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The peloton on stage 3 of the Tour of Beijing
Riders complain about Chinese WorldTour race, but Vasseur remains supportive
This season's inaugural Tour of Beijing has created mixed feelings inside the peloton. While even the UCI has conceded that the newly-founded event in China will need some fine-tuning in the years to come, some riders were deeply unhappy with the race that nevertheless remains one of the governing body's priorities in its quest to globalise the sport.
Various anonymous Spanish riders who participated in the Tour of Beijing have now voiced their concerns with Marca's reputed cycling journalist Josu Garai. One of their main issues while racing in the Chinese capital had been their health.
"During the competition, the day on which there was the least pollution we had 210 mg/m3 (of carbon dioxide) in the air. The maximum limit in Europe is 40 mg/m3. You really felt the lacking oxygen," one rider said.
"Security during the race was absolute, but every time we had to go out to train we were literally playing with our lives. To come out of Beijing and try to catch a secondary road is very dangerous. The same on the way back. You ride on the bike lane, but it's the same because nobody - be it cars, taxis or people - respects anything. To have a minimum of security we would have needed support vehicles, but they delivered them late," commented another Spaniard.
As well as a fear of eating meat because of the risk of clenbuterol contamination, the interviewed riders also criticised China's political regime and public censorship. "A country with so much future has banned social networks. They say China is a modern country, but there continues to be no freedom of speech. To the contrary, there is a lot of censorship," said one rider who noted limited internet access immediately after his arrival at the airport.
"And don't tell me that they're opening up new markets for cycling, because that's not true," replied one of the riders when confronted with the UCI's main motive for extending the WorldTour into Asia.
But Cédric Vasseur, long-time president of the riders' association and now consultant for Tour de France organiser ASO - also in charge at the Tour of Beijing - did not agree. In a lengthy interview on the French Velochrono website, Vasseur conceded that several issues at the new venue had still to be resolved, but remained adamant that the race would be beneficial to pro cycling on the long run.
"China is on the verge of becoming the world's greatest economic power. Cycling should not be out of phase with its time, we have to seize this opportunity. Who knows is in two or three years, European cycling teams won't have a Chinese sponsor?," asked Vasseur.
The former pro rider compared China to other distant countries that have built up a true culture for the sport in recent years. "I'm sure that if we get the possibility to look back in ten or 15 years, we will talk of the Chinese like we talk of the Australians today," Vasseur continued. "I became a pro in 1994 and there was Stuart O'Grady in my team. I looked at him from my French perspective. I thought he came from another planet - it ddn't have anything to do with cycling as I knew it. But today, we all know the performances of the Australians.
"You also have to understand that the Chinese people are not used to see a race like that. We in Europe are accustomed to it, but in China, it's totally new. But on the last day, young Chinese spectators were shouting the name of Tony Martin to get an autograph... When you think of China's population, just imagine if our bid is successful: it could be absolutely crazy! It's a beautiful challenge."