On the slopes of the Cameron Highlands, the Malaysian equivalent of the Col du Tourmalet, the gathered fans were treated to a wonderful surprise when they saw an unknown climber, Chinaâ€™s Wang Meiyin (Hengxiang Cycling Team), come into view. The favourites, who crossed the finish three minutes later, were just as astonished. â€śMaybe they made a mistake and didnâ€™t try to catch me earlier because they donâ€™t know me or they thought they could catch me,â€ť supposed the winner, who had made a courageous escape from a morning breakaway group.
It was February 23rd and Wang won all the jerseys possible. Although he lost his lead in the classification two days later at the top of the Genting Highlands, the Malaysian Alpe dâ€™Huez, he nevertheless made his mark. He became the first rider from the Republic of China to win a stage of this prestigious event, 13 years after Hong Konâ€™s Wong Kam-po.
â€śI was lucky,â€ť he said immediately afterwards. Second in the 2012 Chinese Championships road race and third in the time trial, 24-year-old Wang had never had the opportunity to show his true colours at an international level. A good puncher and above all an attacker at heart, he competed in the first Tour of Beijing in 2011 wearing the national jersey, and was involved in a long breakaway in the fourth stage. His success in Malaysia is by far the highlight of his career so far and will earn him a considerable number of points in the UCI Asia Tour ranking to be published on March 25th.
â€śWhat he did is really a surprise,â€ť concedes the teamâ€™s spokesman Wang Yue. â€śThe Tour of Langkawi is a big race with a lot of strong teams and riders. Weâ€™re learning a lot here.â€ť
This revelation brings back memories of Huang En (Max Success Sports), winner of the ADC Tour of Vietnam at the end of December. And above all, as far as can be remembered, the first Chinese athlete to win a UCI event outside his own country.
The Chinese teams are on a mission in the UCI Asia Tour. â€śThe Tour de Langkawi is our first international event and we hope to compete in others this year, as well as the Chinese Games, which will be a major goal,â€ť explains Wang Yue. Hengxiang Cycling Team has made contact with European organisers with a view to competing in Europe, maybe in 2014.
The Continental Team (third division) has been building up little by little since 2011 and continues its programme of training young talents. It has given a chance to 10 riders aged between 19 and 25, led by Li Fuyu. They come from the province of Shandong, situated in northern China but south of Beijing. â€śThe team has started with a core group of riders from this province and hopes to develop naturally into a higher level team and possibly become at least a Pro Continental (second division) team in the future,â€ť says Todd McKean, the teamâ€™s adviser.
Other Chinese teams could follow in their footsteps. After Huang En in Vietnam and Wang Meiyin at Langkawi, other new names could appear in the UCI Asia Tour. Different provinces as well as Chinaâ€™s Cycling Association have decided to increase their presence on the international scene, the major goals being the Road World Championships and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Mirroring the policy of the Hengxiang Cycling Team, two priorities have been pinpointed in order to stimulate Chinese cycling: to coach young talents and increase participation in international events. Todd McKean observes: â€śIf you look at where the sport has come in China, from where the bike was only used to go to the market, to a place where it is used for recreation and sport... I think there is every reason to be confident that a Chinese team can reach that level.â€ť
The China Cycling Association has no less than nine teams registered in the third division for 2013. This represents numerous possibilities for Chinese riders to accelerate their development and for the country to win points that will help it qualify for the World Championships.
Photo: Wang Meiyin takes Chinaâ€™s first-ever stage victory in the Tour de Langkawi (credit: Mokhriz Aziz/Cycling Asia).