By Eric San Juan
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, June 19 (efe-epa).- Javier Sardá has gone from being on the verge of ditching cycling altogether, following a string of disappointments on the European circuit, to becoming the race-dominating face of the sport in Vietnam.
“I never thought this would happen,” the 33-year-old Spaniard tells EFE as he sips a coffee outside the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Here I feel like a true cyclist again.”
The place where he sits is just a few meters from where he crossed the finishing line of the 18-stage HTV Cup wearing the yellow leaders’ jersey. It was his second victory in the Vietnamese tour.
A climbing specialist, Sardá secured victory in the mountains of south Vietnam with a 35-second advantage over his closest rival, Vietnamese cyclist Nguyen Tan Hoai.
“They are fierce in all terrains. This year we had to hold on until the last day as they were attacking us from all directions,” Sardá, who rides for the Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh-VUS team, says.
Three years after coming to the Southeast Asian country, he still finds it hard to believe his trajectory, which has taken him from third-division racing categories in Spain to fame in Vietnam.
Disheartened by his chances in Spain, and on the cusp of dropping the sport altogether, Sardá enrolled with a Japanese team in 2016 with the help of an old Japanese colleague.
Boosted by a positive experience there, he had the opportunity to sign with his Vietnamese team in 2018.
For Sardá, gone are the days of financial hardship, unpaid races and late prize payments.
“In Spain there are teams, but the conditions they offer are not enough to live on, unless you’re at the highest level,” he says. “Until I was 26 I was racing without a salary.
“Getting into the Pro Continental (the second-highest level in Europe) was not just a question of talent, but also depended on connections and friendships.”
He says he was only able to make a living from cycling after he moved to Japan.
“Now in Vietnam I’m great, the salary pays enough for me to live comfortably, I get paid every month whether I compete or not and the races pay out prize money one or two days after the event,” he adds.
Sardá dismisses the notion that he is only achieving his victories because he is competing at a lower level, adding that other European cyclists tried their luck in Vietnam but simply couldn’t adapt to the climate and the culture.
It took him a while to assimilate, too. His stomach didn’t adapt well to the abrupt change in diet.
“I’m getting better now, but at the beginning I’d even get sick during races,” he says.
Despite his new-found fame, Sardá scrupulously sticks to his routine. He trains every day at 6 am to avoid the suffocating tropical heat and in the evenings he goes out for a walk or studies English at the residence he shares with his teammates in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam.
He sees himself staying in Vietnam for some years, however long his fitness and mentality allow him to continue to compete.