Malaysian sprinter Azizulhasni Awang helped put Asia's track cycling reputation into orbit on Sunday when he almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
Above: China's Guo Shuang (left), winner of the Women's Keirin, holds off Clara Sanchez of France who placed second at the World Track Cycling Championships at Pruszkow, near Warsaw, Poland, on Sunday. (Inset): Gold medalist Guo celebrates on the podium during the medal ceremony. [AP]
Only an hour after Chinese star Guo Shuang had given the Asians a huge boost with her maiden world title, in the women's keirin, Awang came close to grabbing a first ever gold for his country in the men's sprint.
In the end, Awang, Malaysia's flag-bearer at the Beijing Olympics, had to settle for silver as Frenchman Gregory Bauge powered his way to the finish line, and victory, after Awang had forced a third-leg decider.
It meant Malaysia finished with two medals after Mohd Rizal Tisin had made history earlier in the week by claiming bronze - Malaysia's first medal at the world championships - in the four-lap kilometre won by Stefan Nimke of Germany.
After being given a scare by Awang, Bauge's cries of joy and relief echoed around the velodrome as he handed France their first world crown in the coveted sprint event since Laurent Gane in 2003.
Bauge admitted he had to dig deep to overcome Awang, whom he said was as "cunning as a monkey".
"He's wily, and I knew it, but when you're on the bike it goes so fast that you have very little time to react," he said.
After missing out on progressing to the final of the keirin, his preferred event, Awang used his tactical prowess and impressive speed to get past a host of bigger favorites in the sprint, sport's blue riband event.
His skills impressed spectators and former champions alike, including retired track great Arnaud Tournant of France.
"He's fast and tactically he's very talented," Tournant, who still holds the world kilometre record, told AFP.
"And because he's small he can go places you wouldn't think about going yourself."
The 21-year-old from a small village in east Malaysia, who was adopted out to a more financially comfortable family by his poor parents when he was a baby, believed he could have come away with gold.
"I'm still happy with my silver medal. It's not too bad, but I'm a little bit sad because I knew I could do it," Awang said.
However, Asia was not to go without topping the podium, with Guo claiming her maiden world crown at the championships in the keirin - a result that will not go unnoticed in keirin-mad Japan.
The 24-year-old France-based racer, who hails from Inner Mongolia, was evidently happy with her first world title.
"I'm happy and very excited," Guo, who won sprint bronze in Beijing last August, said.
"It also gives me a lot of confidence for the future. I think the Asian riders are finally starting to come level with the rest of the world and we'll soon start to see more world champions."
The biggest plaudits for Awang may have come from his coach John Beasley, who heads their track programme in Melbourne.
However Beasley, a former coach of his native Australia, said: "He's such a good athlete to work, always hungry to improve himself.
"And that'something you can't coach. At only 21, he's just a baby in track cycling terms but he has what it takes to be a great rider."
(AFP via China Daily March 31, 2009)