Fishes out of water: Meet the European cyclists forging their trade on Asian teams

Professional cycling exists beyond its heartlands, just ask Jesse Ewart and Raymond Kreder

Saudi Tour
(Image credit: Saudi Tour/Pauline Ballet/Charly Lopez)

Ten years ago, Raymond Kreder lined up for Garmin Sharp at the 97th Tour of Flanders, a race he finished 88th in, 13 minutes behind the winner, Fabian Cancellara.

A decade on, the Dutchman is still a professional rider, still pinning on his race numbers, clipping in and racing. However, he is unlikely to be a name on the lips of even the most anorakish of cycling fans, as he rides for a Japanese team, JCL Team UKYO. 

For all of road cycling's pretensions to being a global sport - there are WorldTour races in Australia, the Middle East and North America, and the 2024 World Championships will take place in Rwanda - it is still overpoweringly a European affair, with the biggest riders, the biggest events, still taking place within the strictures of the continent.

There are very few who attempt to buck that system, to go their own way, but Kreder is one, having made the switch from Dutch Pro Conti team Rompoot to UKYO back in 2018, embarking on an adventure into Asia Cup racing, something alien to most European cyclists.

"Six years ago my management asked me if I wanted to try one year in Asia, on a Japanese team," the 33-year-old told Cycling Weekly at the Saudi Tour. "I talked to my wife about it, and we thought 'why not?'. After the first year I liked it so much that I stayed."

It seems simple, does it not? If you don't feel you fit in with the confines of the Eurocentric road scene, why not try something different. Not that Kreder has moved his whole life to Japan; he still lives in the Netherlands, but has replaced the rhythms of the European calendar - the Classics, the stage races, the Grand Tours - with that of the Asia Cup.

"I live in Europe, at home, between the races, and we do blocks of racing in Asia, between three and five weeks," he explained. "Three or four times in one season I'm away for a while."

Saudi Tour

(Image credit: Saudi Tour/Pauline Ballet/Charly Lopez)

It is a similar story for Jesse Ewart, the Irish-Australian rider on Terengganu Polygon Cycling Team, a Malaysian squad which he joined this year.

"When I first went to Asia I was an under-23 rider," he said. "I was racing in Italy with an amateur team at the time. In comparison, riding in Asia it was really fun and exciting compared to that. It was a lot more enjoyable at the time, I also had a couple of other mates who were doing it at the time. That's how I ended up here."

Ewart was originally with another Malaysian team, Sapura, but made the switch to Terengganu in the off-season: "I've had very good relations with these guys for years. I had a very bad crash last year, they contacted when I was in hospital and offered me a contract, and I was stoked to have that confidence from them. They have a great calendar, and they're top people too. It's good to be a part of it."

It would be easy to dismiss these riders as those who couldn't make it on the biggest European teams, but that would mean dismissing the whole scene in Asia, and the rest of the world. These are merely people doing it differently, and possibly enjoying it more.

It seems to many that the beneath the ProTour lies nothing, and that for riders without a contract at this level - such as those caught about by the collapse of the B&B Hotels project - there is nothing. But Ewart and Kreder prove otherwise.

"We do all the stage races in Asia, Thailand, Taiwan, and then the biggest race for us is the Tour of Japan," Kreder explained.

"It's crazy, it's a little bit different from Europe. They're really cheering you on during the race, and they are normally circuits, so they are mad every lap."

He has ten wins over his six years with his Japanese team, while Ewart has six in Indonesia, but also finished third at last year's Tour du Rwanda, Africa's biggest stage race. Rather than being domestique cannon-fodder on the roads of Belgium, they've sought success elsewhere.

"Every country has different racing," Ewart said. "Japan, Indonesia, places like that, it's often a lot more similar to racing in Europe, with technical circuits. It's a part of the world where cycling is going to keep growing and growing."

Saudi Tour

(Image credit: Saudi Tour/Pauline Ballet/Charly Lopez)

Of the ten riders contracted to UKYO, Kreder is one of three who aren't Japanese, while of the 16 at Terengganu, Ewart is one of seven who aren't Malaysian; helpfully for the pair, though, the teams both use English to communicate a lot of the time.

"English is the main language of communication," Ewart said. "I speak a little bit of Malay, but it's always better to get your point across in the race in English."

It would be easy to get trapped in the kind of Orientalism that Edward Said would disapprove of when talking of these Continental level Asian teams, but the truth is everything is actually quite similar to pro squads in the rest of the world, just with a different twist.

"Malaysian teams have a big family feeling," Ewart explained. "They're very supportive on the bike as well as off it, and very well organised. It's a good infrastructure to be a part of. 

"I've been to Terengganu for races, but I had never been there off the bike. We did a team camp before this and went there before it started, saw the infrastructure, and it's massive, way bigger that what I realised. They do fan rides once or twice a year and get 5,000 people out just in one town. It's way bigger than what you think."

It helps that the pair enjoy their time away from Europe. As Kreder said: "I really like being in Japan, the people are really kind, the food is good, it's really healthy."

Next time you see a team you don't recognise at a race, or on television, don't just be derisory about them, but check them out, see what they are all about. There's a whole world out there.

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