Get Real: Calvin Sim

Calvin Sim recently won a gold medal in the 2017 SEA Games – Track (Omnium), the first of its kind in 20 years of Singapore’s cycling history. What goes behind such a performance? What made Calvin, the cyclist he is today?

We explore what goes behind the makings of a humble champion, and pick his brain on topics close to his heart. Here’s what he had to say:

Why and when did you started cycling?

I started cycling when I was 15 years old. I started mountain biking initially because it gave me the freedom to explore around Singapore, know the place better, and eat good food!

I simply enjoyed doing it, going to the trails … the feeling when you’re on your own. I cycled from Hougang (Ed: Calvin’s neighbourhood) all the way to Bukit Timah and Macritchie area, where the trails were located. I really enjoyed the freedom and solace while doing it. Not many 15 year olds would go trail riding by themselves right?

Give us a rough run-through of your cycling career. 

I started mountain biking at age 15 and had my first race in Pulau Ubin one year later. I still remember it very clearly. It was the ‘weekend warrior’ category, 2 laps around the circuit only but I almost died. I decided to be more ‘serious’ – back then it was considered serious to me – and started cycling more. In order to improve my skills, I would usually ride the trails when it was raining since it was more challenging. I then became better and started winning races. There was one year that I won all the junior mountain bike races, at around 17 to 18 years old. I decided to ‘upgrade’ myself and join the ‘elite category’ even before I was supposed to.

I also started road cycling at the same time as well. I joined the Schroder cycling team, met people like Junaidi and Daniel Loy, who brought me out for my 1st road ride and almost ‘killed’ me on my first road ride from the exertion. Mountain bikers don’t really ride beyond 40-50km but that ride was 80km long so I got ‘towed’ back home. I still can remember it very clearly till this day – after the ride in the morning, I just went to sleep and only woke up in the evening.

After Schroder cycling team, I rode with Passi:one cycling and met guys like Lemuel and Ji Wen. Back then, there was also a trial for the OCBC cycling team so we went for the trials and training camps together. Year 2009 was the first year in the OCBC team and we raced as a club and did our 1st stage race, the Tour of Friendship,as a team. I almost ‘died’ again because it was so challenging but we achieved good results.

In 2011, we became a continental cycling team but that was also the time I had to enter into National Service. This made me very much inactive throughout the next 2 years. I finished my National Service in 2013 and decided to take some time off with Lemuel to pursue our dreams as a professional cyclist. We went to Melbourne to ride for an Australian NRS (National Road Series) team – Search2Retain for 3 months. The racing was super hard but it was quite fun and we learnt a lot.

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At the end of 2014, the OCBC Continental Cycling team folded due to the lack of sponsors. That was when I began to participate in track cycling more seriously. The first time I tried track cycling was in 2010, when Ang Kee Meng (Ed: now Team Manager for National Track cycling team) brought me to the velodrome in Perth. I tried it on a road bike and found it quite fun, but I never knew that I would be serious in this discipline. The end of 2014 was the start of competitive track cycling for me.

Fast forward to 2015, I only raced on the road in small tours like Jelejah Malaysia but entered into many small track races, like Thailand’s queen cup races in Bangkok’s Huamak Velodrome. I won my 1st track race just when I started track in 2014. The next level of track racing that I did was a huge step up, the Asian Cycling Championships in 2015.  I kept trying and was quite lucky that I could finish the races in my first few Asian Cycling Championships because I had guidance from Kee Meng in terms of gearing choices and tactical positioning. It was only in late 2015/2016 that my results were more consistent. I won about 5 races that year and had many top 3-4 placings in all the races that I participated in. 2017 was SEA Games.

Who were your supporters early on in your journey? How crucial was the support from local bike shops? 

I first met Ben from Chapter2Cycle when I started mountain biking. He brought me to the trails with a group of other guys. That was where I learnt quite a bit of basic trail riding skills from. There was also a group of friends that I would join to go mountain biking with.

