Thursday, 9 December 2010

Marco Polo, the story - part 1

The Marco Polo cycling team are one of the most unusual and interesting outfits in the peleton, and have had a very interesting couple of years – Steve Thomas traces their voyage of discovery (pardon the pun).

It’s been more than 10 whole years now since the novel and fun idea of the Marco Polo “travelling cycling” team was conceived, now a decade on things have changed some – as they do with so many things in life; an idea which begins as fun doesn’t simply stand still, or at least not if it’s a good idea which is meant to be. Things develop and it becomes more serious, but even so the Marco Polo boys still retain ha pioneering fun spirit, which after all is what bike racing is all about..

The whole Marco Polo journey begun way back in 1998; with a chance meeting between Kiwi Nathan Dahlberg, Dutchman Remko Kramer and Dane Anno Pederson. The three were racing in the Sea Otter Classic in California,  and they got to talking; Dahlberg was a seasoned ex pro and former 7-Eleven Tour de France rider, and was making something of a low key comeback following a bad accident, while the other two were on a racing and travelling holiday. They got to musing about adventure and racing, and the idea of combining the two, after all there is a whole wide world of cycling out there, way beyond Europe there were delicious and exotic races just waiting to be ridden. Thus the plan to combine together to go and ride these races was born.
Over the next couple of years, along with Remko’s brother Gudo, the original four man “unofficial” Marco Polo Team hit the road, with the spirit of the great explorer very much to the forefront. Successful racing ventures in Uruguay, China and Pakistan lead to talks of bigger things, and possible an international team of like-minded people.
Despite big plans and proposals, it took a little while for the idea and philosophy of the team to take off in a commercially viable way, but by the year 2000 things were starting to happen. The Beijing Olympics had been scheduled, and for sure China was going to be gunning for gold through their various Sports Institutes, and would be to be keen to promote cycling alongside the other sports, and with their Asian fascination, ideals, and associations it seemed like a natural and wise home ground for the team. But with such a cultural gap between the west and Chinese society the team met half way, on the doorstep of China by registering the team in Hong Kong, and setting up an alliance with the Hong Kong Cycling Federation which started in 2001, the team was now official.
This was a team like no other, and with different ideals, as Remko explains; “Our initial idea was one of adventure, and to ride exotic races. We set up the Marco Polo Cycling Club on the Internet, for like-minded people, and have made a lot of supporters that way. Sponsors come and go – and cycling teams change, which we wanted to avoid. We wanted it to have longevity, like football clubs; there are always Barcelona’s and Liverpool’s, no matter who the sponsor is.” But things didn’t stop there; as with any travel minds had been broadened, and things looked a little different; “We saw some amazing talent out their, riders who were physically great, and wondered why they didn’t get to Europe, they had the ability, and we wanted to help them get there. The pro peleton is all white, and there were some serious talents out there, we wanted to give them a chance.”
The teams initial phase of collaboration with Hong Kong lead to them sending mixed teams for periods of time to race in Europe, with considerable success from riders such as Kam Po Wong, and in their first official year the team won three UCI ranked tours; Qinghai, Morocco and Burkina Faso; “Many of the riders had it physically, but they really lacked experience, and I think they need a long time to learn that. With riders from places such as Eritrea and Mongolia, they have only ever raced in small groups, often on main roads and without too many corners, and also often very hilly. Throw them into a 150 rider kermesse in Belgium and this becomes a problem.”
A team house was set up in the south of Holland, to wean riders in to European racing. Things were hotting up, but the team retained its club and flexible ideal. It had progressed from a four men in a camper style of adventure to a serious entity, and indeed a great hope for Asian riders, and the only hope of getting anywhere near European racing for most of them.
With the ever changing world of UCI rules offering little leeway to such set ups the team had to sharpen its act and register as a TT3 in 2003, and shortly after contacts lead to the team forging closer ties with China, and ultimately registering there.
As we al know China is big news, in every sense; economically, and also ever more so in sporting terms. But, as I can testify things are very different in China compared to Europe, a different system over the past half a century has lead to a totally different way of life, attitude to life and sense of priority; “In Europe riders have a passion for the sport, they do it because they love the sport and want to race and succeed. If they don’t, then they don’t last into the senior ranks. In China it is very different; everything is administered provincially, and cyclists don’t just become cyclists, they are tested and selected through sporting institutes. This means they usually have the physical ability, but often without the passion, and they only ever progress to a certain level, and for many of them that’s enough. They get a nice comfortable lifestyle, and don’t need to worry too much. But for us that was not enough, we had to take on the task of finding those who really had the will and passion to make it in Europe.”

Things have opened up a great deal in China in recent years; it’s nothing like it was 20 years back, so it’s not as difficult as it once was for such athletes and teams to make unions; “There are some fantastic Chinese riders out there, and some with the right mentality. There is a lot of red tape involved in getting them on board, as we have to deal with the provincial institutes, but they are generally very happy to give the riders the chance.” 
As the worlds most populous country, and being well on it’s way to becoming the worlds most dominant economy China is a huge target for western commercial interests too, especially as it’s wide open in terms of opportunity due to the years of repression. This has not escaped the bike business, how does the song go; “There are nine million bicycles in Beijing…” and 1.3 billion people in China, who will at some time or another all want new bicycles as the economy thrives and their pockets become fuller. Most of these new bikes will actually be produced in Taiwanese China, and forwarded to foreign bike companies, such as Trek, a past major sponsor of the Marco Polo Team – Trek China that is.

To be continued

For details of the team and the revamped club check out