There was still one WorldTour rider competing in road racing last week as Orica-BikeExchange's Cheung King Lok was part of the Hong Kong national team lined up in the Tour of Fuzhou, a race in which he made the top 10 overall one year ago. But for him, his first road race since the Rio Olympics meant the start of the 2017 season as he prepares for the switch from road racing to the track.
Cheung won the bronze medal at the world championships in Cali, Colombia, in the scratch race in 2014. He's expected to take part in the UCI Track World Championships on home turf in Hong Kong (12-16 April). In preparation, he will likely take part in World Cup events in Cali (17-19 February) and Los Angeles (25-26 February).
"I'm not a real WorldTour rider yet as I still have to share my time between road and track, between Hong Kong team and Orica-BikeExchange but I hope to be more of a road rider in the future," he told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Fuzhou.
The 25-year-old was the second Hong Kong rider recruited by Orica team manager Shayne Bannan after Choi Ki Ho three years ago, but the winner of the inaugural Tour of Fuzhou in 2012 decided to quit cycling instead of turning pro at 22. Bannan renewed his ties with Hong Kong head coach Shen Jinkang, known as "coach Shen" after hosting his pupil Wang Kam Po years ago in Adelaide.
"My jump to the pro ranks is the three-party agreement between myself, Orica and coach Shen," Cheung explained.
"One year ago, for sure I wouldn't have imagined what would happen to me in 2016. But the Asian championship [in cold conditions in Japan at the end of January] changed my destiny. I won both the road race and the time trial and I got connected to Orica-GreenEdge [his pro contract started on 15 March]."
"I really wanted to join the team to improve my cycling and have a chance to discover the WorldTour. I've been in Europe for three months. I haven't started a WorldTour race but I've experienced category 1 races like the Tour de Yorkshire, which was an eye-opener on how hard European racing is. I got dropped halfway into the last stage won by Thomas Voeckler. It was up and down all day and 200km long but just to finish the race gave me a really good feeling. That was a challenge."
Cheung, 25, also enjoyed playing his part in two victories by his teammates: Michael Matthews at Vuelta La Rioja in April and Jens Keukeleire in stage 1 of the Tour of Slovenia. "I've tried to help the team," he said. "I've learned how to do that in the Hong Kong team but on my first weekend of racing with Orica at GP Miguel Indurain and Vuelta La Rioja, I've had the honor to know Mathew Hayman. He's a very good model to learn from. It was his come-back after recovering from a crash. We paced together for Matthews and one week later, he won Paris-Roubaix. Very impressive!"
The Hong Kong cycling community announced Cheung's transfer to Orica-GreenEdge (now BikeExchange) as a way to prepare for the Olympic Games. "I'm not a pure climber and I rode only half of the race so I felt like I failed," he remembered, "but I kept good memories of the event. All the big names were there! It gave me a unique chance to meet my teammate Esteban Chaves. We went for a training ride together before the Games.
"I need more experience in pro racing and maybe I'll become a very good rider in the future. Before I became the Asian champion, I didn't think I could achieve that but I worked hard for it. So maybe one day I'll also become a world champion on the track like my compatriots Wang Kam Po [in Palma de Mallorca in 2007] and Kwok Ho Ting [beating Elia Viviani in the scratch race in Appeldoorn in 2011]."