany handed in their resignations and parted ways with the outfit. "It wasn't a good time for me or my teammates and I was glad to leave that team," reflected Crawford.

After returning home to Australia, Crawford suffered another setback ahead of the 2006 season when he was struck down with a bout of glandular fever. The illness prevented Crawford from having another crack at the European scene in 2006.

With positions for 2007 beginning to be filled and with little results from the past two season to stake a claim to a seat, it was desperation that drove Crawford to write to teams and ask for a chance.

"I had nothing in late October of 2006, no team, no clothing and no bike," explains Crawford of his situation. "I bought my own bike through my good mate Paul Richards at Highend Cycles, wore clothing from my old TIS scholarship and wrote to all the Asian teams [because I needed to live in Australia to continue my dental treatment for 2007]."

Just one of those teams responded to Crawford's pleas: Giant Asia Racing Team. The Asian outfit not only responded but was willing to give Crawford the chance he asked for. The team offered Crawford a bike and to cover his airfares to races in 2007: it might not sound like much, but to Crawford it was like winning the lottery.

"I then put together two months of the best training I could, coaching myself, no racing and no motor pacing because neither of these were available to me," explains Crawford. "I was driven by the small amount of hope Giant Asia had given me, and also I knew if I didn't do something with the opportunity they presented me, it would most likely be my last."

Crawford has repaid that opportunity with the sport's most valuable commodity: results. Due to his unorthodox training regime, Crawford came into his season-opening event, the Tour of Siam, unsure of his form relative to the other riders.

That uncertainty was quickly quashed on stage four of the event when Crawford rode home in second place, taking the general classification lead in the process. Crawford fended off attacks by some of Asia's finest riders for the following two stages to take victory at the six stage event in Thailand.

Crawford described the win as a surprise, but said given the form he was aiming for a top ten position at February's Le Tour de Langkawi. He had a strong ride in the early stages of the Malaysian event but come stage 7, he still sat outside the top 20, nearly five minutes behind event leader Anthony Charteau.

The following day on the grueling Genting Highlands stage the field was polarized as leading riders fell by the wayside on the 17 kilometre climb. While rivals struggled with heat exhaustion, the tenacious Tasmanian saw only opportunity ahead, taking advantage of the conditions to cross the line in fifth place.

That gutsy effort put Crawford into fifth outright, one place behind three time event winner David George, where he stayed to the end. His early season form has Crawford excited about his next big event - China's Tour of Qinghai Lake in July.

"In Langkawi and also Siam, I proved to myself I can ride a bike," said Crawford. "This might sound like a funny thing to say when I ride for a Continental team and have spent the past five years as a cross country mountain biker and later a road cyclist. But when you experience the difficulties and disappointment I have, you start to doubt your ability as a cyclist."

Those doubts have evaporated and while it may have been circumstantial that Crawford ended up taking on the Asian market, he believes the Asian route will grow into a popular option for both young and nearing retirement cyclists from Australia and New Zealand.

"Maybe for an older rider, in your 30s or coming to the end of your career, you can make a living here," said Crawford. "If you're young enough and you can come here and get results, especially in Langkawi and Qinghai Lake, show that you can perform, then people will pick you up."

"The road from Asia to the top level in Europe certainly isn't well worn, but I believe I can travel it," declares Crawford. "Time will tell, but I've produced a solid result against ProTour and some of the best Pro-Conti riders getting around, I think this is what matters regardless of which continent I produced it in."

The youngster set out in 2007 with the goal of impressing enough to take a sideways step in 2008 into a European Professional Continental squad. But following his early season form, Crawford is aiming for a seat one step high in 2008 - a ProTour seat.

"If you asked me two months ago do I want to ride for a ProTour or pro-conti team next year, I would of laughed and said 'yes, that's my dream'," stated Crawford. "I think every athlete aspires to perform at the highest level of their chosen sport, and I'm certainly no different. I would like to be offered a ProTour ride for next year, and if there are any teams interested, I would be very interested in talking with them."

Since he turned his first wheel in anger as a road-convert back in 2004, Crawford has had his fair share of up and downs. While Crawford admits the hard times had taken a toll on his passion for the sport he assures us the love has been rekindled and the fire burning brighter than ever before.

The determined Tasmanian concluded: "Great support from family and friends, combined with a whole lot of motivation to achieve my potential and an endless supply of fuel for the fire from a couple of inept teams makes me the rider I am today".

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