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Singapore Cycling Federation: More local races the way to improve Singapore cyclists

SINGAPORE: In some countries, grassroots competitive cycling events are held regularly as part of efforts to develop the sport.

However, Singapore’s lack of road space means that only a handful of such competitions are held in the country, even as cycling gains popularity.

Earlier this month, about 6,400 people took part in the non-competitive OCBC Cycle event, which mainly consisted of long-distance fun rides around the Singapore Sports Hub to the southern part of Singapore via the East Coast Parkway.

Hosting such an event involves a number of challenges, not least obtaining permission to temporarily close a number of roads.

On the competitive side of road cycling, where the number of participants will be significantly lower, there are red-tape and cost factors to overcome, which means only a handful of races are being held.

Six national-level road races have been organized in Singapore this year, but that is not enough exposure for the National Training Squad, according to Dr Hing Siong Chen, who is the Singapore Cycling Federation’s (SCF) Honourary-Secretary: “(Regular competitions) are important, because without races I can’t bring them to the SEA Games or Olympics.”

“I need races, placings and timings to justify to Sport Singapore that these guys can qualify for the SEA Games. It’s a matter of getting more and more exposure, more races for them.”

The demand is such that some have even tried to hold unsanctioned races in the past to address the pent-up demand, and have faced the consequences for it.

Regional riders from Cambodia, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia taking part in the OCBC SEA Speedway Challenge at Kallang on Saturday (Oct 1). (Photo: OCBC Cycle)

Some of the official races this year include the OCBC Speedway Challenge held on Oct 1, the OCBC Cycle National Road Championships in May and the OCBC Cycle Road Race in March.

GROWING DEMAND FOR CYCLING

As the owner of events company Cycosports, Australian Kent McCallum recently helped to host the Seletar Aerospace Park Criterium in August. He noted the difficulty in securing the roads he needed just for a single grassroots-level race: “Certainly there’s a gap here in Singapore as there’s the issue of getting road closures approved. If we can get the URA and their help in maybe getting a criterium (a race on a closed circuit) organized on a car-free day, then we can bring it down to the prime city centre and everyone can watch.

“Our event (was) held near Seletar Airport, but if its downtown I’m sure we’ll have a fantastic audience there as well.”

Local competitive cyclists taking part in the Seletar Aerospace Criterium race back in August. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

McCallum added: “If you go to Australia or even the US, every week there are races. It could be on a Tuesday night, or a Thursday. There’ll be races for all the categories. In Malaysia, in Johor Bahru for instance, there was the JCM criterium race in mid-August.”

SCF’s Dr Hing was among those who took part in August’s Seletar Criterium, and he observed the growing interest in the sport of road cycling at the grassroots level: “Nowadays, you’ll be aware that cycling is a growing sport. There are lots of recreational cyclists, plus there are new linkways in newer housing estates that cater for bicycles. I think cycling would be the new mode of transport, a green mode of transport.”

He added: “As more of these emerge, there will be a new market for racing, for community rides, for charity rides. So moving forward, we do hope to see more events and we hope to organize more as well.”

When the SCF’s new executive committee took office in February last year, its immediate task was to rejuvenate Singapore’s cycling scene from the ground up. Dr Hing recalled some of the challenges: “If you remember, last year there were no races at all, and even the year before that, there were zero races at the national level. We actually went through a whole year’s calendar with not a single race.

“It was a very dark time for us because we couldn’t train anyone. There was nowhere to race, it’s like if you don’t take exams, you won’t know how good you are.”

Jumpstarting the competitive ecosystem with national races was one thing. Getting stakeholders to chip in to organize their own approved events was another challenge altogether, and so far only Cycosports has stepped up to organize a sanctioned grassroots race.

Said Dr Hing: “ (The Seletar criterium) was the first race that was held by the grassroots. The SCF merely acted as a sanctioning body, and were not involved in organizing it. (Cycosports) of course did such a great job with the organisation.”

He added: “Initially, (Cycosports) had problems raising funds as there were no title sponsors and they were in the red. So we wrote out to the community and the clubs, they came back very positively with cash donations. The participation numbers were fantastic, as we eventually had over 250 riders who took part.”

HOLDING RACES IN UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES

National female rider Serene Lee won the Women’s Open category at the Seletar Criterium last August. It was her first major race back in Singapore, six months after her return from undergraduate studies in Melbourne.

As a PhD student now studying Exercise Physiology in Singapore, Lee recalled her varsity racing days abroad: “In Australia, during the summer there will be around four to seven criterium races per week. Sometimes, you could even have two criteriums happening at the same time in two different locations.

