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Olympic Games feature, August 7, 2008

Beijing Olympics: The road to success

With the Beijing Games fast approaching, cycling fans are pinning their hopes on the Olympic Road Race to revive the sport's fortunes in China. Tom Greer reports on efforts to ensure the event lives up to the hype.

The Great Wall of China provides a scenic backdrop
Photo ©: Tom Greer
(Click for larger image)

The Olympic Road Race on August 9 will be a landmark in the history of the sport in China. Already billed as one of the Olympics' most challenging and spectacular circuits, cycling's governing bodies eagerly await the impact of the event on this untapped market.

Optimism abounds, but many significant obstacles will not be overcome so easily. China's lack of exposure to world-class cycling events and an institutional bias towards specific Olympic disciplines still hamper the growth of the sport. Though renowned as the land of the bicycle, it could take some time before Chinese cycling establishes its credibility within the professional peloton.

The spectacular outline of the Olympic circuit belies its erratic development. Initially, the Chinese Cycling Association (CCA) had no real idea where to hold the road race events.

Back in 2002, the CCA's initial proposal was to hold the road race along Beijing's uninspiring fourth ring highway. This huge, eight-lane motorway encircles the city – and is completely flat. Worse still, it's utterly uneventful.

Insiders claim the presentation of the circuit to the International Cycling Union (UCI) consisted of little more than a photocopied map with a yellow marker tracing the loop. This was a first indication that the CCA did not have the understanding of professional cycling required to draw up a truly Olympic course. In 2005, the UCI flew to Beijing to discuss alternatives, convincing the CCA that cycling was used in Europe to showcase nature as well as national monuments.

Eventually, the idea caught on that cycling could be used to showcase the beauty of Beijing. The CCA settled on a mass start near Tiananmen Square before heading out north-west to the famous Ba Da Ling Great Wall. Built to keep out the fierce Mongols of Genghis Khan, this walled fortress adds a spectacular backdrop to the event. The race itself has all the ingredients needed to live up to its hype.

Facing a distance of 245km, the riders in the men's race will start off with 80 flat kilometres from downtown to the foot of the key climb. Once there, seven loops of 23.8km will separate the hopefuls from the true contenders. The climb is approximately 11km long, averaging less than four per cent, and even includes some short descents. However, it does feature abrupt changes of gradients of up to 10 per cent.

Belgian team coach Carlo Bomans regards the course as excessively tough, comparing the climb to an extended Poggio, the final climb in the Milan-Sanremo one-day Classic. Australian rider Michael Rogers, who previewed the circuit last August, described it as "a little bit harder than I'd expected. It's not super-steep but it's quite constant and there is no actual recovery."

The climb is 11km long and gradual,
Photo ©: Tom Greer
(Click for larger image)

The slow descent down the highway will not grant the riders much respite. Considerable amounts of pushing against the wind will be needed to keep up the tempo. It's expected to become a race of attrition with minimal recovery time.

In spite of the course's difficulty, the more immediate concerns such as temperature and humidity have been sidelined in the run-up to the race, with most of the controversy focusing instead on pollution. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has stated that he is pleased with China's efforts to curb pollution.

Beijing has invested €8.5 billion to make the city more liveable by shutting down factories, curbing emissions, planting trees and taking the remarkable decision to lift a million cars off the streets during the Games.

Still, Rogge has hinted that if pollution levels are too high, certain outdoor endurance sports may have to be rescheduled. Perturbed by the possible loss of face, the Beijing Olympic Committee is working overtime to present a cleaner Beijing to the world. The jury is still out as to its success.

During the Olympic test event in 2007, held during the monsoon, the riders didn't complain as much about the harmful pollution as they did about the soaring 30°C temperatures and 70 per cent humidity. Aussie rider Cadel Evans even joked that it's not the dirtiest place he's raced in. "In an Italian city you get dirtier from diesel fumes," he stated, "but it's the humidity here that surprised me, and the combination of pollution and humidity makes it a bit harder."

A final cause for comfort is that the road race is located way beyond the city limits. Racing in a mountain range 70km north of Beijing, the riders will have the benefit of cleaner mountain air. It seems it won't be the pollution, but the climate and the terrain, that will decide the final outcome.

Can Chinese riders step up?

The wider story of Chinese cycling remains uncertain. There's a common belief that the Olympics will spawn a thriving cycling culture and the signs do look promising. A ProTour race will almost certainly take place in China in 2009, and at a grass-roots level the sport is really picking up. The bicycle is omnipresent in China and the major bike companies already manufacture parts of their equipment here. At the highest level, some pro teams have even been courting big Chinese sponsors. Many are therefore banking on China being the next big cycling market.

One of the companies with the strongest ties to Chinese cycling is the Trek bike company. As the sponsor of the only Chinese professional cycling team, Trek-Marco Polo, the American company has played a huge role in the development of Chinese riders such as Fuyu Li and the establishment of cycling competitions across the mainland.

Yet, when asked to summarise the state of the sport in China, Trek China general manager Todd McKean states: "The CCA does a great job raising the sport's professionalism at the Olympic level, but beneath that, it is less involved with the grass-roots level."

