Why does pro cycling struggle to crack China?
Rivalry and reluctant investors could be to blame
The international peloton completed what was viewed by the riders and staff as a successful inaugural Tour of Guangxi this week in China, a country that despite being the most populous still lags behind in the pro peloton. The People’s Republic fields zero teams and counts only one rider in the Worldtour ranks.
It has, however, made some progress in recent years. It fielded Professional Continental team Champion System, hosted the top-level Tour of Beijing for four years, and celebrated Cheng Ji, the first Chinese cyclist to debut in all three Grand Tours, including the Tour de France in 2014. Although many of these have been fleeting, the Tour of Guangxi has something to build on.
What are the chances of the Tour of Guangxi continuing? Asia’s second richest man, Jianlin Wang, supports the race via the Wanda Sports group. Besides Guangxi, China counts the long-running events Tour of China, Tour of Qinghai Lake and Tour of Hainan. Cycling there has a much bigger amateur scene, though. Out of around 400 races, only eight are professional.
Will the race boost China’s appetite cycling? Just looking at the roads it was clear the six-day tour drew significantly more spectators than the Tour of Beijing, which ceased in 2014. At most starts and finishes, groups of spectators arrived on expensive road bikes. “It’s not just the boost from the tours or the 2008 Olympics, but a growing number of people riding their bikes,” says Chinese journalist Xujie Chen, from website Biketo. “Since the 2014 Tour of Beijing, when there were around 500 to 1,000 riders at sportive and fun ride events, the numbers have grown to 4,000.”
“A breakthrough would be for provinces to work together; support one strong team”
Why are there no top-end teams? Neighbouring country Kazakhstan supports team Astana, but China has no Worldtour or Professional Continental teams. The 11 Chinese Continental teams field around 100 Uci-registered cyclists in total. The government “is more and more involved with increased funding,” adds Chen. “We have a higher number of cycling staff to create teams, so teams could be formed but we still don’t have the results to encourage that.”
Why does China’s track success not translate to road success?
Women have won keirin gold medals at the Worlds as well as gold in the team sprint at the 2014 Rio Olympics. “The Hong Kong coach tells me that with the average body size, Asians are suited to the track,” Chen says. “And China puts more weight behind its track programme because it has more chances for gold medals there than on the road.”
What needs to happen to raise the level on the road? The inter-province rivalry is so strong that it overshadows international goals. The breakthrough would be to encourage the provinces to work together to support one strong team. Money could come from China’s rich international businesses, but insiders say they currently fail to see the commercial benefit from sponsorship. The Tour of Guangxi, won by Tim Wellens (Lotto-soudal) on Tuesday, could help change those views.
Can cycling in China catch up with the pro peloton?