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The fastest female cyclist in Cambodia upending social norms

Photo: Sam Jam

Sivlang Heng wakes up early each morning to start making breakfast for her family. But by 5:30am she is normally in her cycling kit and preparing for her training sessions with Cambodia’s national cycling team. Home for a quick shower and to make lunch, she then has afternoon training in the newly refitted gym at the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia’s headquarters.

The 36-year-old mother of four is the fastest female cyclist in the country – and has been since her first race in 2011.

Heng started riding bicycles when she was ten, when she cycled to and from school in southern Phnom Penh with her friends. But this didn’t lead to a love of cycling, and instead it was table tennis in which she excelled from the age of 13, representing Cambodia in several regional competitions until her marriage at 18.

“My first cycling race was in the women’s category at Phnom Basset in 2011 – and I was champion in the first race,” she said recently at Flying Bikes 2, the bike shop her husband part-owns with his brother.

Sivlang Heng, Cambodia’s fastest female cyclist and advocate for women getting involved in cycling and other sports. Photo: Sam Jam

Phnom Basset is a limestone hill spattered with Angkor-era temples about 30km north of Phnom Penh, offering views of rice fields and lakes, as well as the most challenging mountain biking near the capital.

“Chove, my brother-in-law, insisted I enter a race as there were not enough women. My husband was scared for me at first, but eventually he let me [do it],” she said.

“And now I’m faster than both of them,” she added with a smile. Her recent 6th place finish at the Southeast Asian Games criterium race in Malaysia also means she is among the fastest female cyclists in Southeast Asia. (Criterium is a spectator-friendly offering, with racers completing multiple laps of short, twisting courses at high speed.)

Property developers and two-wheel enthusiasts Vong Khan Pove – Heng’s husband and recipient of the oknha honorific, which is bestowed, usually on the business elite, in return for a $500,000 ‘donation’ to the state – and his elder brother Chove, are part-owners of Flying Bikes 2, a bike shop that has been central to the development and growth of cycling in Cambodia.

First opened in early 2011 in Phnom Penh’s Golden Sorya Mall – more famous for its seedy nocturnal offerings than sporting endeavour – the shop moved to a bigger location nearby in 2014, where it has continued to bring bicycle racing, and high-end bikes, to Cambodia.

“We were keen mountain bikers, and we had been organising mountain bike events since 2005 and saw a growing interest in this sport. At that time, only Giant [Bicycles] had a distributor, so we believed it was the right time [in 2011] to distribute renowned brands like Cannondale and GT,” explained shop director Pierre-Yves Catry, who was born in Cambodia and has been a central figure in cycling and other ‘extreme’ sports in the Kingdom since returning from France in the early 1990s.

In the early years of racing in Cambodia, bicycles were imported second hand from Japan and people largely rode whichever models they could find rather than anything intended for racing. This resulted in riders lining up for races with a motley collection of beach cruisers, street bikes, museum pieces and, for the lucky few, race-ready bikes.

Vong Khan Pove, secretary general of Cambodia’s National Cycling Federation and husband of Sivlang Heng. Photo: Sam Jam

“We noticed a rapid growth in sales in the first three years, then the volume of bicycles sold decreased but the average value of the bikes increased. It was around $500 in 2012, and it is now closer to $800,” Catry noted, suggesting this change was due to better consumer knowledge of bicycle technology and a desire for faster and lighter bikes.

In recent years, Flying Bikes 2 and Giant have been joined by other premium international cycling brands such as Scott, Specialized and Merida, as the demand for the latest and greatest in cycling products has expanded. Races are covered by national TV stations such as PNN and BTV, and count Cambodia Beer and RHB bank among big-name sponsors.

The target market for Phnom Penh’s high-end bike shops remain middle-class and wealthy Cambodians, with prices starting at around $300 and rising steeply. The countries of origin for most of these bikes, China and Taiwan, are the same as the more modest $100 options available at markets across the country. What is true of both bicycle price points sold in Cambodia is that many will not end up being raced at high speeds, but rather for more leisurely pursuits.

