Pro cycling takes another big step ahead in China

Top professionals say the new Tour of Guangxi could be the first step to grow enthusiasm for WorldTour racing in China.

NANNING, China (VN) — Will a Chinese rider win the Tour de France someday? Top professionals say the new Tour of Guangxi could be the first step to grow enthusiasm for WorldTour racing in China.

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.38 billion citizens, only counts one professional and maintains minimal links to the mostly European sport. The new WorldTour-level race in Guangxi, however, could change the situation.

“It’s important for new sponsors,” Colombian Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), winner of four stages, told VeloNews. “I think that this race motivates the other guys and riders, it’s good for cycling in this country and maybe we’ll have more professionals.”

China hosts several smaller road races — like the Tour of China, the Tour of Hainan, and the Tour of Qinghai Lake — and runs a successful track team, but its impact at the top level has been minimal.

“How many professional riders are there? I don’t know, there are not many. One only?” Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), a stage winner in this year’s Tour de France, said.

“I didn’t know Wang [Meiyin Wang] was the only one, but maybe this race will help cycling in China. Who knows, maybe in the future we’ll see more riders.”

Former professional team Champion Systems brought Chinese cycling into the upper levels. Cheng Ji raced for several years with top WorldTour teams and became the first Chinese cyclist to compete in the grand tours. In 2014, he made history for the country by racing the Tour de France.

However, only Meiyin Wang races in the top echelon now. He competes with WorldTour Bahrain-Merida team. His countrymen race for third-division Continental teams and rarely compete in the top events.

The hope is that the Tour of Guangxi — new for 2017 and owned by the Wanda Group — will start a new wave of Chinese riders and sponsors.

“That I don’t know,” said classics star, Belgian Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac). “I don’t see a lot of people riding their bikes here. It’s not safe. It’s very busy and they are all with their scooters.

“I think it’ll help the interest in China and maybe for future sponsors. I don’t know if we’ll get a lot more people on the bike because of that. I think it’s pretty hard to become a professional rider if we don’t have the culture here. It’s normal, but maybe in the future that’ll change with races like this.”

Gaviria, Vanmarcke, and Mollema come from countries rich in cycling culture and Tour de France stars. In Belgium and the Netherlands, home to Vanmarcke and Mollema respectively, cyclists rule the roads on their daily commutes and in their weekend races. China lacks that culture, instead pushing hard to embrace first-world trappings with scooters, cars, and related infrastructure.

“In Europe, everyone is riding the bike, but here I haven’t seen so many kids on the bike,” Mollema added. “But this race may change things and let’s hope it has a positive impact.”

For four years, through 2014, the Tour of Beijing pushed to make an impact. Eventually, the UCI governing body folded the race in 2014. The Tour of Guangxi, however, appears different with massive spectator turnout and potentially larger consequential waves for cycling in China.