By Jean-François Quénet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Lee Won Jae, the 21 year-old Korean cyclist who walks around in airports with the fancy jacket of the Bahamas, created some history in Asian cycling when he became only the fourth rider of the continent to win a stage in Le Tour de Langkawi, on day 3 in Banting. Since the race started in 1996, only Kam Po Wong from Hong Kong in 2000 and the Fukushima brothers, in 2005 and 2007, respectively, got to score in Asia's most prestigious stage race, but they were all established riders already, especially Koji and Shinichi in their 30s.
The most interesting is probably to realize that South Korea has a lot to offer to the world of cycling, not only one prospect. Park Sung Baek, 23, has made himself seen a lot in sprints and breakaways. The whole Seoul Cycling team has put its mark on the race when they captured the top three places in the third intermediate sprint of stage 7 in Pekan, with Kim Gu Hyeon, Park Seon Ho and Korea national champion Yoo Ki Hong. Kim, who broke away solo, is only 19 years of age.
"This is just a start for us," Park told Cyclingnews at the end of Le Tour de Langkawi. "We need more experience and training. Step by step, we want to improve and compete in the Tour de France, Giro and Vuelta." Last year, he spent five months at the UCI world cycling center in Aigle, Switzerland. He won't return to Europe since his Seoul Cycling team is now registered as a continental team and can offer him a decent race program. "Until last year, we had to go racing abroad through the Korean cycling federation and that was too complicated, so we decided to set our team ourselves," Park explained.
He shows a strong personality when he talks about his sport. He doesn't have any good word to say about the presence of his supposed-to-be idol Lance Armstrong at the Tour of Korea last year. "He disappointed me," Park said. "He was always late at interviews, he showed up on a mountain bike at a criterium with shorts, a t-shirt and normal shoes. We couldn't get a chance to talk to him, but he received a lot of appearance money. That's not what Korean cycling needed."
Lee and Park stated that they usually don't race in July because they are busy watching the Tour de France. "Every day we download the videos from the internet and my favourite rider is Michael Rasmussen," Lee explained. "It gives us the ambition to join the Europe Tour and win races over there. Cycling is our job, my hobby is watching movies and play games." While Lee is a country boy from Ga-pyeong, a one-hour drive away from Seoul, Park defines himself as "a fan of city lifestyle". His girlfriend Diani Lee is a Malaysian equestrian athlete. "We met at the Asian Games in Doha in December 2006", he said. "She couldn't speak Korean yet and my English isn't good but we understood each other with body language."
Park also explained: "Cycling isn't very famous in Korea yet but we have a strong keirin circuit, just like in Japan with people betting. We aren't used to do more than 15 races per year, but we try our best every time we get a chance to compete." There is more to be seen from Park, Lee and Co at the Tour of Taiwan (starts March 9), the Tour of Korea and the Tour of East Java in the coming weeks for the next appointments of the Asia Tour, where cycling is really booming as a new sport.