this article originally appeared on The Roar
Giant-Shimano’s Cheng Ji will become the first Chinese rider to participate in the Tour de France, a fantastic achievement for the 26-year-old who last year became the first Chinese national to ride in the Giro d’Italia.
Giant-Shimano’s team coach Rudi Kemna commented on Cheng Ji’s inclusion in the Tour squad and made the point that he has gained his slot through merit.
Kemna also acknowledged an eagerness to see what kind of effect this would have on the growth of cycling in Asia.
“When we started working with him as a young talented rider back in 2008, we made a long-term plan and this has seen him develop into the highest level of the sport and we see him now playing an important factor in the sprint formations,” Kemna said.
“Having Cheng in the team as the first Chinese rider ever to ride the Tour de France will be huge for him and his country and we look forward to seeing the impact this has on the globalisation of the sport.”
Kemna is not alone in this. The UCI, bicycle product brands, TV companies and the other top-level teams have been very keen to crack Asia and in particular China for some years, and remain so.
Cheng is not the first Asian rider to have participated in the Tour, but the fact that he is Chinese has many people involved in the administration and business side of the sport intrigued.
Four Japanese riders have started the Tour (though only two have finished, Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu, both in 2009), but while the Japanese cycling scene and cycling market are better developed than in China, it is China, with its vast population and increasingly affluent middle and upper classes, that offers the greatest potential for the growth of the sport and, naturally, financial profit.
But while Giant-Shimano should be lauded for bringing in Cheng Ji and nurturing him to the point where he is getting ready to line up for the Tour, and for signing Malaysian rider Sea Koh Leong at the start of this year too, there remain several doubts about the way in which the UCI is going about implementing its plan for the growth of cycling in Asia.
One of the UCI’s flagship initiatives in Asia, designed to shock and awe a generally uninterested public in the wonders of modern cycling, was the Tour of Beijing.
The race is unique not just in that it is the only top-level bike race in China but also because of the way it is organised and promoted. The race is run by a company called Global Cycling Promotions, a company that was set up by the UCI itself.
There is here a very clear conflict of interests when a sport’s governing body is running an event with the aim of making a financial profit. Was this race set up to promote cycling in China and wider Asia? Or was it seen primarily as a money-making venture for the UCI?
With reports of almost non-existent fans and with those few spectators who did turn up being kept far from the action by police, as well as disgruntlement among the teams about the UCI’s insistence that they compete in a meaningless race, the latter question is a fair one.
Much of the UCI’s approach to Asia follows a ‘trickle-down’ mentality. Bring in big names in their shiny kits, throw financial incentives at local cycling federations and bring in local sponsors at top dollar, and eventually the grassroots will benefit and develop.
But this concept does not work. Nations such as Taiwan are a perfect example. The organisation that runs the UCI 2.1 Tour de Taiwan runs almost no other events for local cyclists and does very little to raise the cycling culture in the country. It also does not allow Taiwanese teams to stay in the official race hotels at the Tour de Taiwan and requires them to supply their own food throughout the event.
It is not just in Taiwan that we see national federations treating local riders so shabbily. I have personally witnessed local riders at several UCI tours in Indonesia and other parts of Asia being forced to sit outside, on the ground, at the official opening ceremony banquet.
Why this is neglect is happening is not known. Whether the UCI allocates money from its funds for each team for the duration of these events or whether it is the national federations that fund the hotel stays and the meals I do not know, but it might look to the casual observer that money is being siphoned off somewhere.
In many cases, cycling is seen as a money-making venture first, a sport or pastime second. We can hardly blame the Asian federations however when the world governing body has for so long done exactly the same.
Another issue that is very troubling on the Asian cycling scene is that of doping. The UCI sanctions some races here that have absolutely no doping controls whatsoever. Several riders and teams were dismayed at the 2013 Tour of Borneo when this was the case.
The Malaysian Cycling Federation have insisted that there will be controls from now on, but it’s preposterous this situation could be allowed. Tests though are said to cost between $US2000 and $3000, so perhaps yet again money is the driving concern.
Yet whether there are tests or not, many who are against doping see them as essentially useless as there is no blood testing here in Asia. With all tests being urine-based, the likelihood of catching out all but the most idiotic doper are very slim.
There are just the same temptations to dope in Asia as in any other part of the world. Prize money is often substantial and salaries for the top riders can far exceed what these guys could be making were they working a nine-to-five job.
As a rider on the UCI Asia Tour circuit for four years, I heard rumour after rumour about certain riders on certain teams, tales about guys disappearing for half a year and explanations as to why, and about national federations hush-hushing positive tests.
To think that of all the racers in Asia some would not be tempted to dope is ludicrous. And yet the level and manner of testing suggests that either the UCI and the national federations do in fact believe that, or that they are not fully committed to catching cheats because the exposure of an Asian circuit with riders juiced and winning regularly would be bad for business.
There is no doubt that cycling in Asia is going through a growth period, with more and more people taking up the sport and more bikes being sold, but whether that growth is being positively encouraged by the bureaucrats rather than exploited is another matter.
Brian Cookson, the president of the UCI, addressed the thorny issue of Global Cycling Promotions’ control of the Tour of Beijing and has said that the organisers cannot “parachute in with a European pro model” for a stage race in Asia and expect it to work.
Alan Rumpf, head of GCP, hosted Cookson when he went to visit the race last year.
“After two days, [Cookson] had a good understanding where we are and what we want to do,” Rumpf said last October. “He’s been positive. He said he wants to see the race continue.
“He says, and I agree, that this race has to benefit the whole of China. He wants to see more cooperation with the Chinese cycling association, more benefits for all levels of cycling. He’s right. We’ve tried to do it since we’ve been here. It takes time. I’m glad that he’s there. He’s pushing us.”
GCP’s contract to run the race expires this year, and whether that is renewed might tell us about the sincerity of the UCI in addressing the issue of the conflict of interests that lie at the heart of their approach to growing the sport in Asia.
The UCI should also have in place a committee that travels to its Asian races to determine whether those in charge at a regional level are indeed the right people to entrust with their Asia Tour. The issue of doping controls also must be taken far more seriously if they are to avoid the same mistakes and problems that were compounded for so long in Europe, the USA and other hotbeds of bike racing.
What way do you see cycling going in China now with the discontinuation of the Tour of Beijing. It wasn’t a big surprise really. Do you think the UCI will try a different approach?