“They’ll close a stretch of road along the industrial estates during certain times and have marshals to block off the roads and put cones to mark out the circuit. They’d also have winter road racing (in Australia) every week.”

She added: “There were also club races, state races and inter-state races as well as national races. So there’s something for everybody.”

While the 28-year-old recognises that it will be a tough ask to get road-closure clearance with the same frequency in Singapore, Lee suggested that having races on private roads could be the answer: “I think the best way is to engage schools, especially the polytechnics and the universities. The campuses are pretty big and you can easily do circuit loops and such.

“There are also days such as semester breaks or holidays where the schools will be very quiet. So you can definitely close certain parts of it for a couple of hours.”

One of the challenges involved in organising local races, is getting approval from the authorities for road closures. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

Bastian Dohling, who is the SCF’s Vice-President for Road Cycling, agreed that bringing races to campuses is a good idea: ““If you look at other places, a lot of these (grassroots racing) events are held by university student teams. I would love to see more happening on university campuses. We have already engaged with most of them, but we’ve gotten stuck somewhere in between. What they’re most worried about are liability issues, if something were to happen to the cyclists on race days.”

He added that other than the SCF, students can play a part in organizing their own community races: “What we’d love to see are young people organizing race events on university campuses to tell people more about the sport (of road cycling). And the SCF will be very happy to help out with sanctioning the event and organizing as well.”

“It will be great if there are inter-school or inter-university challenges where students organize races among each other and compete with their peers from other varsities in Singapore. That will also make it easier for us to select young and energetic riders to represent the nation.”

The Singapore University Sports Council (SUSC) oversees all sports held at university level in the country. When asked about the feasibility of holding road cycling races in varsity campus roads in Singapore, SUSC’s president Lawrenz Sim said: “Certainly, the SUSC is open to consider introducing a range of sports for our tertiary students, including road cycling.

“At the moment however, there isn’t any road cycling competitions to speak of within our campuses.”

Working towards more road races in Singapore is of great importance no matter the venue, according to SCF’s Dohring.

Said the German, who also raced with his local club team Specialized Mavericks to win the OCBC Speedway Club Championships on Oct 1: “I can tell you, if we’re keen to get a medal in the SEA Games next year, it will be only possible if you have more races and more opportunities to race. It is quite easy to build a strong athlete, or a strong cyclist. But it is not easy to build a functioning team, as cycling is a team sport and it’s not just about one individual.”

Often mistaken as an individual sport, road cycling actually requires teamwork and tactics to win races. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

He added: “In order to learn that team aspect, the team tactics and so on, you have to race and it’s not just every week. Ideally, it would be three times a week to learn (team tactics) and to get into it.

“You might be able to watch videos of how it’s done for instance, but ultimately you can’t read it in books. You have to do it to understand it.”

On having the national team race regularly overseas instead, Dohling explained that the cost of such an approach would be an issue in the long run for the SCF: “For us as a federation, it is hard to finance trips overseas. There are races in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even further away in Hong Kong. But it’s hard for a small organisation like us to finance these trips regularly (for the national team).”

MORE SHORT DISTANCE RACES TO ADAPT TO LACK OF ROADS

Given the lack of suitable quiet roads in Singapore, organizing frequent local long-distance road races would be out of the question. But according to Cycosports’ McCallum, the short and quick format of criterium events perfectly suits Singapore’s shortage of real estate: “You can keep the course small, say about one to two kilometres. In the case of the Seletar Aerospace Criterium, it’s a three-kilometre course.

“It makes it very competitive, very exciting tight finishes and it’s fun for everyone to watch.”

Elaborating, McCallum said criteriums can be a fun sport not just to take part in, but also to view from the sidelines as a spectator: “It’s basically a short circuit you do multiple times. There can be sections of sprint races in between, they’re called ‘primes’ and they can pop up throughout the race.

“The first across the line at the end wins the race, and they’re always very competitive. They’re great fun and it’s such an adrenaline rush.”

He added: “I think (road races) are huge, as (cycling) is one of the fastest growing sports out there and bigger than golf these days.

“A lot of people cycle, a lot of people want to be competitive. We want the next Joseph Schooling to come out of Singapore in the cycling area. There’s a lot of opportunity to grow these type of races here.

“We could do this once a week or once a month. We could also possibly attract a big crowd, with lots of riders coming in to try it out as well.”

Public acceptance is another hurdle that cycling faces when it comes to organizing grassroots races, according to SCF’s Dr Hing: “We need to slowly educate the public, to be more accepting and allow us to organize races and to share the roads. This is so that we can move forward in our performance and move forwards in our society and produce good riders.”

“In other countries, they can even close roads and towns, for criteriums every week. I think if we can progress to a society where we can share the roads, then that will be very good.”

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