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What happened to Mister TJ Sport?

By Gregor Brown • Published
Ben Swift is one of the top riders who is counting on Giuseppe Saronni's team to be granted a WorldTour license. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — TJ Sport splashed hard into the pool and drenched onlookers with the idea of China’s first top-level team, but it failed to surface ahead of the 2017 season.

Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates came to the rescue in the last week, according to insiders contacted by VeloNews. Lampre – Merida, instead of looking to the Far East, will receive funds from the Middle East for 2017.

Giuseppe Saronni’s team will be re-branded hurriedly with the first race less than a month away. The team will saddle Colnago bicycles for the first race in Australia, the Tour Down Under, without ever knowing TJ Sport.

TJ Sport president Li Zhiqiang launched the team with Saronni in Beijing this August. Saronni said that companies such as Alibaba, J-One, and Wanda Sport were investing as a means to put the population back on their bikes to fight pollution and obesity

One month later, however, whispers could be heard that Saronni was struggling to come up with the money. The UCI’s license commissioned confirmed that when it issued WorldTour licenses to all 18 applying teams except Saronni’s.

The Saronni camp pulled the curtains, saying only that they needed more time to gather their paperwork for the commission and that the person in charge in China fell sick.

Li Zhiqiang, however, is more than just a mythical dragon-god in cycling’s long story.

Besides being China’s 302nd richest person, he is a former cyclist. Part of his wealth comes from cycling as TJ Sport organizes some of the biggest amateur events in China. That list of events includes the biggest of them all, the Tour Poyang Lake in the Jiangxi province. That means something in a country of 1.4 billion people.

TJ Sport runs the 11-day event as if it were a professional event with WorldTour cyclists. Around 18 teams with large, interchangeable daily rosters race through the provinces rice paddy fields and mountains.

Li Zhiqiang began refusing interview requests shortly after the August launch. Some reported recently that he has cancer of the pancreas, news his office dismissed Thursday.

The money never materialized, however. Saronni would not respond for comment, but insiders say that he began calling his Middle Eastern connections.

“It is about the government controlling the big money going in and out of China,” Chen Xujie, Chinese journalist for Biketo told VeloNews. “Some say they need a half-year to deliver the big money to the other country.”

A U.A.E. backer appeared in the meantime to save Saronni’s team, which includes around 60 employees with South African talent Louis Meintjes, eighth overall in the Tour de France. The Abu Dhabi person or company remains nameless, but the UCI commission could confirm its funding and the team’s license as early as Friday.

Li Zhiqiang’s door may remain open. Out of that initial August splash, a Chinese WorldTeam may one day arrive.

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