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Lampre-Merida hedges bets with double threat in Qinghai Lake

Gang Xu and Chun Kai Feng give Lampre-Merida a one-two punch at China’s 13-stage Tour of Qinghai Lake

Xining, CHINA — Missing one rider on their seven-man roster due to Rui Costa’s brother Mário having visa issues, Lampre-Merida is feeling the pressure heading into the 13-stage, 2.HC Tour of Qinghai Lake, which starts on July 5 with a 121km Xining Circuit.

Held on along the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with an average altitude of around 9,000 feet, the Tour of Qinghai Lake is considered the “highest” international road cycling race in the world.

As the only WorldTour squad on the startlist, the Italian team is making no secret that this is a race they must control.

“Yes of course, there is pressure,” Lampre-Merida road captain Gang Xu told VeloNews. “Qinghai Lake is a very different race, and the outcome will depend on the condition of our rivals. [But] We are a WorldTour team so we have to win a stage and win the race.”

The 31-year-old Chinese rider is hoping to reverse a string of three DNFs after a solid showing at the Tour of Turkey, dating back to the Giro d’Italia in May and followed by GP du canton d’Argovie and the Tour de Suisse.

“Qinghai Lake is the top race in the Asia Tour,” said Xu, a former Tour de Korea stage winner. “For me, our team and our sponsors it’s very important. I want to win at least one stage and I will have a good look at everyone else in the first week to determine my own chances for GC.”

Aside from riders from Southeast, AirGas-Safeway, Synergy Baku and RTS-Santic, which features Colombian Mario Rojas and Iranian Hossein Alizadeh, one rider who Xu acknowledges could be a legitimate stage contender is Lampre teammate Chun Kai Feng. The reigning two-time Taiwan road champion has shown great promise since joining the team late last year, including two top-10 mountains classification finishes, including eighth at Tour de Taiwan in March, and second at Tour of Japan, in May.

However, the 26-year-old neo-pro is downplaying his personal ambitions prior to the start of the race.

“It is important for me to support my team and continue learning,” said Feng, a three-time Tour de Taiwan KOM. “I will do my job, whether that is collecting [bidons] or working on the front, and hope the team can do something to get a result.But if the opportunity for me to get in a break is there I will take it.”

Joining Xu and Feng is climbing specialist Tsgabu Grmay, as well as Ilia Koshevoy, sprinter Luka Pibernik, and GC hopeful Mattia Cattaneo.

“Overall we will try with Cattaneo, but he has not raced in 40 days due to right knee injury,” Lampre-Merida sports director Bruno Vicino told VeloNews. “We did not bring a pure sprinter to the race, so we will be looking for Xu and Feng to each try for a stage win or two. Xu has been very supportive in the European races and is our leader at Qinghai Lake, so we will see how he performs in that role.”

Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.