Tales from the Peloton, March 4, 2008
Following on from part one of our tale of the evolution of the Marco Polo team, Cyclingnews' Steve Thomas picks up the story as the whole game gets serious.
For a few years major teams have been keen to take on an Asian rider, often as a PR exercise, though things have rarely gone beyond the stagiaire level. But standards in the east have risen rapidly, and the leading Chinese Marco Polo team rider, Fuyu Li was, and still is, at the head of things.
With sponsors, and particularly Trek China, interested in increasing their brand awareness in China, the relationship that started with bike sponsorship of the team lead to the arrival of the first ever Chinese ProTour rider in 2007; Fuyu Li, who spent last season with the Discovery Channel team. "Not only did Trek show a real interest in having Li on board, it seemed the Discovery Channel themselves also had serious interests in China, and so we negotiated a deal," explained team founder Remko Kramer. But we all know the ultimate fate of the world's leading team.
With the dissolution of the Discovery Channel team, Li was one of the unfortunate casualties of the team's demise. Left without a contract for 2008, he found his way back "home" with Marco Polo, and duly won a stage in the Jelayah Malaysia, the team's first major race of the season. "We feel sorry for Fuyu that he had to take this step back in level. We believe he deserved a future in the ProTour," lamented the team management. "He has grown as a rider and also proved last year that he is strong enough to compete at ProTour level.
"On the other hand this offers chances for him to plan his training and racing towards the Beijing Olympics, which would probably not be possible in any Pro Continental or ProTour team. In the Jelayah Tour of Malaysia he already showed he is on schedule. He won a stage and rode a few days in the leader's jersey."
The deal between Marco Polo and Trek and the Discovery Channel led to the team becoming closely related to it's illustrious older brother, and indeed gave longer term hopes of becoming a feeder team for young Asian riders.
"It gave the team the budget to run a great racing and training program, and also to get the complete team together in the beginning of the year," explained Kramer about last year's promising increase in stature for the squad. "We also had several months of racing in Europe, which is perfect for the development of Asian riders. It also gave Marco Polo Cycling the perfect connection towards the ProTour."
Sadly the withdrawal of sponsorship from Discovery Channel, and the subsequent end of the ProTour team also affected the Marco Polo set up. "Since Tailwind Sports Management decided to step out of cycling we had been talking to several interested new parties for 2008," said Kramer. "Good talks, but due to various reasons they did not lead to a new main sponsor for the team. We almost had to step back another level.
"At that moment it was fantastic to hear that Trek bicycles (who have supported us now for three years) wanted to increase their support (Trek is title sponsor in 2008), meaning the team could continue at a high level. And at the same time we keep looking for opportunities to grow to the next level by approaching new potential sponsors. As we can also see in this Tour de Langkawi, Asian cycling has come to the point where several riders can be competitive at the world's highest level. We hope to be part of this development and have Marco Polo Cycling racing in the Tour de France one day."
A few years back the idea of an Asian rider competing in the Tour de France seemed crazy, and the prospect of an entire Asian team in the race would of been laughed at; but times they are a-changing. A big part of the process of getting Asian riders to the top level of the sport is based around teaching them the basics that often come as second nature to European riders. This year Marco polo made a big step in helping their "grooming process" by signing the experienced professional Leon Van Bon to lead the team in his last season before retirement.
"Leon van Bon wanted to decide for himself on how to finish his career. And racing in the Trek – Marco Polo Cycling Team offered him the chance to have an interesting racing program and also to take up the challenge to work with talented riders from Asia. Leon wants to pass on his experience to the younger riders and help them to have a successful career at the top level. We believe that the development of Asian talents needs the experience and influence from western riders and management. Therefore we always have a mix of riders to have the best balance in the team."
The whole Marco Polo idea started around a cycling adventure, and even though the adventure now thrives at a higher level, just about anyone can be a part of things by joining he Marco Polo Cycling Club, although there have been some complications recently. " We have had trouble with the hosting of the club's former website. So the club/community of cyclists and fans from all over the world has been off the air for a while.
"At the moment they can only follow the news from the team at the team website: www.dcmpteam.com and the new team website www.marcopolocyclingteam.com . But we are building a new platform now and hope to launch the new website with club part soon now. It is great to have so many enthusiast members all over the world. The blue cycling jerseys are riding on all continents and in so many countries. And we hope to have them all together again at the Internet soon."