China is known for its spartan cycling academies, to which promising youths are recruited and trained for Olympic glory. All cyclists must pass through these elite academies in order to get noticed. Unlike Western countries, where cycling culture in well rooted, the CCA selects riders based on innate sporting talent. "The system links back to the Soviet system and this way you get a great selection of talented athletes," says McKean, "but you won't necessarily get all the best cycling talent out there."

Unsurprisingly, China's strongest hopes for cycling medals are to be found in the indoor track competitions, where this institutional approach yields the best results. Daniel Morelon, the French coach of the China track teams, reckons that the women have a good chance of winning one or more medals. Yet for the men, "a spot in the top 10 in one or other discipline will be considered a success".

It seems certain that within a population of 1.3 billion, there must be an Alberto Contador or a Tom Boonen waiting to be discovered. Yet how will these talents surface? Without a proper amateur scene, Chinese riders have little exposure outside of state-sanctioned competitions. Hopefuls must either work their way to the top within the cycling academies, or hope to have their talent picked up by a foreign team. Therefore, despite the country's large population, the selection pool for China's national squads is actually very limited.

Additionally, the Olympic bias in China clearly benefits the track disciplines where logistics, training and rider selection is more manageable than with outdoor cycling.

With no real grass-roots tradition of the sport in China, it's hardly surprising to find that riding a bike is seen as more of a job than a calling. The love of the sport is subordinate to the possibility of social advancement.

One notable case in point is that of China's top pro rider, Fuyu Li. In 2005, Li won the China National Games and was promptly offered a coaching position. At the age of 27, in his prime, Li was considering an early retirement. It took some persuasion by the Marco Polo Team to convince him to stay on as a rider in 2006. "Luckily, he rekindled his love for the bike when he joined the Discovery Channel team [in 2007]," McKean narrates, "but you see how easy it is to lose a talent like him."

It appears that the biggest obstacles to Chinese cycling are the country's lack of homegrown cycling heroes and the slow introduction of pro-level cycling events. These are the key developments required to educate the public and generate Chinese cycling heroes.

To tackle the first issue, amateur competitions are being organised, primarily by foreign bike companies. Through their investment in amateur teams and competitions, the sport has spawned a small but lively subculture. With the increasing economic liberalisation, more and more Chinese people are investing in bikes. This informal creation of supply and demand through races is the first step towards laying the foundation of the sport.

Yet until this grass-roots level is connected to the professional and Olympic echelons, the sport will fail to realise its enormous potential. That's why the establishment of a large pro cycling event and subsequent grass-roots opportunities are paramount to the future of cycling in China.

Putting China's tour back on the road

Can the Olympics breathe new life into an ill-fated cycling event?

China's transient history of pro cycling events emphasises just how difficult it is to import the sport without the presence of a grass-roots cycling culture. Yet now, there are strong indications that the time is right to kick-start the revival of the fabled "Tour of China".

The initial Tour of China ran in 1995–1996. It was a unique and bold undertaking, but ultimately short-lived. Its growth was hampered by logistical problems in the form of suitable hotels, infrastructure, governmental regulations, as well as the lack of a clear vision on the part of the organisers. China in the mid-90s was simply not ready for such an event. Certainly, the approach was grand enough. Several top European teams joined in, with the likes of Mapei and Novell (now Rabobank) sending squads. Russia's Viatcheslav Ekimov was the overall winner. It seemed the event had got off to a good start.

It even proved to be hugely successful for its sponsor, British American Tobacco, but soon the race organisers from the UK, the USA and Hong Kong fell into dispute over sponsorship and other financial issues. With the withdrawal of the American event organiser Medalist Sports, who brought with them most of the expertise, contacts and sponsoring, the race was cancelled before it even really took off. Several other marginal events like the Japanese version of the Tour of China, the Tour of the South China Sea, and the defunct Tour of Beijing, came and went in its wake.

The Tour of Qinghai Lake (UCI category 2.HC) is the exception to this sorry trend. Though it has been held for seven years in a row, it is not likely to grow any bigger. Located in a remote western province with little infrastructure, economy and cycling culture to speak of, the race is more a marketing ploy for western China than the ambitious tour that the Far East deserves.

Both the UCI and Tour de France organisers ASO have courted the CCA in the past. As a result of the current power struggle between these two bodies, the UCI has been investigating new markets, including China. Using the momentum created by the Olympics, the Tour of China is set to be relaunched in 2009. Many of the event's previous problems have been overcome. Logistics and infrastructure have improved massively since the mid-90s, and the government is more supportive of sporting events.

China's booming economy should lure foreign companies to the sponsorship table. Crucially, Chinese companies are powerful enough to chip in. In a land plagued by environmental problems, sponsorship of cycling could well be used as positive eco-branding.

The final ingredient the UCI and the CCA need is for the sport to become attractive to the Chinese crowds, with everyone appreciating the intricacies

of the sport. Again, grass-roots education cannot be overlooked for the race to be a success. The Olympics are the first and biggest step in that direction.

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Tom Greer

Images by Steve Thomas

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