On the cusp of history. He’s already the first Chinese rider to start the Tour de France; in one day’s time, Ji Cheng is set to be the first to finish the world-famous race. The Giant Shimano competitor has battled through the high mountains, fending off a leg injury which has sapped his power and pushed him to his limits.
The extent of that injury was obvious at the end of last Saturday’s stage 14 to the top of Risoul. Ji was in a bad way at finish, slumped over his bike and in some distress. He was unable to climb off his machine and had to be helped to dismount; a team worker then supported his body weight, half-carrying the shattered rider into the team bus.
He bounced back and continued to work hard for his Giant Shimano team, helping to control breakaways in the hope of setting up his team-mates to chase stage wins.
It’s been difficult, but also a testament to his determination.
“The problem is the left knee…my leg is all tense up to the hip,” Ji told journalists at the end of Saturday’s penultimate day time trial. “When the pain comes, it affects the whole leg…the power is gone.”
The issue hit him during the Alpine stages and compounded what were already very difficult days in the saddle. “I was really fighting the pain in my knee. Luckily I had one day’s rest [the rest day on Monday 21 July – ed.] and the doctor and the physiotherapist helped me to cool it down. I changed my shoes and did some good physiotherapy.
“I took one day really easy, the rest day, then finally it was a little less. But the problem is still there. When you start to cycle or you move your legs, there is still pain.”
The issue saw Ji end up as the Tour’s Lanterne Rouge, or last rider, but that’s fine; he’s been through a lot, and knows he is setting an important example in being the first Chinese rider to finish the Tour.
“I am proud of myself and the team,” he said. “I think tomorrow will be an amazing day for us. We will also have work to do [to try to help team-mate Marcel Kittel take his second consecutive stage win in Paris – ed.], but we’ll just go for it and then afterwards we can celebrate everything. It is done then.”
Ji didn’t want to tempt fate by talking about the Tour finish as a fait accompli; time enough for that. “I’m almost there. Tomorrow I can say, ‘okay, I am here,’ he laughed.
Ji comes from Harbin in northern China. He was originally a runner, then took up cycling. He began with track racing, which enabled him to sidestep the problem with training on the road during freezing winters.
He continued to progress in the sport and signed a contract in 2007 with the Skil Shimano team, the forerunner of the current Giant Shimano setup. He won a stage of the Tour of South China Sea the following year, then in 2012 he rode his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España. He picked up the award for the most aggressive rider on stage 19 there.
Last season his Grand Tour experience continued to grow when he rode the Giro d’Italia. He was a non-finisher there, but has continued to develop. At 27 years of age he looks set to complete his first Tour de France and achieve an important result for Chinese cycling.
Ji knows that his progress has been recognised, and draws encouragement from that. “Every day I got a few hundred messages from China, from Twitter also. So thanks to everybody,” he said. “It kept me motivated in the race, to keep going.”
He is riding for himself and his team, but also realises that his example shows other Chinese riders that it’s possible to be part of the top rung of the sport. “I hope they can see this possibility,” he said, “that they can see that Chinese cyclists can be successful also.
“I hope they can see this for the future.”