By Terry Maddaford
Samoa is not exactly flush with cycling velodromes or even bikes to race around them. They would struggle to hold more than a tight round-the-streets criterium let alone a road race.
So, it comes as some surprise the tiny Pacific nation will be represented by a cyclist at this year's Olympic Games.
Twenty-four-year-old Bianca Netzler will carry Samoan hopes in the road race in Sydney.
No stranger to the big time - she first represented Samoa at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and last year won silver in the time trial at the World B grade championships in South America - Netzler is the first Samoan - in any sport - to be selected for Sydney 2000.
She flew to Canberra yesterday to join the Australian Institute of Sport elite squad for some intensive training ahead of the Tour de Snowy and World Cup races. She intends to ride the Olympic road course in Sydney before returning to Auckland.
She then plans to join the Proteus 2000 for a series of races in the United States before returning to Australia to complete her pre-Games training.
Gaining selection was a close run thing but came as a real relief for Netzler, who represented New Zealand at the 1993 Junior World Championships in Perth and the Oceania Championships in Townsville two years later before turning to Samoa.
Born in New Zealand of Samoan parents, Netzler fits in well with the Samoan way of life. There are close links to Samoan-German heritage on both sides of her family.
She was joined in Kuala Lumpur by a couple of badminton players, some lawn bowlers and, of course, the rugby sevens team.
"The Samoan people are really friendly," said Netzler who won the one qualifying spot available to the first cyclist from outside Australia or New Zealand at last month's Oceania championships in Sydney - the Olympic qualifying event.
"They say to me: 'You may look white but inside you have a real Samoan sense of humour.' The people in Samoa are very proud of what I have achieved."
While there are no competitive cyclists in Samoa, Netzler says her exploits have aroused interest in the sport. When she turns up with her "flash" road bike she doubles the number of racing machines in the country.
"I hope at some time we can run a race in Samoa but the problem is the roads - they aren't good enough."
A regular visitor to Apia for almost 20 years, Netzler is assured of good family support. Her extended family own a gymnasium and sports shop in Apia.
Sadly, she has been caught up in funding problems within the country's National Olympic Committee.
"Funds have apparently been frozen although there was a $A4000 allocation from the International Olympic Committee to pay for my AIS programme. But I haven't received any funding so far."
So Netzler has joined the ever-growing list of cyclists in search of support, relying heavily on a hard-pressed but generous family, as she awaits a new cycle from the United States and prepares for a lengthy Olympic build-up.
However, there was some good news yesterday when Polynesian Airlines stepped forward with an offer to cover her air travel costs within their network.
While she will chase Olympic glory around the Sydney Olympic road course, she already has her sights set on the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games as perhaps a more realistic opportunity of putting the fledgling Pacific cycling nation on the map.