Wanda, Guangxi, and cycling’s Chinese future

The Tour of Beijing is gone, killed by apathy and an eventual acceptance that the fox should not guard the henhouse. But pro cycling in China is not dead, not at all. In fact, Chinese influence is set to increase markedly in the coming years, at home, and abroad. The…

The Tour of Beijing is gone, killed by apathy and an eventual acceptance that the fox should not guard the henhouse. But pro cycling in China is not dead, not at all. In fact, Chinese influence is set to increase markedly in the coming years, at home, and abroad. The country has a new WorldTour race, will soon have a satellite of the UCI’s World Cycling Center, WCC, and Chinese financial backing is working its way into the European heartland.

The immediate fan reaction to this is not generally positive—the Beijing race left something of a bad taste on our collective palate—and when combined with the odd world championship venue the sport just experienced, one can’t be blamed for seeing any big-money globalization effort as little more than a cash grab.

But let’s take a step back and really look at the deals being made, the entities behind them, how they’re different, why they matter, and who is partnering with whom. Then try to answer an impossible question: Where is Wanda going, and why?

At the end of November, the UCI announced a deal with Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group, the massive sport/media/real estate multinational that is already well immersed in international soccer and is slowly spreading into endurance sport. Wang is apparently China’s richest man; Wanda’s coffers are, by cycling standards, infinite.

Wanda owns the World Triathlon Corporation, and, thus, Ironman, and recently acquired Infront Media, which has a stake in the Tour de Suisse and just announced a set of new, quite unique races (a points race around the Cauberg, for example) in conjunction with team group Velon. Infront’s relationship with Velon is particularly notable since Infront appears to be the spade with which Wanda plans to dig further into European cycling. But we’ll come back to that.

WorldTour to China

First, the UCI deal. The headline is that UCI’s deal with Wanda will bring a WorldTour event back to China, this time in Guangxi, a region in the south of the country that is much better suited to playing race host than smoggy Beijing. It’s hilly, less urban, and will be warm in the six-day race’s proposed October time slot.

Once again, a brand new race has been given priority boarding into the WorldTour by a UCI that benefits from the deal, which is somewhat problematic. But the race should be financially stable (more so than many established races on the calendar) and, unlike the old Tour of Beijing, at least has a chance of being somewhat interesting. Its time slot is not ideal—at the end of a very long season—but imagine the outcry if the UCI knocked some established race off a prime spot on the WorldTour calendar. October is probably where Guangxi deserves to be.

Since Guangxi is one of the UCI’s crop of new WorldTour races, all WorldTour teams are not required to attend. This is no different from the Amgen Tour of California, for example. But, despite the late start, we do expect to see a solid field in Guangxi, not because of the UCI but because of Velon. Recall that Velon and Infront, a Wanda property, work closely together. Velon, which includes 11 WorldTour teams, is thus likely to push its star riders to race in China, particularly if those teams get some financial reward (or the riders themselves receive start money.)

Asian teams may fill the remaining team slots, just as ATOC is filled with domestic American teams, which would help grow the sport locally.

Guangxi will have a women’s race as well, but it won’t be a Women’s WorldTour event until 2018.

Guangxi building support

While the Tour of Beijing felt shoehorned into the WorldTour under the auspices of globalization, Guangxi has a slightly more organic feel, and even includes efforts to build grassroots support. Both races will include mass-participation events for amateurs. Wanda is also funding a school program in Guangxi province and is building a Chinese satellite of the World Cycling Center, the UCI’s development center. Combined, the idea is to build participation and a pipeline, via the WCC, into the top level of the sport.

The UCI declined to share just how much Wanda is spending on the deal. But based simply on the cost of the new WCC center and putting on even a small WorldTour race, investment has to be into eight figures.

None of this puts to rest the broad skepticism regarding big investment from and in places without a history of pro cycling support. Cycling fans were generally unenthused about Doha worlds, just as they were the Tour of Beijing. But we loved the racing in Rio, right? And Brazil is no Italy or France. Skepticism is legitimate but cynicism, in this case, is not yet warranted.

The Wanda/UCI deal isn’t only about Wanda and the UCI, anyway. An entity the size of Wanda doesn’t enter a sport to run a couple smaller race and some gran fondos.

UCI finds financial backer

Chinese developments were a topic of discussion on a recent episode of the VeloNews Podcast, and my colleague Fred Dreier pointed out that this deal seemed a bit like the UCI has found a bully to bully its bully. By that he meant that the UCI finally found a financial backer with the might to counter, or even overwhelm, cycling’s longtime queen in the yellow sweater, Tour de France organizer ASO.

It’s tempting to look at Wanda’s entry into pro cycling and its relationship with two entities that regularly find themselves at odds with ASO, teams and the UCI, and assume that Wanda will be used to bring balance to the force. But we simply don’t know what Wanda intends to do, or how far it intends to go.

It’s clear that Wanda wants in on the race organization game. It already has more race days scheduled for 2017 than all race organizers but ASO and Giro d’Italia organizer RCS. It has the Tour de Suisse, plus the Infront races that will be part of a series called the International Team Challenge and already has UCI approval, and the Guangxi race. And it seems unlikely that it will simply stop here.

But it runs into a problem. If Wanda is trying to “take over” cycling, as a few pundits have put it, it has two options: One, buy ASO. But is ASO for sale? Not really, not at the moment anyway. Option two sits on the back of a possibly erroneous assumption, which is that the sport’s value comes from its stars, not its races. In other words, Wanda’s relationship with Velon could be leveraged to bring the sport’s stars to Wanda-owned races (perhaps in a league-like scenario) and those races would be successful simply because the stars are present. Under this assumption, Wanda could be successful simply by purchasing small races or starting its own races. ASO could have the Tour de France; Wanda would have the stars.

The opposing view is that it is, in fact, the races that hold cycling together. The Tour de France and Giro d’Italia and Paris-Roubaix are more valuable than any rider. Stars come and go, but the races stay. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle. Would you watch Roubaix without any of the classics stars present? Maybe. Would you tune in to watch Froome and Quintana battle it out at a brand new stage race? Maybe.

The global economic future is most likely China’s, but cycling’s future is much less certain. Wanda is just one more player. Its current alliances suggest a path forward but don’t guarantee success. Really, we don’t even know what success would look like.