Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Catching up with Team Champion System, fusion, not confusion..

It’s amazing when you look at how much the colour and culture of bike racing has evolved over time. Go back 100 years and you’d really be struggling to find any pro road races or racers outside of the main central European nations; although at the same time there was a thriving six-day pro track racing scene in full flight in north America, with its riders being some of the highest paid athletes of the day
Hurl a couple of World Wars and the Great Depression into the equation and by the late 40’s the six day’s had fizzled out the entire sport of cycling was Eurocentric again – and when we say Eurocentric that doesn’t include Britain; back then it was almost improper to hear the English language spoken in the pro peleton, French was the accepted linguistic currency of bike racing.
It was around that time that the great East-West divide came around too, splitting the western world in two; the communist east, and the capitalist west, which is how it stayed for around 40 years. On the eastern side of the Berlin Wall the Soviet backed nations created a whole new society, with selective “sourcing” and training of promising athletes, which fuelled the huge divide between amateur and professional sports. Top bike riders were either from the west and turned professional, or from the east and were supported by the state.
In the late 80’s the Eastern Block begun to crumble, and the Berlin Wall was torn apart by peoples divided for 4 decades. This historic “re-revolution” eventually took away that distinct pro-am dividing line, and former Eastern Block cyclists were allowed to seek out pro careers – including Team Champion System’s own Jann Kirsiupuu.
Strangely enough this was also the time that riders from the non-mainstream European nations also broke into the pro sport, tearing down cycling’s own historic walls and barriers. Team 7-11 made it to the Tour de France, and for the first time in the sport’s history an English speaking rider won the Tour too (Greg Lemond). Cycling had finally become a truly “international” sport.
Some 25 years on since that first ground breaking Tour de France win by Lemond comes Team Champion System, a team which hopes to provide a learning system and stepping stone for Asian riders to follow in the footsteps of those early rebellious pioneers, and turn the sport into a global one, not simply an “international” sport.
There have been a small number of Asian riders crackling through into the lower echelons of European racing, with some even making the head of the pack too. But, they’ve mostly had to crack the French whip along the way, and that whip is slowly losing its edge.
When you pull a team roster together that includes riders from extremely diverse backgrounds, countries and cultures it can be a daunting task mix all of the ingredients together to come up with the perfect dish. We spoke to Team Champion System manager Markus Kammermann to see how things are coming together.
Although French is still the “official” (UCI) language of the sport, there are only a few team members who actually speak it, so how do the riders and staff communicate? “Like in many places in the world now we use English. There are only a couple of riders who can’t speak much English, but they’re both working on it. It’s natural that riders communicate with each other in their native languages, but it can create small groups and divisions, so we try and work out rooming lists so as to keep good morale, and also to avoid any splits too.”
With riders coming from Hong Kong, Estonia, Australia, Switzerland and other European nations too how do basic cultural issues pan-out? “So far it’s all been smooth, but what is strange is that these cultural differences are not only between Asians and Europeans, they can be even more noticeable between the European riders themselves.”
With the Germanic liking of sausages, the Swiss cheese dipping of fondues, Aussies and their barbies and the dim sums of Hong Kong it’s hard to imagine catering for the pallets of such a mixed bunch of athletes, each with their own (and often specific) dietary requirements; how do you manage menus? “When the riders are together it’s mostly in training or racing environments, and their main focus is on getting enough carbohydrates, and they don’t seem to mind how they do this. At the training camp ate almost all rice and noodle dishes, but I do know that many of the riders prefer to eat pasta, including some of the Hong Kong riders. At many of the Asian races the organisers also provide all of the food, buffet style for all.”
When it comes to fuelling riders during a race it’s vital to get things just right, as not only could they potentially run dry, they could rapidly develop stomach problems. Experienced European riders often tend to prefer eating natural treats such as cakes and sandwiches over gels and bars, how have the riders differed here? “The first thing is that they don’t like bananas, which all cyclists usually like. Jann will eat the odd one, but that’s it. They all tend to go for gels and energy bars, preferring efficiency and delivery to taste. But, maybe when we get to races over 200km they will want to vary it. When it comes to drinking the Hong Kong riders really like Pocari Sweat, while the others like to mix water with energy drinks. Jann drinks a lot more water than the others too.”
How different are the riders (some being almost 20 years older than their counterparts) when it comes to basic racing and tactical sense? “Firstly they have a lot of mutual respect, which is good. Jann obviously has a whole lot of experience and is very good at being in the right place at the right time. But the Hong Kong guys are tactically very good too, especially Wu Kin San, who was very well trained by the HK National Team. He’s really amazed me with his tactical ability. I’ve even got them helping Deon Locke with advice during the races (as he’s very fit, but a relatively recent convert from triathlon to cycling). Jann also has a very good understanding of the Hong Kong guys, he came through the old Soviet system, which is quite similar to their national team set up.”
This coming weekend the team makes its European season debut in Switzerland, with a fully Euro line up. Tune in again in a few days to see how things went.

You can follow the team at www.teamchampionsystem.com