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By Fred Dreier
From selling bikes to helping design the Olympic road course, Todd McKean is China’s main man when it comes to cycling. In Part 1 of our interview, McKean discussed the upcoming Olympic Games. In this segment he talks grassroots cycling, riding in Beijing and Cycling’s future in China.
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 from 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 the designing of the Olympic road course. And as one of the only English speakers 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: I imagine that being a cyclist yourself, you’ve had a front row seat for the evolution of competitive cycling in China. Tell me about the recent history of bike racing in China.
Todd McKean: Well, on the one hand you have the professional and elite activities, and the Chinese Cycling Association has done a lot to promote their athletes, especially in the lead up to the Olympics. If you look at the elite level of most sports in China, whether it’s basketball or soccer, the Chinese sports federations do a lot to develop it at that level. Traditionally, they don’t put effort into the sport at the grassroots level. The Chinese supported big [cycling] events such as the Tour of China in the 1990’s, the Tour of Hainan and so forth. So on the elite level, China is getting the job done.
At the amateur level, things are different. That’s one thing that I’ve tried to do with Trek. In order to develop a vibrant cycling business, you have to organize activities for regular people to participate in. I mean, everyone in China is used to riding bikes, so it’s not a stretch to think that people will come to view cycling less as a necessity and more for recreation and fitness.
The cycling scene in 2003 and 2004 was small; you might have found 10 or 15 cycling events or races in the whole country. These days Trek organizes or sponsors more than 100. In Beijing alone Trek China will put on close to 40 cycling races this year between road and our summer criterium series, which is run on a motor racing circuit. My passion is cyclocross, so two years ago we started China’s first ever ’cross series, and last year we had six races and two training sessions. In the early fall we are starting a short track mountain bike series, and we also sponsored the Guang Shong mountain bike marathon. And we did the Great Wall cycling festival, and got Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå and Sue Haywood to race there a few years ago.
It’s the same with all sports, though. If you look at the last 10-15 years it’s been companies like Adidas and Nike and Trek who have tried to develop sports at the grassroots level. We get the races and events together, and then hope that the Chinese Cycling Association hopefully comes alongside for more.
VN: What kind of people ride bicycles for recreation in China?
TM: It’s a pretty wide range. Generally speaking you find young professionals who are working for the government or foreign or local companies. Generally, they are middle class or upper class people who live in the cities. We’ve seen more youth get involved, and many of the large universities around China now have cycling clubs. The clubs aren’t as organized as what you would find, let’s say, in the United States’ Western Collegiate Cycling conference, the teams are more like leisure clubs. They do things like organize summer rides across Tibet or Mongolia. There’s a lot of cycle tourism going on. But you’re just as likely to see someone lining up on the latest model of carbon-fiber bike, fully kitted up and ready to go, as to see some fellow riding on an old steel bike with panniers and flat pedals.
Now what we’re trying to do is to give the races more organization. In China there could be 200 people that line up for the race and if it’s more than 60km then you’re going to have maybe 20 who actually finish the race. There’s no Cat 5,4,3,2 or 1 — everyone just races the same. The Chinese Cycling Association hasn’t created categories yet because they aren’t too worried about amateur races, just pro ones. We’ve tried to do the categories and do a shakeout at the beginning of the season to categorize people. But a lot of people fussed about it at first, but once they saw they could have a chance to win and not get lapped, they are getting on board.
VN: What are the popular mass participant sports in China, and how does bike racing fit in?
TM: Cycling is growing, but it is still quite small. Basketball and soccer are very popular, with soccer being the most popular for participation and viewers. Any time during the pro soccer season you’re likely to see English Premier League play on the TV. And when Yao Ming is playing, people also watch.
Walking through the neighborhoods you’re likely to see people playing badminton. At any public park you see these big concrete picnic-table looking things, and it’s a ping-pong table. Those are the sports you’re likely to see the regular people playing.
But as you look at China’s economy, there are now 100 million people living in the coastal areas and in the cities who are now part of the middle or upper class, and they have the resources to buy luxury goods. Tennis is very popular with the affluent crowd, like you would see anywhere else. And when you hear luxury car companies saying how many cars they are now selling in China, it’s easy to see that there is no lack of people who can afford high end bicycles.
The trick is not guessing if there are those people out there, but trying to get them interested in cycling. It’s taken some time. Traditionally there is no Chinese-language cycling media. We have a couple of websites going, but there are no cycling magazines to serve the country. So there’s no way for bicycle companies to market to the cyclists directly. I would say a small group of cyclists are familiar with the Trek and Giant and Specialized brands. The word is to get the word out and grow it.
VN: What’s it like riding in the Beijing area? I have visions of pollution and heavy car traffic.
TM: It’s actually great. Beijing is a very unique city in that it is very contained. It isn’t a sprawl like Shanghai, so once you get out of the city area, you’re out. I don’t know too many places that have populations over 10 million and you can realistically get out of the city in 30 minutes on a bike and go ride country roads. During the week I’ll ride before work, mostly flat for an hour or so. After about 40km you’re out in the hills, and if you want to go on a longer ride you can get some good long climbs.
In 1995-96 we organized the Tour of China and had a stage finish up a big climb to the Great Wall. The first year I joined with Medalist we met with the Chinese Cycling Association which had set up the course. They used mostly highways and big roads, and didn’t really know how to set up a course. The next year I helped set up the course, and since I had a better sense of the roads we ended up getting out of town and into the hills. It was really great riding.
VN: How are Chinese drivers at dealing with cyclists on the road?
TM: Your average person in China is very used to driving with bicyclists on the road — on occasion they will drive in the bike lane, but they know you are there. In Missouri I haven’t seen any other cyclists out on the road, and a lot of the folks aren’t really sure why someone is out there dressed in Lycra on a bike.
In many places in rural China you find bike lanes, and when you get downtown the bike lanes are separated from the road sometimes with fencing or barricaded. I don’t find myself too concerned when I ride.
VN: Where do you hope to see the sport of cycling in China in five years?
TM: I’d like to see it get closer to what you see in the United States, where there are a handful of big international competitions, a bunch of regional races and a handful of small pro teams and maybe one or two big international teams. At the local level I’d like to see every community have its own road or ’cross or mountain bike races like you see in the United States. We’ve already seen that in Beijing. Now Shanghai has a series with 10 to 15 races, which is up from one race just three years ago. I think it’s going to grow, because people are finding out how much fun cycling is, and since the racing isn’t as serious as it is in the United States, people aren’t intimidated and are willing to give it a try.