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Our man in China: A chat with Todd McKean

It’s impossible to talk about bicycle racing in China without mentioning the name Todd McKean. McKean, 40, is a longtime bike enthusiast who has lived in China for the past two decades. He is the third generation of his family to spend the majority of his adult life in the world’s most populated nation.

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By Fred Dreier

Todd McKean, 40, is a longtime bike enthusiast who has lived in China for the past two decades.

Todd McKean, 40, is a longtime bike enthusiast who has lived in China for the past two decades.

Photo: courtesy Todd McKean

It’s impossible to talk about bicycle racing in China without mentioning the name Todd McKean. McKean, 40, is a longtime bike enthusiast who has lived in China for the past two decades. He is the third generation of his family to spend the majority of his adult life in the world’s most populated nation.

Formerly employed by Medalist Sports, McKean was the managing director of the Tour of China during 1996-98. In 2004 he helped Trek Bicycles open its market in China, and now the American retailer has more than 215 points of sale dotting the country. And with his job with Trek, McKean organizes and puts on local cyclocross, road and mountain bike events in and around Beijing.

His job with the Tour of China gave McKean the expertise to guide the Chinese Cycling Association in designing the Olympic road course. And as an English speaker who also speaks Chinese and is familiar with the landscape, McKean has become the go-to guy for the Western world’s cycling teams at the Beijing Games.

VeloNews caught up with McKean on the eve of the Games for some insight into all things bike racing in China.

VeloNews: The American sports media have focused much attention on Beijing’s poor air quality. Is it really that bad? Could you tell us what it is like to ride in it?

Todd McKean: Well, it’s obviously going to be an issue and a challenge to overcome. That said, I have lived here since the early 1980s, and back then air pollution really wasn’t an issue. By the late 1990s it had gotten pretty bad, but over the last four years I feel as though it has been improving. It really isn’t as bad as it is reported. A lot of the pictures they show on CNN are nothing like you would see on an average day.

The thing is that the air pollution runs on a seven- to 10-day cycle. Beijing is right next to the Gobi desert, so every seven to 10 days high winds come in, and we have some rain in the late afternoon and evening, and that comes in and cleans out the pollution to the point where the sky is very blue. You can see out to the mountains.

But then the next few days, if it is not windy or rainy, the air quality deteriorates gradually, until it is pretty bad, but then another storm comes in and blows it out. I’ve ridden my bike every day through most of the summer, and the last several weeks it hasn’t been too bad. It’s a very rare occasion that I have to stay in because the pollution is so bad.

VN: You were at the mountain bike test event last year, which was basically ruined because of the poor air quality. Give us your take on what happened.

TM: The pollution certainly played a large role in that event. I was in the feed zone helping the United States team keep themselves together, and it was one of those things where everyone knew it was going to be bad. It was basically ruined. But when the riders arrived two and three days before the race it was crystal clear, and the day after they left it rained and was clear again. We held the BMX event the next two days and they had perfect weather and clear skies.

VN: Do you have faith in the steps the Chinese government is taking to clean up the air?

TM: I believe they will make a difference. They will take 1 million cars off the road, and starting from July 20 all major construction has stopped. The construction around the city sends a lot of dirt and particles into the air because they are digging. They did a test vehicle restriction before the mountain bike event, but it was only going for four days and didn’t make much of a difference. But restricting vehicles for several weeks — I think that will be a difference.

VN: How have Beijing residents responded to being forced to stay out of their cars?

TM: The thing is that people in China are so ecstatic about the Olympics — and they have been for years now — that the restrictions don’t faze them. And in China people are used to having restrictions placed on their lives for any number of reasons, so it’s really not that odd. This is supposed to be China’s finest moment, so anything the average person can do to support it is viewed as being good. And let me tell you, the average Chinese will put the average American to shame when it comes to national pride. I lived in California during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and people in LA were excited. If you went to Chicago or Atlanta, people weren’t really thinking all that much about the Olympics. But for the last three to five years, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Nanking or Shanghai, all people can talk about is the Olympics. The Games aren’t just about Beijing, it is happening to the Chinese collectively. Everyone is very supportive of it.

VN: What kind of lasting results will the Olympics have on China?

TM: Well, I think the Chinese have seen the pitfalls of other countries, which invested all of this money in building stadiums and tracks and other infrastructure, and then never really used it. The Olympics happen and then go away and the stuff is never used again — that’s the situation in Athens, I guess. In China people want to know how they are going to get the most out of what they are building. The velodrome is a good example — they pumped millions of dollars into building it and the UCI has awarded Beijing a World Cup that takes them through 2011. At least once a year Beijing is going to have a major international race. Two years ago there was one velodrome in Beijing and now there are four. I wouldn’t be surprised if China tried to woo other major UCI road and mountain bike races to its venues.

VN: I have been covering mountain bike racing for the last few years, and I was surprised at the quick progression of the Chinese riders. They burst on the scene in 2004-05, and by ’06 were winning world championships.

TM: I can’t speak about the Chinese girls specifically, but I know that Chinese athletes don’t just come out of nowhere. Athletes in China are identified when they are 10 or 11 years old and spend their lives training as elite athletes. They go to regional sports institutes, where part of their day is going to regular school, and the other part of the day is training. You progress from your city-level institute, then move up to your provincial sports institute. From that level, the really talented ones are selected for national and international competitions.

Take a rider like Li Fuyu, who rode for Discovery. He started as a track runner at 8 or 9 years old in one of these institutes. He found out that he liked cycling when he was 11 or so, but he’s been in a structured sporting environment since he was 8. That is where Chinese athletes come from. Sure, the rest of the world may think they just shot on the scene, but in reality they’ve been full-time athletes since they were children.

And if you look back four or five years ago, once China knew it was going to have the Olympics, they looked at the disciplines, the national federations started rigorously training athletes in every discipline, whether it was cycling or pistol shooting. China put a significant amount of resources into sports where they thought they could win, so with mountain bike racing the girls got to go on the international circuit.

Look for the rest of our interview with Todd McKean later this week.