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BEIJING (VN) — UCI president Pat McQuaid staunchly defended the Tour of Beijing as it enters its final stage Sunday and says the UCI was right in bringing the elite professional peloton to China.
The inaugural Beijing tour has drawn heavy flak from some quarters, but McQuaid stuck by his guns and said it’s in cycling’s best interest to move into the potentially huge Chinese market.
VeloNews caught up with McQuaid before the start of Saturday’s fourth stage; here’s what he had to say:
VeloNews: What are your impressions so far of how the Tour of Beijing is going?
Pat McQuaid: My impression of the race is that it’s going very well. It’s the first time these people have organized a race at this level. We knew, and the questions were asked, why should a first-time event come into the WorldTour when you don’t know the quality of the organization? I have a lot experience coming to China for other races, and I know their approach to organizing races. Even on those lower-level events, roads are closed hours before the race gets there. Here in Beijing, the roads are closed four hours before the race arrives. For a major capital like Beijing to do that, in the city and in the hills around here, for them to do that shows how much importance they’re putting into this event and the safety of this event.
VN: Safety was a concern before the race, but it seems that things are very safe on the roads for the riders. How important is that for this race?
PM: When you consider yesterday we had two yellow flags. Jean-Francois Pescheux of ASO said that a stage like that in the Tour, with 150km and a tricky descent like that, they would have 150 warning flags. The riders have never experienced roads as safe as they are here. There is no street furniture, no roundabouts, even the smaller country roads we are on are in perfect condition. Every junction is taped. There is no event that has the security that this event has. The weather’s been good. There’s been a little issue with smog the first day, but since then, it’s not an issue. From the UCI’s point of view, and talking to all the riders and all the teams, they’re happy. They see that this is important and will become more important. A lot of them are saying that the UCI is right in doing what it’s doing and going in this direction.
VN: There have been some harsh critics of the race, both for the UCI’s role and for bringing it to China, how do you react to that?
PM: I’ve given up reading bloggers, they don’t influence what we do. It is frustrating to see people attacking an event and to see people attacking the UCI for putting it on the WorldTour when they don’t really understand the full picture. We’re taking the sport globally and we have this tremendous opportunity with the full support of the Chinese government for what’s a big promotion for the sport. This is the first year and we can see how they’re so concerned about safety that they won’t even let the public come as close into the riders as we would like them to, like in Europe. It’s a different culture here. They will relax that as the years go on and realize that this sport is one that likes to be close to the public. There were a lot of people on the roadsides. If one or two or three 15-year-olds see that and decide, “I want to do that” — most cycling champions come from that moment when they’re watching a race from the side of the road as a kid — then we can grow the sport in years to come.
VN: What is the future of this race?
PM: We have a contract for four years, but I have no doubt that this event will have sustainability and have a long-term future. The comments I’ve heard from the Chinese so far, they’re extremely happy with the riders, with the teams, with what they see with the professional level of the sports organization, that’s what we’re in charge of, with the UCI. The TV coverage has been superb. When people watching the race on TV think of the race, they think of the city of Beijing. We had that the first day, but since then, we’ve been in the countryside. There are some lovely backdrops. There’s a lot more that we can explore in the years to come.
VN: Is the Tour of Beijing a serious race or is it some sort of gimmick for the pros?
PM: It’s a WorldTour race and there are behind-the-scenes things going on. Riders and teams are chasing points. It’s a serious race. With the world time trial champion leading it, that’s going to give the race a very good first winner. Each team has started each stage with a strategy to do certain things. They’re not coming here just to tour around.
VN: There was a lot of acrimony between the teams and the UCI over the race-radio issue, has that tainted or influenced how the public view the Tour of Beijing?
PM: It possibly has. It’s all been very unfortunate. Right from the beginning the teams should not have mixed those two items up, they should have separated them and left the Tour of Beijing treated as a race. As they finally did in recent weeks when they realized they needed to be here. I think it has put a negative slant on the race from the outside, which probably the event is working against now. The event will get a very positive report from everyone that’s here, who’ve seen what’s happening here. Talk to any team director, they’re thrilled with what’s been laid out for them here. It’s the Chinese system and it works very well.
VN: What’s been the reaction among the Chinese authorities backing the race?
PM: Very positive, they’ve very happy with what they’ve got, with the TV coverage, happy with reporting on the race. All they say to me is, “Tell us what we have to do to make it better. Tell us directly what we need to do.” It’s a very positive and honest approach. The UCI will give them constructive suggestions in ways to improve the event. They will always seek ways to improve and you can be sure in a couple years’ time, they will be doing some things in our sport better than what’s been done by well-established organizers. They have the resources and the money.
VN: How do you react to allegations that the UCI has threatened the teams and forced them to come to the Tour of Beijing?
PM: Not at all. We were being strong-armed by them, we were the ones being blackmailed by the teams. We had to fight fire with fire. That’s business. That’s normal negotiations between parties.
VN: How do you address concerns about Chinese human-rights abuses or the issue of Tibet? Does that come into the equation for this race?
PM: We’ve had the Olympic Games here, the China Open is here at the moment, there are other major sports events coming here. We’re bringing sport here — we don’t mix sport with politics.