In addition to the traditional Phnom Penh morning exercises of leisurely walking and group calisthenics, as witnessed throughout the city as the sun rises, in the past few years groups of mostly middle-aged men in lycra – sometimes referred to by the acronym, MAMILs – have sprung up across the city. With flashing lights attached to bikes that have often cost more than the national per capita GDP, languid loops of Koh Pich and Independence Monument appeal to the slower riders, while National Road 6 or the newly opened Hun Sen Boulevard attract the more energetic cyclists including Heng and the national team.

A young Cambodian cyclist tackles tricky terrain at Phnom Basset. Photo: Sam Jam

This has become possible as the country’s roads have been resurfaced, which has also altered what bicycles are imported into Cambodia. Those designed exclusively for use on roads, featuring narrow tires, drop handlebars and no suspension, have increased in popularity but haven’t overtaken sales of more versatile mountain bikes, according to Catry.

It is not uncommon to spot bikes that cost more than $8,000 and are the same specification as those ridden by the world’s top professionals. For those lacking the cash up front, loans in credit-rich Cambodia are always available – customers at Flying Bikes 2, for example, have access to credit from the microfinance institution Aeon.

Despite the growing number of cyclists in Cambodia, a lingering challenge is how to attract more women to take part, both socially and competitively. At the Phnom Basset stage of the five-part national mountain bike series earlier this year, national champion Heng was once against the fastest female finisher. She was racing against eight men as there are no women who can challenge her dominance. While more than 100 men signed up to compete in the various categories, fewer than ten women entered the race.

“In Thailand, there are many women cycling. They start as kids and are really strong with lots of technical skills by the time we compete against them. It is very difficult to do well,” Heng lamented.

An array of bicycle equipment on display in the Giant and Flying Bikes 2 shopes in Phnom Penh. Wealthy Cambodians are becoming increasingly willing to part with their cash in return for big-name bike brands such as Giant and Cannondale. Photo: Sam Jam

But a recent training regime implemented by the newly reorganised National Cycling Federation (NCF) has produced some clear results.

“My life was much more relaxed before, but I feel faster than I was. Now when I am not outside on my bike, I am at the gym training,” Heng said.

The effects were especially clear at the recent Southeast Asian Games, in which Cambodia’s seven-strong team achieved its best results ever: Heng’s 6th place, and 5th place for male rider Yoeun Phyuth in their respective criterium races.

The 21-year-old international relations student has been racing for eight years and shares Heng’s wish that more female racers would take part in the sport. “We need to encourage the girls to do the sport… Maybe they are scared about [darkening] their skin, or whatever, but this is a fun sport, and I think there will be more female riders joining,” he said.

According to Pove – not only Sivlang’s husband but also the NCF secretary general – it is a need that has already been identified by the federation, which has a post-Southeast Asian Games focus of encouraging women to start cycling and racing. “Female cycling has a few people taking part,” he said. “Many women like cycling, but not so many like to race, and we want to change that.”

Pervasive social expectations for women to focus on raising a family, rather than take part in sport or other pursuits, are partially to blame for the low number of female competitors, Heng explained.

Cyclists ride past Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Casual riders on very expensive bikes are becoming an increasingly common sight in the capital. Photo: Sam Jam

“My friends ask why am I riding bikes? Aren’t I worried about getting dark, having an accident or being so tired?” she said. “Maybe women are scared to race; they think it’s only for men, or they are worried they have to spend time with their children instead.”

Heng’s status as the wife of an oknha means that her circle of friends, and social class, often have different interests that leave little time for cycling. “Some admire what I do, especially how I can have four children and still do this, but many they think I am rather crazy,” she joked. “I invite them often, but they don’t come.”

Through her racing, Heng has overcome her own fears about the possible dangers of the sport, and racing has allowed her to travel to Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. She is now on a mission to spread word of the great opportunities for travel and self-discovery that she has received through her cycling.

“I want to tell women and girls that they can make friends cycling, travel a lot, have fun, relieve any stress and be healthy,” she said. “I never think about [stopping]. I always want to ride, even if in the future I can’t race.”

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