In a surprising and classy twist to the show young 20-year-old Hong Kong national team rider Ki Ho Choi turned the tables on his elders, and highly experienced rivals, to take the overall victory in this year's Tour de Korea, a UCI Asia Tour race.
The nine stage Korean race always features a strong international field, with teams from the UK, Australia, New Zealand the USA and all lining up against the leading Asian registered teams in a hilly and chilly race. The main fight for the GC had been expected to come from the likes of Team Type 1, Rapha-Condor Sharp, and the Tabriz Petrochemical Team from Iran, who feature a number ex-ProTour riders on their roster, and are often the dominant force in Asian racing.
The opening stage saw a six rider break go clear with TPT's German strongman Tobias Erler taking a convincing stage win, with his 'climbing strong' teammate Markus Eibegger not far behind. To all intents and purposes it seemed as though the Iranian squad had set the mould for the race, and were as dominant as ever in controlling the following six stages.
Following the tour's rest day the race headed north, along a mountainous near 200-km stage. Freezing rains decimated the field, with some 30 riders failing to make the finish. With immense climbing power to hand, the Iranians had been expected to shred the race on this stage, but instead their two leading riders were to falter a little, allowing near-unknown Hong Kong rider Choi to take the race lead by 37 seconds from the Austrian rider Eibegger, who rode for the Pro-Tour Footon-Servetto team last season.
Even in Asia few people give the HK team a second glance on the road – apart from their start rider Wong Kam Po that is, who has won just about every race there is in Asia, as well as a World title on the track in 2007. But times are changing, as Hong Kong's Kwok Ho Ting demonstrated with a superb victory in this year scratch race at the World Track Championships, and now they have another rising star named Choi.
The Hong Kong Cycling Team is state funded, and run very much along the lines of a pro team, with a small but select bunch of elite riders, who are backed by a younger feeder stream. Choi was first courted by the HK team three years back, clearly marked out by his climbing skills, and was sent to the UCI World Cycling Centre last year, where he achieved bag full of decent results in stage races.
But as he proved in Korea, when he handled and retained the race lead, there's more to him than a skinny pair of legs and big lungs; Choi won the Madison at the Beijing Track World Cup back in December (teamed with Kwok), becoming the fist Asian's ever to do so at that level. He also took a silver medal in the Individual Pursuit at the 2010 Asian Games.
At 38-years-old, maybe it's time for Wong Kam Po to finally pass the reins on to the new generation of Hong Kong riders.
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