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The Tour of Korea: racing an Asian tiger

Tom Southam took part in the second edition of the Tour of Korea in 2007 as a rider. Six years later he returned to the race as Rapha-Condor-JLT

Photographs: Daniel Sharp

“Err… Sue, what’s wrong?”

Our team translator Sue – or Bu Yeong, to use her Korean name, had been excited beyond imagination when I told her that she could come along to watch the racing from the team car during the stage five team time-trial at the Tour of Korea.

Sue’s enthusiasm was quite something. As we’d driven up to the start and sat in the team car queue to wait for our riders to go, she had been virtually bursting with excitement, yelling out of my window to her friends, and fulfilling an Asian stereotype by taking pictures of absolutely everything.

Summing up our bemusement at her high-decibel excitement, James chipped in from the mechanics seat that it was “refreshing to have someone so enthusiastic in the car, I suppose.”

Sue had indeed seemed to be a welcome boost of energy after four days of relative quiet following the Tour of Korea peloton, at least that was, until the stage got going. With only 7km to the finish of the 25km team test, as I blared the horned and yelled at the riders in front of us out of the car window, I’d glanced at Sue and noticed that she’d started crying.

After I enquired as to what the problem was, she fought back the tears to manage a response, “They… they… are trying so hard…”

At that moment the penny dropped and my concern instantly disappeared. Moments earlier as the riders had rounded a hairpin bend, we’d caught sight of the agonised face of Elliott Porter and, even for someone with twenty years of cycling experience, it hadn’t been a pretty sight. For Sue, a bike racing first timer, it must have looked terrifying.

Down to only four riders on the road, the Rapha Condor JLT team was in a tight spot. We had come to the race with a very young team, made up of riders who were in their very early twenties, with very little experience of international racing. Two had dropped out with sickness earlier in the week, and another had been left behind on the first climb of the TTT. As per the rules of the race, we needed all four of the riders who were left now to finish together – and poor Elliott was struggling, while his team-mates were doing the opposite.

It was going to be an agonising run to the line for Elliott, who only twenty months earlier still held a third category licence, and as he’d pulled out of the bend seconds earlier he’d shot a glance toward the car that said all that. It was the unmistakable pained look of a struggling cyclist; it said he was dying, it said he was petrified; it said he was hurting, really hurting, and he just wanted the pain to stop. That was the look that Sue had seen, and that was the face that had made her cry.

It was a tense moment, and for a split second I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with a tearful passenger in a speeding team car, on what was to all intents and purposes, only my fifth day on the job.

The issue resolved itself though when James and I burst out laughing, and I jammed my hand back on the horn.

“But Sue, this is what we pay them for! This is what they do!”

I didn’t want to appear sadistic, but I knew that for as much as she was really trying, Sue didn’t quite ‘get’ cycling. Sue was typical of the staff that I met on the race; her enthusiasm for the event was off the charts, and she really wanted to understand what was going on, but despite the best intentions, there was still a lot of learning to do.

One of the four “Asian Tigers” that has enjoyed rapid industrialisation over the past two decades, Korea is a country that is literally on the rise. On the day of our arrival in Korea, as we drove to Seoul from Incheon airport, and I marvelled at rows of giant tower blocks that were seemingly sprouting out of the ground, ‘James’ Hyungjoon Kim (another of the race’s seemingly infinite number of translators) leant over and told me:

“These buildings are going up all the time. Korea is really changing. I’ve just got back from seven years in the US and the country is almost unrecognisable to me. It is so different.”

Funnily enough, about the time James left for the US I’d been in Korea myself, not as a manager or a journalist, but as a rider, when I took part in the second edition of the Tour of Korea. Back in 2007 the race had been an incongruous affair, notable to me only for the biblical downpours throughout, and for the fact that after half distance on most stages the dropped riders were picked up by the broom wagon, driven to the finish and allowed to start the next day.

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I seemed to remember too that at the closing ceremony of the race, the president of the organising committee had promised us that the Tour of Korea was going to grow, and that eventually the race would be three weeks long. I recall really hoping, as I stepped on the bus for our 300km transfer back to Seoul after the ceremony, that I would not have to be a part of that.

Thankfully (for me) the twenty-one day Tour of Korea never did materialise, in the six years since I took part in the race though, the Tour of Korea has evolved into a solid UCI 2.1 stage race. Weighing in at 8 days and 1,078 km, the route for the 2013 edition was varied, including a hilltop finish, three “mountainous” stages, and a team time-trial.

The field was made up of a mixture of the best Asian Continental teams, some Asian national teams, a smattering of American and European Continental teams, plus a couple of Pro-conti outfits, namely the Chinese Champion Systems team, and the South African MTN Qhubeka squad.

But, while the race looked to be quite uniform at first glance, there were plenty of little differences that let you know that the Tour of Korea wasn’t yet quite right.

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