By Greg Johnson
Australian cyclist Jai Crawford has signed to ride for Asian Continental team Marco Polo in 2008, in a deal that will see him help guide the future of Chinese cyclists. The Tasmanian, who put in some impressive performances with rival Asian squad Giant A.R.T. during 2007, will relocate to China for 2008 while riding for the outfit.
"Marco Polo will give me the chance to race in Europe as well as the two big Asian races, Tour de Langkawi and Tour of Qinghai Lake," said Crawford. "I couldn't move on to the higher level I had hoped my results in 2007 would allow but it has been an incredibly difficult year for many riders to find teams so I took heart from the four contract offers I attracted."
Crawford made a strong return to the sport in 2007, having been sidelined for much of 2006 after suffering a serious bout of glandular fever. The rider signaled his intentions early in the season by winning Thailand's Tour of Siam in January, before storming up Genting Highlands in Malaysia's Tour de Langkawi to secure his fifth overall placing.
"Marco Polo may be a Continental team but it is absolutely a step forward, and at the age of 24 I certainly still have aspirations to ride at the highest level," added Crawford, signaling that he still has European ambitions. "I feel Marco Polo gives me the best platform to showcase my climbing ability and continue to develop as a rider whilst still fulfilling my duties to the team."
After riding for little more than a bike and some airfares in 2007, Crawford will receive a salary in addition to his accommodation in China next season. While in China, Crawford will be responsible for assisting the team with the development of its Chinese riders.
"I am looking forward to working with the Chinese riders at Marco Polo, I will be at the training camps to give some tips from my training experience and ultimately help them achieve results in races," he said. "I will also relish the opportunity to help Trek China continue the establishment of their leading brand in the Chinese market."
Crawford has already been impressed by the Chinese squad. The 24 year-old is expected to complete a programme next year spread across both Europe and Asia. "I am already impressed with the professionalism of Dutch Team Manager Gudo Kramer and his assistants," said Crawford. "They have made me feel welcome and appreciated as a rider, two important and valuable emotions to have at any team. My decision to sign with Marco Polo could be considered a little out of left field, given I will be based in China next year, but I am confident I will have a better race programme, the best equipment and a balanced lifestyle living with my girlfriend.
"I have high expectations of myself next year and a debt to pay for Marco Polo's good faith, I plan on fulfilling both," he concluded.