I was introduced to road cycling by Bernard and he gave me a road bike to ride. I also met Daniel Loy who taught me a lot of stuff as well. The natural progression then was that he became our Team Manager for the OCBC cycling team. These are the main people who helped me out early in my cycling career.

What was their reason for helping you?

Well for one, I visited their shop regularly! But I think it’s mainly out of their passion for the sport. Perhaps they were thinking ‘This young guy always visits the shop, might as well help him!’. I think they could  somehow see that I had a passion for the sport and they were also passionate about returning back to sport as well. I feel that there was a very nice community-kind of feeling in the past – when you needed help, the whole cycling fraternity would help you. It’s not possible to do it alone.

I think it is important for the cycling community (bike shops & riders) to support young aspiring cyclists who have a passion in the sport and a dream to succeed. That being said, I think that it works both ways because the riders should also support local businesses as well and not just buy their equipment off the internet. Local businesses should also try to support the riders who have not come through the ranks yet (e.g those not in the national team yet).

Of course, the riders must prove themselves and it is sometimes through a bit of talent-scouting and goodwill in your heart that you help the young rider. The young rider should be deserving … in fact most of the time, the young riders these days have nicer bikes than mine! That makes it a bit difficult for a local bike shop to want to help a young rider out if he/she is already able to afford such high-end equipment. It works both ways, but I think more importantly, the local businesses must believe in developing the athlete.

Do you think the local bike shops still believe in athlete development nowadays?

I’m not sure. Of course you must still think about the business aspects of things but it is also important to not forget about returning to the sport.

 

Did you feel like an underdog who is usually forgotten by others? Did a lack of results contribute to that?

I had less significant results on the road partially because I had some ‘gap years’ from being in school and national service. I wasn’t able to race as much on the road than I could on the track, and that could be a reason why I was able to attain more significant results on the track than on the road. I feel people saw me more of a dark horse because of this – someone who might have a very small chance of winning, but not the overwhelming favourite.

How much support did you receive from the NSA and SSC early on? Was there any avenue to receive sports science support? 

From a sports science and biomechanics standpoint, I think it is a lot more advanced now. Back when I started mountain biking, power meters were a rare item. You hardly see anything like that. In terms of sports science and proper training, back then we rode as and when we want, how we felt like, whether we enjoyed it or not. There wasn’t really any structured training until I joined that OCBC cycling team. We were coached by Daniel Plews and after that Dr Frankie Tan. It was the first time I was exposed to proper structured training. We did intervals … prior to this, intervals just meant sprinting up the hill, trying to complete the lap as fast as I could. Those were the only types of intervals that I did. Now with power meters so easily available and affordable, it is really a big game-changer in cycling.

The sport is also getting more technologically advanced – with TrainingPeaks and Strava, you can record your ride, compare your efforts 3 months ago to what you did today. You can now start out with simple heart rate measurement through many free apps and wearables like Garmin and Fitbit. Back then we had to manually check out pulse! I still remember I did it everything morning to check my resting heart rate and recorded it in my training diary. Not that you can’t do it now, but it is a lot easier with the aid of technology.

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‘Easier to go faster now with the aid of technology and Sports Science’ – Calvin Sim

After I started track cycling, my former teammates Lemuel and Ji Wen started CrankSmart. They helped me with crucial motorpacing sessions and planned my training programme. They tailored the programme to suit my events and towards a certain goal. It is important for young riders to know that they are quite lucky now that they have such support available to them now even though they can go to the internet to read up on training and sports science.

I only got this kind of support because the OCBC team was linked to the Sports Council. There wasn’t a facility/shops that were offered to the general public. However there are such services available to everyone now, like Loue Bicycles for bike fits and CrankSmart for training/coaching. I would encourage riders, not just for those racing but those who want to simply get fit, to engage in such services. If you want to train efficiently, comfortably, and most importantly injury-free, of course having a coach would be the best. He knows your training load, he knows what you’re going through, he can tell you when you should back off. Sometimes I wouldn’t know when to back off, that’s when things might go wrong. Touch wood, you might get into an accident because you’re going crazy hard of the road despite being so fatigued. All these small little things make a big difference which many people do not know. Or perhaps they would rather not know because they don’t want to spend the money.

