Last Wednesday marked the start of Asia’s first World Tour event – The Tour of Beijing. For a such a historic moment in the globalization of cycling there were remarkably few people around to celebrate the occasion. Fans weren’t allowed into the Olympic area resulting in a start and finish line devoid of atmosphere and eerily quiet. Over on twitter the hashtag #tourofbeijing wasn’t relaying much celebratory commentary, rather it was awash with complaints about smog, allegations of heavy handedness from the UCI, race radios and questions about why Beijing deserved World Tour status when there was nobody there to watch the race.
Despite its quiet start and the fears surrounding the race it marked the start of a new and exciting chapter for cycling. It isn’t a French, Italian nor English chapter. Its’s going to be a Chinese one – the language spoken natively by more people than any other language in the world.
Sure, the nomenclature “zi xing Che dui” and “hong shan de zhu” don’t sound as glorious over the race commentary as “peloton” or “maillot jaune” (the french equivalents) but promotion of a Cycling World Tour Event in this language is sure to be a boon for the sport. There are over 1.3 billion people in China and many of them are looking for new ways to enjoy recreation time and spend their wealth. You can be sure that participation in sporting activities ranks high on their list. Just two weeks ago I sold a full carbon fibre road bike to Liu, a 14 year old kid who started riding for recreation only a few months earlier. His motivation for purchasing a new road bike was simple – “I want to be faster than my friends”.
The city also has well established road cycling culture. Take for example Coach Shi – a 47 year old Beijing native that was a top level rider in the 80‘s who now collects old classic bikes and trains young riders from his compound on the outskirts of the city. He has been following pro cycling for years and has a collections of VHS recordings of old races which he plays to new riders providing instruction in riding technique and tactics. Out on the roads I train and race with young twenty somethings Chinese riders that organize unsanctioned races out of a genuine passion for the sport. My friend Zhang Nan organized a series of 5 races over summer where the prize for top place on the podium was only a warm can of coke. The races have swelled to well over 200 participants and next year it looks like he’ll get a sponsor to build the series up.
Sponsorship has been a big talking point since the folding of HTC Highroad and the merging of two other major teams this year. Its a sign that sponsorship is becoming harder to attract. Opening up the sport to China provides huge additional promotional mileage for sponsors and is also likely to attract Chinese companies to the sport. This is good for the long term viability of cycling. The big names in the cycling business are all well aware of this and many were on hand to witness this inaugural event. Michele Acquarone RCS Sport general director mentioned he’d love to see his race, the Giro become more global and would even consider a start in China one year.
Quite a few of the riders were excited to be at the event despite its late season time slot and concerns about food safety, air and security. Overall winner Tony Martin wanted to be part of the event for some time, “I decided a long time before (I won the world championship) to come here. I wanted to be one time in China. For me it is not about the victory, it’s about being here for this nice race.”
Sammy Sanchez still has a connection to the city in which he won Olympic gold in the road race. He was happy to be back. “For me personally I have a lot of thoughts about Beijing and the Olympics. It is very special for me. To show it, I have a gold Olympic rings ear-stud and a tattoo on my right shoulder”. His bike still has 8 plastered all over it which is a lucky number in Chinese culture.
All eyes were on the Chinese National team during the event looking out to see if the cycling equivalent of Yao Ming (basketball) or Li Na (tennis) would emerge from the front of the peloton. Jiang Kun and Wang Meiyin were the two stand out young Chinese riders that impressed on stages 2 and 4 by being active in long breakaways. For their efforts they were awarded the most aggressive rider prize on those stages but they were unable to pull off a coveted first stage victory for China.
Its clear the Chinese riders have talent but they still have some way to go. Saxo Bank-Sungard’s directeur sportif Philippe Mauduit (who assisted with coaching the national team between 2002 and 2004) suggested that the national team system needs some reform if it athletes are going to reach their full potential. Jiang Kun is a product of this system. Based on his physical attributes Jiang was hand picked from school at age 12 and sent to a general gymnastics sport school where he was trained until he was 17. He then entered the provincial cycling team and starting his racing career. When I asked him about what impressed him the most in his recent training at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle he commented “I learnt a lot in Switzerland, especially the way of thinking.” He went onto say that the Chinese coaching system was much more rigid than what he experienced in Aigle and that he now understood the value of independence.
Independent training and teams could well be a good next step for developing talent in China. Part of tennis star Li Na’s success has been attributed to what the Chinese call “Dan Fei” which means “fly alone” and it refers to Li Na’s decision to go and pursue independence outside of the State sport system. Li Fuyu, China’s best known cyclist and first rider to make it into the pro peloton has ambitions to do something similar and launch a new pro-continental team for Chinese riders. He is currently seeking sponsors. Fuyu has had a low international profile since his contentious suspension for Clenbuterol in 2010. His presence at the race as coach of the Chinese team caused a minor stir amongst the foreign journalists, keen to hear his views in light of Contadors case and the evidence of low levels of Clenbuterol found in lab tests conducted on travellers returning to Germany from China. 22 out of 27 tested positive. Li Fuyu was in China 5 days before he tested positive at Dwars door Vlaanderen and has always claimed his innocence.
There was a large contingent of Aussies at the race including 10 riders, team staff, media and members of the organizing committee. Its great to see an engagement with China as Australia has so much to offer as the powerhouse cycling nation in the Asia Pacific region.
By the time that Tony Martin took to the podium for the final presentation the eeirly silence had was replaced with the cheers of the crowd who has finally made its way around the barriers. Few were doubting that this was a successful first edition of Asia’s first World Tour event and we all look eagerly to the next
Shannon Bufton, the writer of this article, is an Australian who has lived in China for 5 years. His company SERK cycling provides a range of services for the Chinese market. He also undertakes urban research on Beijing’s old cycling culture through the organization he co-founded in Beijing - Smarter Than Car and writes for cyclingnewsasia.com He provided cultural assistance and advice to the Tour of Beijing organizers and media during the event. Follow him on twitter @bikebeijing