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Riders open-minded about Chinese adventure

BEIJING (VN) — History was made of sorts Wednesday when world's elite professionals lined up for the debut stage of the Tour of Beijing.

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2011 Tour of Beijing, stage 1: David Millar
Millar warms up in the smoggy conditions. Photo: Andrew Hood

BEIJING (VN) — History was made of sorts Wednesday when world’s elite professionals lined up for the debut stage of the Tour of Beijing.

While China plays host to other pro races, the Beijing tour is being characterized as China’s first major event to draw the world’s top European professional teams, with 18 ProTeam squads joining the Chinese national team for five days of racing.

Wednesday’s stage saw no major hiccups as riders have been curious to see how the Chinese-styled racing will unfold.

Garmin-Cervélo’s David Millar, who said he was surprised he rode so well in the time trial with second, said he hopes the Chinese experience pays off in the long-term.

“I grew up in Hong Kong, so I feel at home in the Far East,” Millar said. “We’re locked down in our hotel, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but we’re making the most of it and at the end of the day, everyone seems to be enjoying it.”

So far, riders have enjoyed a few quiet days in Beijing, flying in business class from Europe and having time to explore of the city’s sites, including a shopping trip to Beijing’s famous Silk Market.

Once racing clicked into gear Wednesday, one growing concern was the smog in Beijing.

When riders arrived three days ago, skies were relatively clear, but conditions have worsened over the past several days and smog, just as it was during the 2008 Olympic Games, has once again become a worry.

“There’s nothing negative I can say, except that the smog is bad,” Garmin-Cervélo’s Heinrich Haussler said. “It’s exciting to see the country, but we’re not here on holidays. It’s a World Tour event and there are points on the line. It’s good to see the sport grow more internationally, but it’s just not for me.”

The stage unfolded with hardly any fans lining the course, but that wasn’t entirely the fault of the Chinese public. Police sealed off the entire Olympic Park area, meaning fans could not access the start and finish areas near the Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube.

2011 Tour of Beijing, stage 1: Heinrich Haussler
Haussler in front of the Bird's Nest. Photo: Andrew Hood

There were fans along areas of the course that were open to the public. Police re-opened access to the Olympic Park once the race was over, but that was too late for Chinese cycling fans.

Others said the trip to China is challenging, but said the late-season date is ideal for such a long-haul to Asia. Australian riders in the peloton didn’t seem to mind at all; the race in Beijing is little more than a high-speed layover for Aussie-bound riders.

“It’s good for cycling to globalize so long that it doesn’t get out of hand. This sport is so demanding on our bodies, so 100 days a year all over the world would be too much,” said Garmin-Cervélo’s Cameron Meyer. “Racing in China now is more of a curiosity thing for us, but I am sure it will be getting harder and harder if it continues to grow over the next couple of years. Thats like the Tour Down Under, it started easy, but now we have world champions showing up racing to win.”

Like Meyer, most riders say they’re interested in seeing how the China race grows over the coming years.

The Chinese government has signed a four-year contract to host the race through 2015.

UCI officials say the date will remain in October, but suggested that next year the Giro di Lombardia will be moved one week forward so that the Europeans can race in the Italian season-closer and then fly to China if they want to.

Some of the controversy around the formation of the race has not been lost on the riders.

“It’s great for the sport to come to these places, even though there’s been quite a bit of controversy,” Millar said. “I thought there was a conflict of interest between the UCI and the GCP (Global Cycling Promotions), when they immediately declared the race as a World Tour event, when other races have been trying longer to get that status.”