In terms of bike fits, we are quite lucky now. Back then, it was a very simple thing. We used a plumb bob line, just look at the person, a lot of ‘eye-power’ and ‘line of sight’ that makes us conclude that he looks better now, making it seem that the bike fit is better. Nowadays there’s technology involved. There’s 3D motion scanning, saddle pressure mapping …  a lot of technology to aid us in making our rides more comfortable and efficient.

If such services were available to the general public back then, I would definitely have gone for such services. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to afford them initially because I was a young poor student back then, but it again boils down to the cycling community helping each other. I feel that hiring a coach and having a training programme is important as is played a very crucial role in my development as an athlete.

Do you believe that the being part of a professional cycling outfit (OCBC Continental Cycling Team) help improve your cycling drastically? Is that the same sentiment amongst your ex-teammates? What was the biggest lesson did you take away during your time at OCBC?

I spent a big chunk of my cycling career in the team, and I believe that it was one of the best things that happened to Singapore cycling. Not just for me, but also for the 10 Singapore riders that were in it. It developed us holistically, not just as athletes who raced our bikes but we learnt many things as human beings through our interactions with one another and got to see a lot of the world that most people might not see. I feel that it was probably one of the best things that happened to Singapore Cycling. It was a big disappointment that it folded.

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‘The best thing that ever happened to Singapore Cycling’ – Calvin Sim, on the OCBC Continental Cycling Team

There are so many lessons that I took away from this experience. One of the big lessons that I took away from it is the importance of believing in yourself. Although we don’t have a lot of hills and long stretches of road in SIngapore to train, but if you set your mind to it, it is actually possible to do well in the things that you want to achieve. Belief is important because if you don’t have it from the start, it would not happen at all.

Another big lesson was teamwork. When a group of 10 over people come together and they don’t know each other, a lot of things can go very right or very wrong. However when everyone has a common goal, sets aside their egos, willing to sacrifice for each other, a lot of magic can happen.

These 2 big lessons stuck with me and I brought it along to the track. It was very evident in the most recent SEA Games. The first thing is that you must believe in what you are doing. We believed in our plan and we executed it. There was also so much teamwork, when Choon Huat attacked, I’d always be nearby to counter other attacks and support him. We managed to put those 2 lessons into SEA games well.

To be honest, if he was not from the OCBC team, we would not have this chemistry in our races and display such teamwork because we may not have known each other for long and trusted each other as much as we did. What was important was that through our journey from young cyclists in 2009 when I first met him that we bonded well together. It is definitely important that we had this bond as teammates. Cycling is a team sport, making this bond a very close-knit team, which is what contributed mainly to the success in SEA games.

Why do you say that cycling is a team sport?

Most of the time, in order for one person to succeed, there would be teammates to help do all the work that the team leader doesn’t need to do. For example, fetching water, sheltering him from the wind through drafting, countering the moves so that he can save energy. This is why there is a lot of teamwork behind when one person takes the glory. Even on the track, one person has to cover for the other so that he can save energy to follow the crucial moves later on in the race.

Did you consider racing as a career before the OCBC cycling team?

No, the team was my first exposure to high performance sport. It implanted this dream in me and gave me a lot of hope and dreams without having the need to be in the National team.

Despite your cycling experience, why were you left out of the National Training Squad/National Team? 

I wasn’t in the NTS because I didn’t meet certain criterias set by them. It wasn’t a problem for me, the only thing that I could do was to just continue on and train harder. They initially only had a road squad, and only started a track squad after a handful of us who weren’t selected started to race in the track discipline instead. They provided us with Wattbikes to use, but we didn’t have the sport science support that we had like in the OCBC team. There was no VO2max test, Lactate Threshold test, or the environmental chamber. We then had to source for such services by ourselves.

