Teams locked out of hotels, race officials stranded in airports across Malaysia and event organisers nowhere to be seen – the inaugural Tour of Sarawak has ticked all of these boxes effortlessly while continuing to demonstrate, with astonishing capacity, how not to organise a bike race. Cam Whiting from Cycling iQ has been following the latest developments and wrote the following for CyclingTips.
Livid team managers are looking to the UCI to take action as yet another Asia Tour event in Malaysia descends into farce.
Tour of Sarawak chairman and project manager Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof is the central figure in the ongoing drama that has been escalating since Sunday and has developed into a very public political stoush with State Government officials.
Australian Continental team St. George Merida was one of the first squads to arrive in the start city of Miri, located on the western border of Brunei on the island of Borneo, only to discover there was no greeting party, no ground transportation at the airport and no hotel bookings. Though eventually admitted into accommodation at the team hotel on Sunday evening, Brett Dutton’s team was one of several locked out of their rooms the following day when informed that payment was required.
“The guy at the hotel said all the rooms were cancelled three days ago,” said Dutton on Monday. “So somebody cancelled the race and just didn’t tell anybody.”
Race officials were also kept in the dark. Technical director Ibrahim Omar was one senior official still stranded in Kuala Lumpur on Monday evening, less than 36 hours before the race was scheduled to start.
“I am really very frustrated what has happened to the Tour of Sarawak organiser,” Omar wrote via email from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. “I am supposed to be provided with a flight ticket to Miri this evening but, until now, no ticket. I heard the Police department has withdrawn from security work. I also many times have contacted the organiser but they said they are still dealing with sponsors for money.”
A brief statement posted to the Tour of Sarawak Facebook account on Monday evening did little to clarify the situation:
“First of all, we would like to apologized for any inconvenience caused. Due to some internal issue, the event arrangements didnt go as smooth. Our event representatives is on his way to Miri to settle all the problem arises including the accomodations and technical issues. All participants and crew representatives will be contacted. With the great support from the Ministry of Social Development Sarawak and the Ministry of Youth and Sports Malaysia, we hope this event will be held as planned.”
The elusive Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof finally arrived in Miri on Monday evening.
Since then, the race has been cancelled then resurrected on at least two occasions. Despite the withdrawal of police support and the departure of a few fed-up teams, the prospect of the race going ahead in a three-day format, beginning this Friday, remains bewilderingly afloat.
Team and race officials last met at 9pm yesterday evening (local time) in an effort to flesh out the latest iteration of what continues to be a very fluid and confusing situation.
First announced in April last year by greenhorn organiser Fadz Industries Sdn Bhd (led by Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof), the five-stage, UCI 2.2-ranked Tour of Sarawak promised an eye-popping prize purse of 400,000 Euro (AU$593,000) – almost double that of this year’s UCI 2.HC Le Tour de Langkawi – and was originally to be held in January. The event was subsequently pushed back to February before finally settling on March 16-20 on the UCI Asia Tour calendar.
Lottery-sized prize purses are not unheard of in Asia — the UCI 2.2 Tour of Singkarak in Indonesia operates a prize money budget close to US$200,000 (AU$270,000), while the 2.HC Tour of Qinghai Lake offers US$1 million (AU$1.3 million) in prize money — but it is unusual for a race to materialise with this level of financial backing.
Postponements and cancellations of UCI events also occur with relative frequency in Malaysia, the most recent example being last year’s Jelajah Malaysia which was postponed three times before narrowly avoiding cancellation midway into the race.
Though most teams heading to Malaysia would not have anticipated the chaos that awaited them, CyclingTips has learned that some were already well aware of probable disruptions.
“Our team representative in Malaysia gave us feedback last week (that) the race was rescheduled to the end of the season,” wrote SkyDive Dubai Pro Cycling Team team manager Ricardo Martins yesterday. “Two days ago in the evening I received a message saying that they will do the race in the original (March 16-20) date.”
“We already came here with the expectation there would be no race,” explained Terengganu Cycling Team sports director Adam Szabó during a phone call yesterday evening. “Last week there was no information and also the Malaysian National Cycling Federation (MNCF) was saying the race was not confirmed and not going to happen. I said to the riders to be patient with me as I was getting no information.”
The Tour of Sarawak’s technical director Ibrahim Omar eventually arrived in Miri on Tuesday morning, ahead of a pre-race meeting scheduled for 11am that was later postponed to 2pm that day. Meanwhile, team representatives were receiving mixed messages.
“I had an email this morning saying the event is going ahead,” said Kenyan Riders Downunder Assistant sports director Stewart Crowley, mid-morning. “It’s a confusing environment here. We’re a small budget team who have spent money to come over here. We’re here to win stages and make some money to pay for the airfares so we can go back home.”
After “following him around all day so he didn’t disappear” Dutton succeeded in securing an informal meeting with Fadzli and MNCF officials at noon, along with several other, but not all, team representatives.
“No answers whatsoever,” said Dutton following the meeting. “We sat down and the first thing (Fadzli) said was ‘the race is cancelled; from now on you must pay for all your hotel bills and send a receipt to the organiser with a copy to MNCF.’
“I said ‘well that’s not good enough; you guys are responsible for us being here. It’s a breach of contract and MNCF is also liable because they’ve sanctioned the event. What are you going to do about it?’
