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UCI strikes deal for WorldTour stage race in China

Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin, the man who could become cycling’s biggest player, is now officially in the peloton.

The UCI confirmed Thursday what VeloNews reported last month: Wang’s Wanda Sports group is backing a new six-day stage race that will bookend the 2017 WorldTour calendar in October in southern China near the Vietnamese border.

In what’s a huge coup for the UCI, Wanda Sports group has committed to a multi-year deal to help promote professional and grassroots cycling in what is the sport’s largest untapped market.

“We are absolutely delighted to announce this partnership with Wanda Sports which will provide a huge boost to cycling in China,” UCI president Brian Cookson said in a press release Thursday. “The UCI’s main role is to grow and develop cycling globally and China provides us with a wonderful opportunity to engage with literally hundreds of millions more people.”

The scope of the project is expansive, and it marks the biggest deal of its kind with the UCI.

Keys to the deal include:

  • A six-day, WorldTour stage race called the Tour of Guangxi that will be part of the 2017 calendar in October.
  • A women’s WorldTour event will be incorporated in 2018.
  • Commitment to build a cycling center that will serve as a satellite to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland. According to officials, the center will include a 250-meter indoor track, a BMX track, and a road circuit. It will serve as a grassroots development center, with top talents being sent to the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland.
  • Hosting the first three editions of the UCI’s new Urban Cycling World Championships in October, starting in 2017.
  • The UCI’s Cycling Gala, hosted by Abu Dhabi in 2015 and 2016, will move to China in 2017.
  • Mass participation events as well as a school cycling program in the host region’s Guangxi Province, and a “national promotional tour” across China.

Wang is China’s richest man — Forbes claims he’s worth more than $32 billion — and has quickly become a major player in endurance sports. He bought the Ironman triathlon series and InFront Sports & Media in 2015, and made unsuccessful plays to buy both Tour de France owner ASO and Giro d’Italia owner RCS Sport. In comments in China, Wang said he is not interested in owning a team, and remains committed to events.

“This partnership with the UCI and the region of Guangxi represents a major addition to our sporting portfolio,” Wang said in a release. “We know that China has a tremendous potential in cycling and we are proud that Wanda Sports will be instrumental in realizing that potential, with the support of great partners.”

The move revives the UCI’s involvement in the booming Chinese market following the demise of the UCI-managed Tour of Beijing, which ran from 2011 to 2014. The deal fell apart when Brian Cookson won the UCI presidency and introduced a new policy that cycling’s governing body would not be directly involved in owning or managing major men’s stage racing events — a move that closed down the UCI’s sometimes controversial Global Cycling Promotion in 2014.

Many in cycling see China as the sport’s most important untapped market, not only for potential sponsorship dollars and growth of TV viewers and a new fan base, but also for development of athletes. China won its first Olympic gold medal in cycling at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the women’s team sprint, while China will see its first major men’s pro team as Chinese backers take over the Lampre – Merida team for 2017.

The UCI said the world’s most populous country has “10 million active cycling fans, 20,000 cycling clubs, 100 cycling events and 15,000 bike stores. Additionally, the size of the Chinese cycling sports market has grown to $1.5 billion with the industry expecting to reach a growth rate of 20 percent by 2023.”

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