by Jamie Mack
The comparison between the new Mongolian national cyclocross team with the Jamaican bobsled team is almost too easy to make. Thinking of Mongolia, a southeastern Asian country bordered by Russia and China, doesn’t exactly evoke images associated with cyclocross. Home to expanses of desert and some of the most mountainous terrain on the planet, it can be a harsh environment, even by ‘cross standards. But this season, a group of four elite cyclists from Mongolia are finding their place among the world’s top talent in Belgium.
The team, currently the only professional cycling team to call Mongolia home, consists of two elites, Ariunbold Naranbat and Boldbaatar Bold-Erdene, two U-23 riders, Naran Khangarid and Baasankhuu Myagmarsuren, and a small support staff. While new to ‘cross, the Mongolian riders have extensive experience in road races throughout Asia and Europe. The team is approaching the discipline of ‘cross because it provides easier access to the European experience than diving into a full road schedule. The shorter season, defined venues and the more individual nature of the sport eased the logistical challenges the startup team faced. The proximity of major races to the team’s base in Brussels has benefits as well, as many races are within a day’s drive. The television-friendly nature of the sport also allows increased exposure for sponsors and riders, helping to advance the sport of cycling in their home nation.
Initial support for the team came in the form of some equipment from the UCI. Understandably, many companies that they approached as potential sponsors were hesitant to put support behind such an unknown venture. The team finally landed a sponsor in a small bike company, Museeuw. Yes, that Museeuw. Johan Museeuw, the man at or near the top of most lists of the all-time best one-day and classics riders and with multiple victories at Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and even a World Championship in his palmares, would eventually make his way to Mongolia to see the team firsthand. From that point, Museeuw worked to support the racers, providing bikes but also connections and an association that would ease their transition to Euro racing. Bio-Racer, a Belgian performance apparel company, has provided transportation in the form of a truck and trailer. Belgian magazine Cyclo Sprint has published a feature on the team and assists with contacts and media coverage. Team manager Tom Lanhove appreciates the commitment of Museeuw, saying that, “without his name, support and connections our project would have been much tougher to complete.”
Despite having no experience as a racer, Lanhove is the main force behind the program, handling all the business, public relations and logistical needs. Lanhove is up to the task, having worked with Trek bikes in 2007 and 2008 in coordinating the cyclocross season in Beijing. Lanhove’s vision of finding a way to professionalize the riders meshed well the with the goals of the Mongolian Cycling Federation, which understood the value that this effort would hold for the riders and the federation. The combination of the Mongolian Federation’s goals with Lanhove’s energy and Museeuw’s connections has resulted in the riders now making their way through the European ‘cross races. Supporting the program as well is the Belgian Embassy, Lanhove’s employer.
The goal of the initiative is to assist the Mongolian Cycling Federation (MCF) in specializing in cyclocross. The sport is a good fit for the MCF because of the relatively low initial cost, high exposure potential and minimal logistical requirement, at least in comparison to road cycling. The Mongolian riders are also well-suited to the ‘cross environment. With an intense sports culture and content to live on little, the riders are individuals with rugged determination that will serve them well in the hardcore environment they are exploring. The limitation right now is limited interest in cyclocross and bicycle racing at home in Mongolia. The program is hoping to change that by providing the first vehicle to demonstrate the reach of ‘cross racing and the potential impact that it could have.
The team will be spending three months racing some of the toughest races on the calendar. World Cups, Superprestige races and a final destination of the World Championships are on the team’s list. The team realizes that this will be a time of learning and experience for the riders, and that not all experiences are going to be easy. The overall goal of the team this season is experience and to showcase some top Asian talent to Europe and the world.
The riders have proven themselves as the best their nation has to offer. The team has brought together some world class support to give them every chance to succeed. But how will they fare in Europe? Time will tell as the riders have only completed two races at this point. But in one of those races, the Grand Prix de la Région Wallonne in Dottignies, Belgium, the Mongolian riders shared the course with the likes of Niels Albert and Francis Mourey, and finished on the lead lap. It may not be a win, but that’s still a result that very few people could manage.