Something special is happening at the Tour de France and it's got nothing to do with yellow jerseys or podium placements. Five days in, the 101st Tour is most notable for a little-known workhorse of a rider on Team Shimano-Giant. His name is Ji Cheng, and he's Chinese.
Ji, who serves as a sort of full back for his team, clearing a path for the fast guys, is the first man from the world’s most populous nation to slide into bike shorts for the world's biggest cycling race. Bike makers and race organizers, who wouldn’t mind access to a 1.35 billion-person market, are hoping he won't be the last. Consider this line from the release announcing his inclusion on Team Giant-Shimano: “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 globalization of the sport.” Here’s an unsubtle translation: “Chinese people are going to be buying our stuff!”
Despite the ubiquity of bikes in China’s cities, road cycling has never taken off with the Chinese. Part of the reluctance to go faster probably stems from how expensive speed can be. High-end road bikes typically cost four figures. That doesn’t make sense if you’re farming or working in a factory. But it does make sense if you’re part of a growing middle class or if you’re part of the politburo.
Chinese sports are highly politicized and the three medals won by Chinese track cyclists at the 2012 Olympic Games set off something of a cycling furor. That said, there is no easy path to success in road biking. In London there were only four road cycling events and more than 250 cyclists were vying for medals. That means that the medal math doesn’t work, but that the rise of a single great Chinese athlete – a la Yao Ming – could capture the country’s imagination.
Ji could be that man. A native of the northern Chinese city Harbin and former track racer, Ji first competed in Europe in 2007. With his start in the Tour de France on Saturday, he’s now raced in all three of cycling’s Grand Tour events, including the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España. And his ascension to the top of the cycling world is no accident. When Giant-Shimano invited him to join in 2007, it was actively seeking a Chinese rider. A lot of work went into getting Ji where he is and Giant, a Taiwanese company, and Shimano, based in Japan, are looking to reap the rewards of that labor by leading a cycling boom in the Middle Kingdom.
If Ji is to become a successful standard bearer for biking, he’ll have to learn to appeal to the very people that slowed cycling’s progress in China – the people who can afford cars. He’s got over a thousand miles to do something interesting on this tour and several years after that to prove that he can be the hero his people deserve. If he succeeds, the bike giants will win big. If he fails and another biker rises to take his place, they’ll try their luck again.
Photos by Laura Cipriani/Associated Press