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EIBAR, Spain (VN) – Most riders wore expressions of agony at the top of the short but brutally steep Arrate climb on Monday in the third stage at the Vuelta a España, but Ji Cheng was all smiles.
Sure, Ji was suffering, just like everyone else, but so far the Vuelta seems like a dream come true for the 25-year-old from northeast China.
With his start in Pamplona with Argos-Shimano, Ji is making history by becoming the first Chinese rider to start a grand tour.
“I am really happy to be here. I am happy that the team is supporting me to come here. I am proud to be the first Chinese rider to race a grand tour,” Ji told VeloNews. “Perhaps in the future I can race the Tour de France.”
By far, the Vuelta is the hardest stage race Ji has ever raced. Up to now, he’s been learning the ropes in such as events as the Tour of Turkey, and smaller French and Asian stage races. His longest stage race was 10 days. He will need to double that if he wants to become the first Chinese rider to finish a grand tour.
A pro since 2007, Ji has been with the Argos-Shimano team since his first season in Europe. He’s never scored a big result or even come close, but he’s hoping he has the depth to make it to Madrid.
“The first goal is to finish the race and make it to Madrid. I realize this is a very difficult Vuelta. And I want to help the team when I can,” he said. “If I can finish the race, this would be more important for Chinese cycling.”
Ji is among a handful of Chinese riders earning pro contracts with European teams. Many are viewed as novelties or linked in as part of a sponsorship deal.
But as Ji suggests, there is a tremendous untapped talent pool in China, where the population of more than 1 billion is slowing turning on to the sport of competitive cycling.
“My parents rode bikes to work. Now everyone has a car, but people are becoming interested in sport in China,” he said. “The sport is growing in China. People are more interested in sport and cycling is becoming more interesting for people. Maybe someday we can have Chinese sponsors and perhaps even a Chinese team. That is the big goal.”
China is like a sleeping giant when it comes to cycling, both in terms of possible sponsors and future professionals. That’s one reason the UCI is pushing a pair of professional races onto the WorldTour calendar.
The sport is in its nascent stages, however, and has a long way to go before Chinese riders can be truly competitive at the highest levels against the likes of Alberto Contador and Bradley Wiggins.
But just as riders who crossed the ocean from places such as Australia and the United States a generation ago, you have to start somewhere.
“I have been racing for 10 years. There are not many opportunities in China to race,” Ji explained. “I prefer to come to Europe to gain experience. The racing level is very high, even at the amateur level.”
Ji is perhaps the lowest-ranked rider in the Vuelta, earning the ranking position of 2,043 in the world on www.cqranking.com.
Yet he’s been racing in better quality events this year as Argos-Shimano grows and expands its program.
This season, he’s finished Milan-San Remo, Criterium International, the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Picardie. On Monday, he was 176th up the Arrate climb, safely within the time cut and still alive in what will be a brutal Vuelta.
He hasn’t posted many results in Europe besides finishing in the bunch. In 2008, he won a stage and was the leader for two days at the Tour of South China Sea.
“I work to prepare the sprint. When I lose some more body weight, I can get up the climbs OK. I can make a sprint out of a small group. I am here to work,” he said. “Perhaps I will try to make it into a breakaway. I want to get through the first week and see how my body is reacting. The longest race I have done is 10 days long.”
Ji remains optimistic about his Vuelta and the future for China.
“Perhaps some day we can see a Chinese rider winning the Tour de France,” he said. “Why not? Other countries have won the Tour. It will take time. How long? Maybe 10 years, maybe 20.”
Once China turns on to the Tour de France, watch out. The country has the resources and population to succeed in just about anything it sets its mind to.
Ji’s arrival at the Vuelta could be the first step in cycling’s next big evolution.