Words & Photos: Adam Aubrey
Considering Team Sapura Cycling (TSC) was only founded in 2017, it is an impressive feat that they have managed to become one of the top cycling teams in Asia within three years. But don’t take our word for it because it is UCI who have recently branded them that. According to Sayuti Zahit, TSC’s Directeur Sportif (DS), they are also currently the number one UCI Asian Continental Team, racking up major points after that big win at the recent 2019 Le Tour De Langkawi, which includes the Yellow Jersey which people recognise as the overall winner, as well as best Malaysian rider.
It is also especially remarkable when a team gets to where they are on a conservative budget. Although TSC did go slightly over their budget last year, they have managed to keep within their budget for the other two years. Considering the other local team (that shall remain unnamed here) spends nearly double what TSC has, it is good to know that sometimes funds isn’t everything. Sayuti has funds at his disposal, but it is just not the way he wants to run TSC.
“The reason why we are spending this much each year is because that is how much I have set it to be. Our backers have the resources to give us more but this is what I feel we can work with to get us to a Continental Team (CT) top spot. Even when it comes to offering top riders’ salaries, I have always capped it at a certain level to keep things firmly on the ground,” said the DS.
But why does Sayuti operate this way? For this we have to trace his roots and the journey to where he is now. 35 year old Sayuti Zahit is from Pasir Putih, Kelantan, who started his journey in the world of cycling before reaching the tender age of 15. “It all started with this teacher called ‘Cikgu Hisham’ at my school, Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Padang Pak Amat,” Sayuti recalled.
“He was actually an English teacher and the way we were introduced to cycling was a funny story. Because he was one of the only few people who had a Sony Playstation at his house in Pasir Putih we would often go there to play some video games. After some time and just like any teenager, we soon got bored of the Playstation and this is where Cikgu Hisham said let’s go cycling instead.”
“We cycled everywhere and even went all the way down to Selangor from Kelantan just to cycle at locations such as Kuala Kubu and more. We even participated in some races around the country. During these excursions I was spotted by Institut Sukan Negara’s talent ID and by Form 4 I was at their ISN School in Bandar Penawar in Johor."
"This is where I started to take cycling really seriously because the opportunities to train hard and race in events were there. By the age of 17 I was starting to represent Malaysia under the junior category and at the very first race in Taiwan I managed to pick up a silver medal. From there I felt like I could have a career in this,” said the humble team manager.
He then proceeded to finish his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (O-level equivalent) before pursuing more in cycling, joining Majlis Sukan Negara (National Sports Council) and took his place in the under-23 track endurance team. “The biggest achievement that we managed to complete as an under-23 team was the Gold medal at the 2005 SEA Games in team pursuit, and Silver medal in the Elite Cycling Championship in 2006 in the Scratch Race. On the back of these achievements we were offered an opportunity to train like Josiah Ng in the United States under the MSN initiative,” explained Sayuti.
When his American training finished, Sayuti was given the opportunity to further his education at University Malaya and without hesitation chose to do a degree in Sports Management, minoring in Physiology. It was a clever decision without him realising then, as the subjects were ultimately in line with what he is doing now.
“The reason I chose these two subjects instead of coaching is because coaching is just a small part of handling sports teams and people. With Sports Management you tend to overlook everything and be involved in all aspects which is also why I took physiotherapy as a minor. By knowing physiology I could figure out what kind of effects the training is having on the athlete, especially when you do block and dedicated training."
"To me, these two really do go hand-in-hand; I can understand the feedback of training and how one area of a team affects the other. At this point I also thought to myself, in Malaysia there is no body that has ever had the experience of being a rider, winning as rider as well as having a degree so that they can do better in the sport. This is why I wanted to further my education; I could be one of the few people that have the complete package”.
After finishing his education, Sayuti decided to put his education to some good use, taking up a placement in Brunei where he did some practical work. The job was to help coach the Brunei Cycling Team, which only lasted for 6 months after Sayuti felt that cycling was not considered a serious sport there. He felt that the technology surrounding cycling and cyclists in Brunei was extremely lacking compared to Malaysia. Believing that adversity sometimes brings out the best in athletes, Sayuti felt that life was too easy for the athletes there.
His search for greener pastures saw him return home and took him to Malacca, where he became a coach at University Technical Malaysia Melaka. After attempting to take their cycling team to a higher level, Sayuti discovered the cycling program there was good but the students were ultimately more focused on their primary subjects.
After a host of disappointing jobs, Sayuti decided to go in a different direction and open up a bike shop. For 6 years this was the place to go to if you were serious about cycling and had the money to invest on bikes. Sayuti only stocked up on the best equipment, selling products that he truly believed in. He had a decent following at Bike Tech Subang, which included some of the most prominent members of society such as Sepang CEO, Dato’ Razlan Razali as well as Sapura Energy CEO, Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Shahril Shamsudin.
“One night after a Putrajaya ride we were all sitting down at a mamak, when suddenly Tan Sri asked me about my ambition. Of course I said I would like to be involved in a professional cycling team and after some further chit chat he said let’s do it. That night I didn’t sleep, creating a plan for the cycling team. By 6am I had emailed the plan to Tan Sri and by 10am he called for a lunch meeting at 1pm. Tan Sri, his brother Dato’ Shahriman Shamsuddin and I met up later and just like that, the Sapura Cycling Team was born,” said Sayuti.
Sayuti’s plan was simple: get all the best equipment and coaches possible; the riders cannot blame anyone or anything but themselves if they do not improve or win. The riders he recruited were locals with potential, mostly rejects from the MSN or state level. He contacted Cervelo, one of the few bike manufacturers present in Malaysia then, that had bikes in pro races and was willing to offer good prices for the team. Cervelo also had a lot of aero data which he really liked. The coaching staff was a bit tricky, which saw Sayuti taking up the head coach job in the end.
“In the first year we hired ex-Spanish world champion Sergei Escobar as head coach as well as a young local coach to help him out. We only retained the Spaniard for six months, because for the money he cost the results were not that pleasing.”
“We then hired a UCI expert level coach and that also lasted for six months. Like before, his results were not worth the money. After that, I took up the SD post, retained the young local coach and hired another local one with experience. To date, this has been the coaching setup and so far it is working out."
"I then decided to get a few international experienced riders to help with the local youngsters, though I did not offer them high salaries. Most of these international riders joined us because of the equipment that we have, so my plan actually paid off in the end. This combo of having international riders guiding the young guys has also helped, and the local coaches also understand the Malaysian youngsters better and we are now progressing better,” Sayuti concluded.
Sayuti was never really a fan of throwing money at the problem, and we can see this in his story. He believes that a change of approach is always necessary if things don’t work the first time around. From his time in University Malaya he has learnt to keep within a budget and experience has taught him to re-angle his approach until it works. This is something that experience and education can provide, and his choices are clearly paying off big time in the case of Team Sapura Cycling.