Why did you decide to switch to track cycling after spending many years competing in the road circuit? Explain your event specialty. 

For road cycling, in order to be competitive, you need a team of at least 4 to 5 people around you in order to get a good result. On the track, it requires a smaller team. Back then, Kee Meng was still racing – making him a natural choice for a teammate. Most track races also only require 1 to start for each race, whereas a road race might require at least 5 to start.

This made it much easier logistically and preparation-wise. You did not need to train with a team. Singapore has neither many hills nor a velodrome, and we had to spend a lot of time going to places with a velodrome. A smaller team meant that we could travel around more easily while keeping expenses to the minimum. That being said, it was still a big financial burden. Also, Singapore always had a better medal record on the track than on the road. I’m not sure whether there are medals on the road but I don’t think we have many. This made me realise that maybe I should concentrate on the track because perhaps one of the reasons why this is so is due to lesser variables on the track racing. The big challenges to take is overcoming the techniques used in track cycling, and accessibility to the track.

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‘The only thing that I could do was to continue on and train harder’ – Calvin Sim, on being left out of the NTS initially.

It was more of a natural progression from mountain biking to road cycling as I always believe in the importance of cross-training. I don’t think you can always keep mountain biking and hope to progress because I don’t think there are enough races and trails in Singapore to increase your level that high (Ed: to Asian standard). Doing all three disciplines has also made me a more complete cyclist overall.

Give a rough breakdown of your training expenses.

We could take my recent trip to Thailand for the Asian Track Cup as an example:
Flight – $500 (including sports baggage)
Race fees – $50
Accommodation – $400 (usually dependent on how early ahead we plan to go up for training)
Food – $300 – $400, about $30/day
We always try to cut costs and be on a very tight budget as we try to make the best use of the funding we have. Thailand is relatively inexpensive but training camps and races in Australia and USA would definitely cost more.

How much support did you receive in the leadup to SEA games?

I converted to a part-time position in my workplace on Nov 2016 so that I could have more time for training and racing full-time. I saved up quite a bit of money so that I could support myself. There were some donations made to us so that we could go for a crucial training camp in Colorado Springs by Andy Sparks and his wife. That was crucial because they and a lot of experience and brought in a lot of valuable inputs. We learnt a lot and also improved. We were very much self – funded before SEA Games, we did not have air tickets or accommodation paid for for most of the races.

Cycleworx provided me with a bike and mechanical services. Gatorade sponsored me for my hydration needs, and LOUE bicycle helped out with the bike fits. Entro Cycles provided me with small miscellaneous stuff like the saddles, lights, bar tapes,  and tyres.

I did not recieved much sports science support from SSC but mainly from Coach Lemuel at CrankSmart. He planned my training programme and did motorpacing for me whenever it required – most of the time just before the races, so that we could get up to speed and replicate certain efforts on the road that would not be possible alone or without a track.

Take us through your thoughts during the SEA Games. 

Going into the final race (points) of the omnium event (Ed: has 4 sub events), Choon huat and I were ranked 6th and 5th respectively, about 6 points deficit from 1st position. We both knew that we had to be aggressive and attack the other countries to even have a chance of standing on the podium, let alone win a medal.

There was alot of teamwork involved. Whenever one of us went on the attack, the other would always be on standby and wait for the counter-attacks that will come from the other countries. Choon huat and myself were prepared to sacrifice our chances for each other in order for our plan to work.

During the first quarter of the race, we managed to form a breakaway with another Indonesian. This enabled us to grab a lot of valuable points in the process while we gained a lap on the peloton (Ed: 20pts for each lap gained). At 35 laps to go, we held 1st and 2nd placings but Choon Huat made a huge sacrifice to chase down moves/attacks from others in order for me to save my energy to follow the crucial moves that happened in the last part of the race, resulting in us achieving the gold medal.

It would have been impossible for me to win the race without Choon Huat’s sacrifice and help.

