The 2008 Tour de Georgia bicycle race will host the first China-based cycling team to compete in North America, after two years of negotiations resulted in a one-time sponsorship from Atlanta’s GE Energy, a subsidiary of General Electric Co. in Fairfield, Conn.
Todd McKean, manager of the Marco Polo Cycling Team and general manager for China at Waterloo, Wis.-based Trek Bicycle Corp., the team’s presenting sponsor, told GlobalAtlanta in an email interview that he first suggested the squad participate in the Tour de Georgia two years ago.
Atlanta-based Tour de Georgia organizers Medalist Sports LLC are bringing more international talent into the race and, with the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, GE agreed that a Chinese team would make a fitting addition.
Cassandra Garber, communications manager at GE, said that the company has sponsored the Tour de Georgia since its beginning in 2003, but the decision to sponsor an individual team was made to help the race gain more international acclaim.
“We are a global company, so we wanted to make (the race) a bigger deal around the world,” she said, adding that though the team is registered in China the riders come from all over the world, including Australia, Malaysia, Netherlands and Russia.
The team also includes premier Chinese cyclist Fuyu Li, who is likely to represent his country during this year’s Olympics.
The sponsorship is also boosting employee morale, Ms. Garber said, and Marco Polo cycling jerseys featuring the GE logo have become a fashion trend at the company.
Mr. McKean said that several of the riders have raced in the U.S. as members of other teams, including Mr. Li and Australian Rhys Pollock, who both participated in last year’s Tour of Missouri, but this is their first time competing in the Tour de Georgia.
He added that the difficulty and organization of the Georgia race make it one of the premier cycling events in the U.S. and the world.
“This race is challenging and of a high caliber,” Mr. McKean said, adding that the Marco Polo riders are eager for the competition. “They are all seasoned pros and are looking forward to this new challenge.”
The Chinese Cycling Association, the governing body of the sport in China, hosts several large races in which the Marco Polo team competes annually, including the Tour of the South China Sea, which starts in Hong Kong, and the Tour of Hainan island off the southern coast.
Mr. McKean added that the team competes in races elsewhere in Asia, such as the Tour of Japan and Tour of Korea. This year the team will also do several months of racing in Europe to gain greater international experience.
The Chinese association has a program for developing athletes for national competition, but not in other areas of the sport. Mr. Mckean said that amateur and professional cycling clubs have developed in the last 3-4 years under companies like Trek and cycling has improved in tandem with economic conditions in the country.
“Looking ahead, we can see that with the ever increasing levels of disposable income and leisure time the average person in China has, the more the sport will continue to grow,” Mr. McKean said.
In Georgia, the Marco Polo team will compete against 14 other squads, including established international cyclists such as Luxembourg-based Astana Cycling Team and Denmark’s Team CSC. Canada’s Symmetrics Cycling Team features five possible Olympians while Georgia-based Jittery Joe’s Professional Cycling Team will compete on home turf for the sixth year in a row.
The race begins April 21 at Tybee Island and will continue all over the state, ending in a road race in Atlanta April 27.