“While this was being discussed, the phone rings and (Fadzli) goes ‘good news, good news, we may have a sponsor come on board so we’re making another meeting at 2pm’ and just kind of brushed off everybody. We have been locked out of our hotel rooms. We can’t get back in because we haven’t paid the bill – I haven’t paid one cent. Other teams have paid for their accommodation, but they’re not going to get their money back – these guys are something else.”
The environment was no less confusing immediately after the 2pm meeting, during which it was announced the event would be cancelled.
“(Race officials) said there is no chance to get the race,” said Szabó. “After that, (Fadzli) got a phone call and apparently they said they should do it. At the moment, I’m really sceptical about it.”
“I am extremely disappointed with the lack of communication from race organisers,” wrote Sam Layzell of Australian club team Oliver’s Racing in a Skype communication. “We feel like we have been led on with empty promises. We are 800km from our departure airport without many options. For a small team like us, it is devastating financially.”
Following dozens of unanswered emails and calls to Fadz Industries officials, CyclingTips was finally able to track down the evasive Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof.
“We are still in negotiations with the (Sarawak) State Government to proceed with the event,” he wrote in a text message. “The Government sent a guarantee to cover the hotel. All of the official confirmation should come from my side.”
Riders returning from morning training rides were also confronted with the reality that little progress had been made.
“The vibe at breakfast was pretty normal,” said NZ National Road Cycling Champion Jason Christie. “I spoke with riders from Terengganu, Iran and a few other guys; it was like the pre-race day of any other race. But then we got back from our training ride and got told we had to be out of our hotel rooms by 5pm.”
Dutton’s persistent tracking of Fadzli yielded more details later that afternoon.
“(Fadzli) is 90% certain that the last three days will be on. We can stay (in Miri) overnight. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we leave for Sibu then the race goes on from Friday. The whole thing is structured on a game of brinkmanship with the government it seems. They’re trying to force the government to give them some money. I don’t trust (Fadzli) at all.”
Szabó backed up Dutton’s information with a similar update.
Meanwhile, local media agencies have revealed more details on the politicking and lack of diligence by MNCF officials.
A New Straits Online article published mid-afternoon yesterday said MNCF “appears convinced that funding for the race was secured by the organisers in prior enquiries, only to discover otherwise later on. According to Ibrahim (Omar), the Tour of Sarawak organiser was said to have received a phone call from a ‘Tan Sri’, following which the organisers pleaded for the race to be allowed to continue.”
Social Development Minister Tan Sri William Mawan disputed any involvement in a Borneo Post Online article published late Tuesday evening local time. “(Minister Tan Sri) said no representative from any bicycle sports-linked group had spoken to him these last few days. For the last three days, he said he was on official duty at both of his parliamentary and state constituencies.”
When contacted by CyclingTips for clarification on whether the race would actually proceed, Omar remained doubtful.
“Most of the technical officials, commissaires and some equipment is still stranded in Kuching and East Malaysia. I don’t understand why (the organiser) still has confidence to continue the race. Worst still, the Police department has already withdrawn. How to manage the race if no Police control, marshals and commissaires?” he concluded, rhetorically.
Of the 23 teams invited to race in Sarawak, less than 15 remain. Some, like Kenyan Riders Downunder, will stay in the locale on the off-chance the race goes ahead and to minimise further disruption to riders’ training plans.
“As a Continental team, we need as many UCI racing days as possible,” said Crowley. “UCI 2.2 races are really important to learn how to race and come together as a team. Then we’re better equipped to perform in 2.1 and 2.HC races when they come up.”
Others, angered by the experience, have yet to decide what to do.
“This is a UCI-sanctioned event. We have funded a team of six riders and two staff, all for nothing,” said Oliver Racing’s Layzell. “Somebody needs to take responsibility for this mess. There have been too many broken promises from the organisers to trust anything that has been fed to us. Clearly there has been a massive issue in planning, and we are not getting the full story.
“At this point we will take whatever the most cost-effective option is for us. If the race organiser takes us to Sibu, only to then find out the race will not go ahead, at least that gets us within 400km of our departure city. If the hotel bill is not paid this morning, nobody is going anywhere.”
Zooming out, a UCI 2.2 race in Malaysia may not seem important when balanced against, for example, the possibility of ASO’s withdrawal from the WorldTour calendar. However, the base of the pyramid on which Le Tour sits comprises hundreds of small events such as Tour of Sarawak.
Unfortunately, it’s a fragile base with insufficient safeguards for budget-stricken teams that can easily dissolve in the face of circumstances such as what is happening in Sarawak. Several teams are still awaiting prize monies from races held in Malaysia three years ago (including Jelajah Malaysia and Tour of Borneo) and the protocols in place to assist teams in the face of event cancellations are wholly inadequate.
As one team manager said, on condition of anonymity “the UCI says you can always write to them if riders are not getting the prize money. The problem is when you start to complain about it then the UCI sanctions the organiser; the worse case is the organiser gets angry with you and they don’t invite you again.
“Right now in Asia, it is a struggle to get invitations – so I try to be as nice to the organiser as I can at least to get some races. That’s our goal, to get to races and win races. That’s the kind of vicious circle.”
About the author
Cam Whiting is the founder and publisher of Cycling iQ, a website focused on Asia’s role in the globalisation of road cycling. Whether it’s a new UCI race in Indonesia, chatting with a pro cyclist from Japan, a visit to the Chinese factory that makes frames used in the WorldTour or uncovering data on road bike sales in India – if it’s related to road cycling in Asia, it will be at Cycling iQ.