BEIJING (VN) — Strong northerly winds blew out choking clouds of smog just in time for Tuesday’s start of the five-day Tour of Beijing.
It came as a relief for riders, who woke up to find clear skies before the start in Tiananmen Square, giving the UCI-backed race a reprieve against a growing chorus of complaints about air quality.
A rumored rider protest never materialized Tuesday and the first stage unrolled without incident, but some questioned air quality and the rationale of hosting a bicycle race in arguably one of the world’s most polluted cities.
Most riders queried by VeloNews before the start of Tuesday’s stage, however, took a philosophical approach to racing in Beijing.
“I think a day or two of this isn’t going to kill anyone,” said Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who won the Olympic road race here in 2008. “We had worse conditions in 2008, when it was very hot, humid and smoggy. It’s a big city and luckily we are only in these conditions for a few days. Today is ok.”
Just 24 hours ago, the air quality index shot to nearly 400, well into the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s “hazardous” zone. Individuals with respiratory problems, and elderly and young people were advised not to go outside. On Tuesday, levels were around 25 on the same index, well within the “good” range.
The sudden change of weather came as a collective relief for organizers, but riders questioned whether performing at high intensity under such contamination levels could do permanent damage to their health. There were even murmurs of a rider protest, but that effort fizzled when high winds howling out of Mongolia cleared out the smog in time for Tuesday’s race.
BMC Racing team doctor Dario Spinelli said there are legitimate health concerns about racing in contaminated environments over extended periods.
“Yes, it can be a big problem for the respiratory system. Luckily, today it is clear and we hope it stays like this,” Spinelli said. “To race a few days is not bad, but more days would be a serious problem.”
This year’s Beijing course largely stays clear of the urban center where the smog can be worse. The second through fifth stages are being held over the hills west and north of Beijing.
Global Cycling Promotion director Alain Rumpf said the routing of this year’s course was not influenced by trying to steer the race clear of Beijing’s smog, but rather due to an upcoming Communist Party convention that will be held under heavy security.
Rumpf said after last year’s edition, when the final stage in Beijing was held under heavy smog conditions, he conferred with riders and team doctors to gauge their reaction.
“We have consulted with experts about the risk and in the short-term it is not significant. Of course, as one of the world’s biggest cities, the air quality is not the same as the Swiss Alps,” Rumpf said. “One of the reasons the Chinese government is hosting the race is to promote cycling as a means of transport. We are here to help pass this message.”
Smog in Beijing is highly erratic, just as the quick change in the skies over the past 24 hours revealed. Surrounded by mountains, the 20-million-strong urban area is often choked under a thick bank of smog that obscures the sun and irritates eyes and throats. Millions of commuters and factories emit contaminants that can quickly sour the skies.
Autumn in Beijing typically sees better weather, while the worst smog conditions typically occur during summer heat waves and winter temperature inversions.
Riders are hopeful Tuesday’s clear skies remain throughout the remainder of the week.
“One or two days of bad smog is tolerable, racing for more than that is another story,” said Spanish rider Juanma Garate (Rabobank). “I am more worried about the food. I don’t touch the salad and cannot even fathom eating the meat.”