Champion System gets first taste of the Classics

Tackling the cobbles a hard task for Kiwi Continental team

For top guns like Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick Step), and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) the semi-classic Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a side dish in their classics campaign. For other riders it’s their first ever classic, a dive into the unknown.

At the start of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, a small team from New Zealand was getting their riders ready for the race. Most of the year the CCT p/b Champion System team is racing at lesser known events without TV coverage. The boys from Belgian manager Franky Van Haesebroucke were lining up with their camper and party tent next to the big team busses from the WorldTour teams. Clearly the budgets are different but it turns out their goals are completely different as well.

"It's not our goal – like many other Continental teams – to ride the Tour de France in a few years time. It's our goal to offer a chance to foreign riders to ride a Classics campaign. That's why we chose to ride under the flag of New Zealand," Van Haesebroucke said.

The manager rode throughout the world as a professional cyclist and used his contacts in New Zealand to found his team. "The federation helped to get the team up and running. There are a huge amount of great talents in New Zealand who are ready to take the step to come racing over here."

After Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the team is racing the Dorpenomloop Rucphen, two races in Drenthe, the Omloop van het Waasland in Wanzele, the Handzame Classic, Route Adélie de Vitré. "We’re racing mostly in Belgium, Netherlands and France. The riders are staying in Hof Ter Cammen in Oudenaarde. The MTN-Qhubeka riders are staying there too. It's more or less a bed and breakfast for riders," Van Haesebroucke explained.

The team is sponsored by Champion System, a Hong Kong-based company for custom apparel. The company-owned Pro Continental team pulled the plug after the 2013 season. Now the company sponsors Van Haesebroucke's team, which features riders from multiple countries including Japan, Denmark, France, Belgium, New Zealand, Great-Britain, Germany and Lithuania.

Three weeks ago Japanese rider Yuma Koishi won the Asian championships in the U23 category, held in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand.

"It was a big goal of mine," Koishi said. "There are a lot of UCI points at stake, and also Nations-points which is linked to a possible participation at the Tour de l'Avenir. I took my off-season early and kept my focus on that race. It was my first race of the season and I won. I'm really happy about that."

Koishi is supported by concrete specialist Nippo. Last year he rode for the Vini Fantini-Nippo team but since they became Pro Continental he opted to remain at Continental level in a team that is also sponsored by Nippo.

"We need talents who allow us to gain exposure and grow along with them. I expect the most from Morten Hardgaard," Van Haesebroucke said. "He only started racing recently but shows a lot of talent during training. He's very ambitious and once in a while he'll run into trouble during the races."

Morten Hardgaard is a 23-year-old former handball player from Denmark who opted to switch focus to cycling three years ago. "It will be tough today but I wanted a new challenge," Hardgaard said. "I always followed cycling and did it twice a week as training. I quickly started winning. I lost a lot of weight to become better. Last year I got some good results and now I'm here to learn. This is a big race but I feel good and hope to go out and show our colours. We have it great together in Oudenaarde. It's a good way to be connected as a team."

While flanked by Walter Maes, who previously worked as sports director for the Veranclassic team, Van Haesebroucke said most f his riders were competing in their first race of the season, but they couldn't pass on the chance to are in the semi-classic.

"Walter and I have been in cycling for many years and have our connections," he said. "Explaining the organisers about our vision is an important task. I would be able to get some well-sounding names who will never again win a race but their name might persuade an organiser to contract us. We come with young talents. Hopefully the organisers will one day be proud to have their name on their list of winners."

In Kuurne the day ended with mixed emotions. In the camper the riders were exchanging experiences with a big smile on their face while Franky VanHaesebroucke was organizing the post-race clean up. " We ran into all sorts of hiccups that ruined the race. Luckily at least Tom Goovaerts made the cut and rode in the first group. In the hill zone Hardgaard broke all the spokes from his rear wheel, claiming Gorik Gardeyn (Veranclassic-Ekoi) rode into it. One of our Japanese riders lost his saddle. Another rider had a snapped chain," Van Haesebroucke said.

Clearly the participation in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was part of a learning process.

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