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SEA Games Preview Part 1: Myanmar’s cyclists begin their slow revolution

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Thuzar trains in Nay Pyi Taw – the only woman to represent Myanmar in the cycling events at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore.

The cyclists residing at the Nay Pyi Taw Youth Training Camp hit the road at dawn. Even then, before the sun clears the horizon, the temperature is already climbing. Soon it will be high enough to induce perspiration with even the slightest of movements.

On this morning the athletes – nine men and one woman – ride along flat roads for 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the foot of Mount Pleasant north of the city, where the real workout begins: They blast up the relentlessly steep 9km climb, their legs churning and their lungs heaving as they leave trails of sweat on the pavement.


The road to the peak of Mount Pleasant.

One by one they struggle to the peak, where they coast to a stop so that staff from the Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF) can record their pulse rates. Once everyone has finished the climb, road cycling coach Lu Jiang Zhong from China gathers the riders together to assess their performance, which he deems sub-par: He gives them grief for failing to achieve their maximum heart rates. As hard as they pedaled, it just wasn’t hard enough. The coach tells them to ride back down the long hill and climb it again, this time with greater effort.


Crossing the line at the top.


Road cycling coach Lu Jiang Zhong uses the manual method to count heartbeats.

When Myanmar announced its target of 50 gold medals for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games in Singapore, gymnastics, fencing, sailing and petanque were all called upon to contribute. There was no such expectation for cycling.

Following investment across the sporting landscape, at the 2013 SEA Games Myanmar climbed to long-forgotten heights in the games’ medal table. Overall, the nation finished second in the gold medal tally with 86 to Thailand’s 107, and came fourth in the overall medal count after Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

But in 13 cycling events with 39 medals on offer, Myanmar earned only a single bronze. Otherwise, the local riders were well off the pace, if they managed to finish at all.

With medals driving investment, the immediate task to revive Myanmar’s cycling fortunes falls to just three of the 10 pedalers. Among the three cyclists chosen to attend the Games in Singapore is Soe Thant, 21, from Pyinmana. He will wear one of the two Myanmar jerseys that will appear in the 165km men’s mass-start road race scheduled for June 14.

Born into a family of farmers, Soe Thant quit school in 9th standard, at the age of 15, to attend the government-run sports academy in Mandalay. “I would be a farmer too if I wasn’t an athlete,” he said. “But my parents are proud that I’m a cyclist. They’re proud that I can represent Myanmar in the SEA Games.”

Soe Thant started his athletic career as a runner, but after his arrival in Mandalay he was chosen by the MCF for development as a cyclist. His competed in his first bike races in Nay Pyi Taw in 2011, where he finished fourth in both the 1km and 4km individual time trial events.

In 2013 he rode in the downhill mountain bike race at the 27th SEA Games in Myanmar, where he finished a dismal 10th out of 11 competitors. The MCF blamed the poor result on mechanical problems with his bicycle. But once word came that there would be no downhill mountain biking in Singapore, Soe Thant switched to road racing.

Also on the scorching peak of Mount Pleasant, Thuzar, 24, is recovering from her second leg-breaking ascent of the climb. She is the only woman in the elite training group, and she’s been picked as Myanmar’s sole entry in the Singapore SEA Games 114km women’s mass-start road race on June 13.

A native of Monywa, Sagaing Region, where her parents are farmers, she joined the Yangon sports academy after matriculation to train for middle-distance running, but the MCF nabbed her for cycling based on her height and weight.

Like Soe Thant, her first races were 1km and 4km time trials in Nay Pyi Taw in 2011, where she finished first and second respectively. And like Soe Thant, she started as a downhill mountain biker but has now switched to road racing. She said the transition from runner to mountain biker to road racer has not been easy.

“Cycling is very strenuous mentally and physically. It’s much harder than running,” she said. “When I was just starting, my inexperience also had a psychological effect. I was afraid of punctures, crashes and riding in a group of cyclists. Those were the most worrisome things for me, but now I’m okay with it.”

She said her mother is not particularly happy about her athletic pursuits. “She thinks cycling is something only boys should do, and she’s afraid because it’s a dangerous sport. She worries I’ll crash my bicycle,” Thuzar said, adding that she has compromised with her family by joining a three-year distance learning program in economics while living at the training center.

Her mother’s consternation aside, Thuzar said she was happy in Nay Pyi Taw.

“We have all the facilities we need and people to guide us the right way,” she said. “Since switching from mountain biking, I’ve only had about 10 months of training as a road racer, so the time is very short to aim for gold at the Singapore SEA Games. But in another four years I think I can do it. I just have to be patient.”

In the meantime, she said she will try her best in Singapore. “Even though I’ll be competing without any teammates, I have confidence in my training,” Thuzar said. “I will fight to my last breath.”

This article was originally published in the June 2 edition of The Myanmar Times.