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Curious pros line up for Beijing tour

2011 Tour of Beijing, Team Sky training. Photo: Andrew Hood
Team Sky heads out. Photo: Andrew Hood

BEIJING (VN) — Eight riders from Team Sky gathered in a nondescript hotel parking garage on Monday morning ahead of what would be a very distinct three-hour training ride on the mean streets of the bustling Chinese capital.

A team staffer told the gathered riders all they had to do was head out of the garage, turn right and then turn left and follow the highway out of town. Sounds easy enough, but in China, the adventure is just beginning in what will be the first major elite-level professional bike race here.

Related: Start list (pdf)

“It should be an interesting week,” said Sky’s Michael Barry. “I was here for the Olympics in 2008, but we never really got outside of the Olympic bubble. I am looking forward to seeing what real China will be like.”

Barry and Sky teammates quickly got their first taste of “real China” on their training ride. Two official cars were set to follow them, but beyond that, racing this week in Beijing is sure to be an adventure on every pedal stroke.

The five-day Tour of Beijing debuts on Wednesday and continues through Sunday. Three stages are in and around central Beijing, with two other stages tackling some steep climbs in the mountains north of the city, including a stage that parallels the Great Wall.

The race has been the center of a bitter power struggle between some of the top pro teams and the UCI over the race-radio debate.

A final-hour compromise was reached, opening the door for the teams to travel to cycling’s newest and perhaps wealthiest frontier.

China offers a huge, untested market for cycling, with untapped potential for sponsorship dollars as well as potentially massive fan-base. Soccer, the NBA and tennis are already making inroads into China, so the UCI is keen to promote cycling’s profile in the burgeoning market.

It will be interesting to see how the Chinese public responds to the race, which opens Wednesday with an opening prologue in central Beijing.

In 2008, hardly anyone turned up to watch the women’s road race during Olympic competition. Officials reportedly ordered factory workers to line the course for the men’s race that followed, but there’s no doubt that fans will need to be educated on what it means to watch a bike race.

There are some big names lining up, including 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez, Damiano Cunego, Lars Boom, Nick Nuyens, Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Nicolas Roche and the Sagan brothers.

World time trial champion Tony Martin will be debuting his rainbow stripes Wednesday in what’s one of the final races for HTC-Highroad before the team closes shop at the end of the season.

For the majority of riders in China this week, the Beijing race marks the end of a long season.

“It’s important for cycling to be here,” said Sky’s Dario Cioni, who is a rider’s rep for the UCI. “China will be big for the future of the sport. Everyone here is curious to see how the race. So far, things seem well-organized.”

Riders have arrived over the past 48 hours, flying business-class in the long, 12-hour flight from Europe. Teams are spread between two, five-star hotels in Beijing’s Olympic Park, within eye-shot of the emblematic Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube swimming facility.

Officials from ASO and the UCI have also been arriving to help local Chinese crews run and organize the race.

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