They take cycling very seriously in Korea. At national level, the sport is vibrant, encouraged by the government and characterised by intense racing and a healthy peloton. On the continental scene, South Korean riders are also developing a taste for victory.
In the Nations Ranking of the UCI Asia Tour, South Korea lies in seventh position with 273.25 points, sandwiched between Uzbekistan (312 points) and China (168 points), although far behind the ranking leader, the Islamic Republic of Iran (653 points). In the past South Korea finished fourth in the table in 2010 and sixth in 2009, 2011 and 2012. The highest-placed South Korean rider in the individual ranking is Sung Baek Park (KSPO), 26th with 61 points, a considerable distance behind the Colombian rider Julian Arredondo of the Nippo-De Rosa team who heads the standing.
But these basic statistics do not do justice to the massive investment of the Korea Cycling Federation. The scale of ambitions becomes apparent when considering the development plan for road cycling. For example, South Korea has three UCI Continental teams (third division) in the UCI Asia Tour, the same number as Iran, and only surpassed by China and Japan. This means that the country's best riders, and in particular young riders, can more easily access international races to develop their skills.
"Cycling is not a very popular sport in Korea at the moment but the public is becoming increasingly interested and we believe there will be more teams, including UCI Continental teams", explains EJ Koh, the Federation's International Coordinator.
A total of 22 riders is employed by the three teams (Geumsan Insam Cello, KSPO, Seoul Cycling Team) on generous contracts, getting the chance to participate in the sport full-time and optimising performance. The remuneration of the best cyclists is one of the strong points of the system introduced by the government and the Federation, and this is true not just of the UCI Continental Teams. The 15 or so clubs spread around the country pay their best riders an annual income of 30,000-70,000 US dollars, giving them the opportunity to devote themselves to sport.
The Under-23 and Elite peloton is particularly healthy and the contests to win national races can be very spectacular.
Keirin racing, very popular in South Korea, offers a comfortable living and many athletes apply to join the Korean Keirin School, in Yeongju-city.
Ho-Sung Cho, 39, is a rider whose career illustrates the ambitions of a whole people. A good rider on the road, he dedicated himself to the Keirin in his early 30s for a period of five seasons. While nurturing Olympic track ambitions, he achieved podium places in the UCI World Cup on three occasions and won three gold medals at the Asian Games. To be at his best for the London Olympic Games he trained at the World Cycling Centre in 2012. Now he has returned to road racing and competes for the Seoul Cycling Team. His devastating sprint has already seen him secure three wins in the 2012-2013 UCI Asia Tour: two stages of the Tour of Thailand and a stage of the Tour of Korea.
"Currently, South Korea makes a lot of effort trying to shine on the world stage!", he says. "It's not easy but the perspective to participate one day in the Tour de France is a challenge for our riders."
A fantastic model for the younger generation, Ho-Sung Cho dedicates himself to being both a rider and a coach.
Following his example, other South Koreans have shone in the UCI Asia Tour, such as three members of the KSPO team, Park Sung Baek (a stage win in the Tour of Japan, general classification of the Tour of Korea), Seo Joon Yong (stage win in the Tour of Korea, second in the Tour of Japan time trial) and the youthful Jung Ji Min, aged just 22 (second on a stage of the Tour of Langkawi).
South Korea is delighted for these riders to lead the way but is actively preparing the next generation. As EJ Koh explains: "Korea Cycling Federation invests a lot in young talent identification so that we can take the next step more quickly." Already very well structured, competitive and focused on development, cycling in "The Land of the Morning Calm" has an exciting future ahead of it.
Photo: Ho-Sung Cho on the podium with his little girl after his stage victory on the 2013 Tour of Korea (credit: Mokhriz Aziz/Cycling Asia)