Fifth overall in the Tour of Hainan and currently third in the Tour of Fuzhou after winning stage 1, China’s Lyu Xianjing is the big revelation of the final races of 2018. Has the world of cycling finally discovered the much anticipated talent from China?
It has been 15 years since the Dutch-based Marco Polo organization started scouting cycling talents in China. Li Fuyu emerged as the first Chinese WorldTour rider with Discovery Channel in 2007, and Pro Continental team Skil-Shimano welcomed Jin Long as their first Chinese rider in 2006.
Under the colours of Argos-Shimano and Giant-Alpecin, Ji Cheng completed the three Grand Tours during his 10-year pro career (from 2007 to 2016). Xing Yandong (with Argos-Shimano in 2013), Xu Gang (with Lampre-Merida from 2014 to 2016) and Wang Meiyin (with Bahrain-Merida since 2017) have also been registered in the highest category without achieving major results in the WorldTour so far.
While international races have popped up in different Chinese provinces since the inception of the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2002, the only Chinese winner of a stage race overall in that period remains En Huang, who claimed the UCI 2.2 Tour of Vietnam in 2012.
Wang’s victory in stage 3 of the 2013 Le Tour de Langkawi and his fifth overall, is the best result obtained by a Chinese road cyclist so far. For several reasons, including bureaucracy, it took him four years to join a WorldTour team and he’ll turn 30 next month.
It would be an understatement to say that the promise from start-up organisation GCP (Global Cycling Project) to produce a first Chinese winner of the Tour de France by 2024, according to a press release last month, has been welcomed in China with scepticism. But since then, a huge potential has emerged.
As Lyu Xianjing became the King of the Mountains after stage 6 in the Tour of Hainan, Swiss rider Simon Pellaud, who won the final stage, said he went on Procyclingstats to know more about this ride,r but he found no result, only to learn later that Xianjing was actually participating in his first-ever international road race.
Aged 20, Lyu hails from the Yunnan province, where mountain biking is well developed. He made a household name for himself by winning the Elite cross-country title at the China Games in Tianjin last year. He’s the current under-23 Asian champion in that discipline and the silver medallist at the Elite Asian Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia, in August this year, behind his teammate Ma Hao who is also from Yunnan.
Li invited Lyu to have a stint of road racing with his continental team, Hengxiang, known as the talent factory of Chinese cycling. After some training camps and lab tests, he selected him for the Tour of Hainan.
“I knew he was strong," Li told Cyclingnews. “But honestly, I didn’t expect him to race so well so early.”
The level of the Chinese races might not be the highest in the world, but Lyu’s performance on stage 8 of the Tour of Hainan, on the 7km climb to the finish in Changjiang, was impressive as he finished only six seconds down on stage (and overall) winner Fausto Masnada, a Giro d’Italia rider with Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. He was on the wheel of Gino Mäder, a future neo pro with Dimension Data who is one year his senior and finished third overall in the Tour de l’Avenir and fourth at the under-23 world championship.
“This was totally new to me," Lyu explained. “I didn’t know who I was racing against. I’ve been on bikes for seven years, but I had absolutely no experience of road racing before the Tour of Hainan. I felt I had problems with bike handling in the downhills, but I’ve learned a lot. I know I have a lot more to learn.”
Shown pictures of the Tour de France, Lyu admitted he had no clue of what it was and didn’t know Geraint Thomas’ name. But he was curious and interested to discover that world.
“After the Tour of Hainan, he asked me if he could come back to the race next race to win it because he felt he had an unfinished business," Li revealed.
Two weeks after the Tour of Hainan, Lyu won stage 1 of the Tour of Fuzhou atop a 10km climb, beating former Astana trainee Ilya Davidenok, who was suspended for two years after failing four dope tests at the Tour of Qinghai Lake and the Tour de l’Avenir in 2014.
“I will keep working hard because I feel that I’m not at my best yet," said Lyu, who doesn’t want to choose between mountain biking and road cycling as he is adamant that he loves both.
He is eyeing the mountain bike event at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. He’s set to continue training with his province coach for mountain biking and with Hengxiang on the road. Li reckons it’s too early for him to join a big team and doesn’t want to reveal Lyu’s lab tests results that many people are already asking for.
The pro cycling community hasn’t been successful in their research for major sponsors in China so far. Their conclusion was often that it would happen only when there will be a cycling equivalent of former NBA super star Yao Ming. Could that be Lyu Xianjing?