Becoming a pro cyclist is a something many amateur cyclists aspire to. Living that dream seems, from the outside, to consist of traveling the world, racing hard and being looked after by multiple staff so you can perform at your best. But what’s it actually like when you enter that world of pro racing, where staying at the top of your game then attempting to improve is a process of managing fluctuations of performance so you’re ready to race at your best when the team demands it?
Some riders are able to absorb the challenges and lessons quickly; some are given the time to learn. But what happens when you’re thrown in at the deep end? When the years of hard work and a little bit of luck see you end up in a team that races at the highest level? How do you learn quickly enough to cope with the demands that a team places on you?
Sea Keong Loh is a name you might recognise. In 2014 he got his big break — a stab at the WorldTour scene. A place on the Giant-Shimano team saw him line up at some of the sport’s most prestigious events, but his time with the team only lasted one season.
This year Sea Keong’s back in his home country of Malaysia with his experience as a WorldTour rider behind him. Throughout 2015 he’s donned the jersey of the Malaysian National Team on multiple occasions, taken several notable results including a fifth on GC at the Tour of Thailand, and has also been part of the new SEG Racing Team where, along with race duties, he’s been a mentor to the younger guys on the squad.
“I went from a Continental team with OCBC to a WorldTour team with the help of Shimano Malaysia. They wanted to give the opportunity of racing at the highest level to an Asian rider. That person who would be chosen (by Shimano Malaysia) would have a one-year contract,” Sea Keong explained of his rise to the World Tour. “Shimano had a list of potential Asian cyclists and then made the decision at the end of the year. I’d had a great season in 2013 which played heavily in my favour.”
“It was great to ride at the highest level of cycling; it was what I’d been chasing my whole career. That was the ultimate goal — to be in the biggest races and in one of the biggest teams in cycling. To live in that world.
“Not everyone is able to step in and be there, so when offered the place I decided to agree and snapped up the opportunity. It was a no-brainer. It didn’t matter what happened I just had to grind through the whole season and then at the end of the day it would be up to the management to say if I belonged there or not.”
Sea Keong’s previous team, the now defunct UCI Continental Team OCBC was a Singapore-based squad. Racing mainly in Asia, Sea Keong never had the experience of high-level competition but had previously raced for the Marco Polo team, a setup that was originally developed to help bring Asian cyclists into the European scene. Marco Polo has recently re-launched with a team list comprised of “riders that came to Europe as refugees”.
“I’d never raced at that top level before, then suddenly I’m in all the top level racing. It was a shock. Racing at that level isn’t what most normal people would expect or think,” Sea Keong said. “Most people only know what they learn from watching on TV or what’s in the media coverage. I’d raced in Europe for the past eight years, but only in the amateur ranks. Being at the top level of cycling is a different type of game. It’s not the same as racing at a lower level but just with the volume turned up.
“To live the kind of life as a pro cyclist you need a different type of mental structure and daily strategy, your whole life needs to change, you need to pin point every little aspect of your life; your commitment, training, diet and time to it. I can only describe myself as a salt water fish that was thrown in a fresh water river and expected to survive.
“It takes years to adapt. Out of ten riders maybe one or two survive annually. I didn’t expect anything from professional cycling as I’d not really had the education to know what was fully involved in the lifestyle — no one ever educated me on what to expect.”
I first met Sea Keong Loh at the Tour de Langkawi where he was clearly a fan favourite. Watching him at the start and finish of each stage it was evident that he is a well-respected and well-known rider among the peloton and fans of the sport.
The race is known for its friendly atmosphere. So how did Sea Keong find going from races with an atmosphere such as this to huge events with thousands lining the roadside?
“At the races all the attention is on you. People may not know you but as long as you are a professional you get attention,” Sea Keong said. “Sometimes I liked this as it’s nice to be recognised. But the downside is that people could misjudge you, fans as well as other riders. They don’t know you as a person and people can say incorrect things about you.”
Sea Keong’s time at the top didn’t last long, so would he return if given half a chance?
“If I was given the chance in the future to return to racing at that level again I feel I’d like to explore the lower tier races and progress from there. Riders need a gradual progression — I feel if the races I did last year were the highest category I’d race in year two then I feel I could compete at that level.
“Races no higher than something like the Criterium International would be good. If I couldn’t keep up at the lower level of racing then I wouldn’t want to go back. The problem was I only had 35 or 36 days of racing from 2014 and that was only the first four months of the year. A lot of this was down to being injured in the second part of my season. So I didn’t race in August, September or October so I couldn’t prove myself.”
Sea Keong is now back in Malaysia. Recently he’s bought his first car — a VW Dak Dak (camper) — he’s learning to be a home barista and still races. His Instagram feed is not that of a pro cyclist but one of someone who clearly loves being out on the road on the bike and in his camper. So how does he reflect on his current situation?
“I’m happy not to be a WorldTour rider; I’m not even a proper full-time professional at the moment. I’m happy in what I’m doing. I love to ride my bike and I’m always happy to be on it.
“The expectation of racing at a WorldTour level can ruin the love of cycling for many. Before I quit competitive racing I want to help develop the next generation of Asian cyclists. I want to learn from the experience I’ve had, offering the knowledge I’ve gained and teaching them the right way, and not to get misled about what being a pro is all about.”
So how does Sea Keong see the Asia racing scene at the moment?
“What the UCI need to do is help develop the racing scene here in Asia, encouraging higher level UCI races in the regions. They need to look at the wave of ex or older European pros and especially eastern European riders moving and racing here. They come and smash the local talent and just dominate the races, especially older riders with a past history of offending.”
It’s clear that Sea Keong Loh’s love for the sport goes beyond just racing. He clearly enjoyed his brief time at the top of the sport but at no point does it come across that he is missing or even feeling that he should be on a WorldTour team. He’s a man that seems at ease with the journey he’s been on and one that has plenty to offer the multitude of young Asian riders striving to follow their own dreams of turning pro.