What’s next for you? How are you working with your coach to improve?

Ultimately, i want to qualify for Asian games. The next intermediate goal would be Asian Cycling Championships in February 2018 so it already provides a good basis for the start of my next block of training. I’m having a sit-down with my coach to discuss what we need to work on, possibly re-watch the SEA Games footage and have a look at my data to see how we can tweak my training to bring about the improvements. We would probably do some performance testing again like the Lactate Threshold and Power Profile tests just to see where my baseline is at currently.

For now, I’m taking 2 weeks off proper training just to allow my body and mind to recover. More mountain biking first perhaps!

What would you like to say to young aspiring cyclists? 

I love cycling and will never forget the reason why i started, the joy and freedom that cycling provides. I think that this is extremely important as it is very easy to give up when the times are tough.

I always believe in doing my best and “beating” myself everyday. I know that if I give my best for every training and race, there would be no “regrets” even though I might not be “100%” that day. Most importantly, young cyclists should remember to always enjoy themselves during training. By having fun, tough times will pass much faster and feel easier.

How do you think the cycling community should support young aspiring cyclists? 

2 words, affordable access.

I think that there should be more discounts or rebates for younger cyclists to encourage them to join races. Access to sports science in Singapore is also crucial in helping them develop and improve especially when they have so many things going on in their young lives.  Younger riders may not have enough funds to enter into multiple races, access to cutting-edge technology, and access to sports science support but companies like CrankSmart and Loue Bicycles are good examples of providing such access and affordability to a certain extent. The founders of both companies also went under similar circumstances as me when they were racing as young individuals, so they are definitely keen on sustainable development pathways for young athletes.

There should also be a development team for younger riders to mix around with each other and train hard together. It is not just about performance, but also the social aspect and camaraderie of the sport that would be crucial for character development and future success.

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‘I love cycling and will never forget the reason why i started, the joy and freedom that cycling provides’ – Calvin Sim

 

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Be cool…

As a cyclist, I think you learn to react quickly to changing situations. Whether its winds causing echelons, suddenly finding yourself in a good breakaway move or dodging crashes, we get our brain put to the test very often. Especially in Singapore where cars have yet to fully accept cyclists as fellow road users, we are constantly slamming on the brakes, swerving to go around buses that “chop” your line, and riding in scarily narrow straight lines when cars squeeze you into the curb. When i see incidents on the road, i often think about how I would react if i were in that situation. Yesterday, that wondering came to very good use.

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I was on another two-wheeled mode of transport (one with an engine, ie. free speed) when a car turned across my path. Out of instinct I slammed on the stoppers and tried to aim for the clearest piece of tarmac. With cars coming at me in the opposite direction, I had a small window to get off scot-free and squeeze between the errant car and the oncoming traffic. I hit the car. Or the car hit me. Or whichever way you want to see it.

I’d like to think that my bike handling skills are awesome and thats why i kept it upright, but in reality the big man up there threw me a bone. Split second of additional reaction time and I would have been doing gymnastics like Jackie Chan in a Hollywood movie.

Now fuming that I had been hit, I admit I didn’t use the calmest tone of voice to confront the driver and his passenger. They immediately asked if i was OK, which i said i was, but i was still venting my anger with harsh tones. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. These were reasonable human beings who wanted to know if i was OK, and must have also been traumatised by the loud thud as my bike crashed into the side of their car. If you read this, I apologise for not being calmer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoAiX9Wm3cA

Slightly different context but same thinking applies.

The takeaway from my experience is that no matter how angry you may feel, try as best as you can (we all think irrationally sometimes) to stay calm and as cool as a cucumber. It will help resolve the situation a lot faster and your blood pressure won’t send veins bulging in your neck. Safe riding everyone.

 

P.S. practice anticipating vehicles actions. Just like how in a group you look at riders shoulders to anticipate their movements (you’re doing this already right???), look at brake lights, tyres turning and drivers view points.