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Chinese Whispers - reviewing the Tour of Beijing

This article first appeared in the December 2011 issue of Pro Cycling (opens in new tab)

The Tour of Beijing is the UCI’s latest push to globalise cycling but the build-up was tainted by renewed arguments. Firstly there was the race radio issue that’s bubbled since the season began, then came voices questioning the wisdom of sending the peloton to the other side of the globe so late in the season. Yet the intentions of this new race were admirable and the execution impressive. What are we to make to make of the event’s debut?


The race became a political football

The race was a turn-off from the beginning of the season, when teams and the UCI started using it as a political football in the radio debate. The UCI banned two-way radios between riders and support cars at all UCI-ranked .1 races from the start of 2011 and wanted to extend the ban up to the top ranked WorldTour races from the beginning of 2012. The teams opposed the ban and threatened to boycott the Tour of Beijing unless the UCI relented. UCI president Pat McQuaid called the team’s conduct “blackmail” and big team managers such as Johan Bruyneel threatened to set up a new super league outside of UCI sanction.

The rise of Global Cycling Promotion

Back in 2009 the UCI set up a wholly owned subsidiary housed in its Aigle HQ called Global Cycling Promotion to identify new race backers and then go in and help run the event. This is what happened at Beijing and in the process the UCI would collect a fee from the backers and the subsequent distribution of media rights. Those profits – presumably after the significant €445,000 the UCI spent setting up GCP in 2010 had been accounted for – would be reinvested into the sport, said McQuaid, but as the race approached, a wave of criticism mounted as commentators pointed out that the UCI was a not-for-profit federation, yet here it was awarding its own new race top tier status, obligating the best teams to attend and then collected a yield. It was a clear conflict of interest, surely?


No sooner had the riders and teams touched down than Twitter feeds were commenting on the soupy atmosphere. Photos of the thick miasma hanging over the city and jokes about viewers not adjusting their televisions were made. David Millar was at it, so was Nicolas Roche and Michel Kreder, the latter commenting that his opening TT performance was hampered by the fug. On the Friday, a Chinese weather website advised people to reduce outdoor sports activities because of poor air quality. It revived hazy memories of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, when factories were closed down prior to the event to improve air quality. HTC’s doctor, Helge Riepenhof, took with him a herbal remedy he’d used at the games to help riders breathe easier.

Lack of crowds

A Leopard Trek rider goes by the Cube in Beijing during the opening stage time trial

The first two stages were dire. Photographers captured images of riders passing through empty streets or with no one but security personnel in the frame. There were endless kilometres of barriers but no crowds there to be controlled. The photos taken in the Olympic Village, in the shadow of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, were particularly sparse. Given that Beijing is one of the most densely populated cities on earth, something was up. Overly strict security was cited and in some places spectators were kept back from the course by a double set of barriers. Crowds weren’t allowed to gather at the start or finish either. It got better on stage 3, when the security was relaxed and people turned out in numbers to watch.

An 11km time trial opened the race and new TT world champion Tony Martin smashed it. Race over. He beat David Millar by 17 seconds and preserved that lead all the way to the finish. The biggest gap to emerge all week came on the Queen stage, which finished 12km from the summit of the day’s third category 1 climb. All that emerged was a one second gap separating the winner and runner up, Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan, from a 50-strong chase group. It was hardly edge-of-the-sofa viewing. McQuaid practically admitted as much when he mentioned that future editions would probably culminate with a time trial and that the local organising committee – the local group of race organisers – would search out some decent climbs, not something lacking around Beijing. The race was shown live in Europe and a thread soon emerged on the forum asking if it was ‘more boring than the Tour Down Under’. Yes, was the common consensus, by about three to one.


Diversified cycling

According to the Katie Melua song, there are nine million bicycles in Beijing. Unfortunately, hardly any of them are used for cycle sport. Just ask Philippe Mauduit, now a Saxo Bank sports director, who used to be the national coach between 2002 and 2004: “Cycling in China is not a sport that people recognise,” he said on the final stage, which started in Tiananmen Square. He said Chinese riders rarely venture beyond their borders to compete. Currently, though, there are three Chinese riders at the UCI World Cycling Centre development programme and McQuaid said he hoped the race would help catalyse the emergence of a national ProTeam level squad. The GCP, imperfect or not, is the linking mechanism between Old World experience and New World opportunity.

Well organised

The knives were out for the race from the beginning but many of the riders’ private fears were exorcised by the organisation of the race. Coming away with second place on the overall classification, David Millar, who was initially sceptical about travelling out to the race, commented: “I can’t really say anything bad about it – it’s been incredibly well organised, it’s safe and we’ve been treated well.” Others were in agreement, too. Team Sky’s Dario Cioni, who is also a spokesman for the Professional Riders’ Association, was wheeled out by the GCP to comment in the closing press release: “I must say I am positively surprised by the organisation, which has always been top level. There have been no security issues and the food and hotels have always been good,” he said.

Solid field

Overall leader Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) sits comfortably in the bunch

Whether by luck or judgement, the inaugural tour of Beijing had a solid field, which featured one world champion in Tony Martin, the reigning Olympic road champion Samuel Sánchez, Chris Froome still on incredible form after the Vuelta, and a handful of riders such as Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Janez Brajkovic whose GC ambitions at the Tour de France were cut short by crashes. That’s not bad going since it was the penultimate WorldTour race and was held on the other side of the planet. Despite the peppering of big names, it was also a good chance for squads low on UCI ranking points to go on the offensive and try to preserve their licence hopes for next year. Teams including AG2R, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Lampre-ISD mustered their strongest possible squads. After all, Beijing had the same points value as Paris-Nice or the Critérium du Dauphiné. AG2R in particular must have come away breathing a sigh of relief after Nicolas Roche bagged a stage win.

Gold star from the IOC

Professional road cycling doesn’t score very well with the International Olympic Committee and that puts its presence in the Games in jeopardy. Alain Rumpf says cycling needs to get away from the perception that it’s an expensive and Euro-centric sport. If it doesn’t, and road cycling were left out of the games, then national federations – especially in smaller countries – would lose a significant portion of their funding which comes directly from the IOC. So, taking a top tier race to the most populous country on earth provides a great big tick in the box. When McQuaid goes to the next IOC meeting he has substance to add to arguments that cycling is reaching a wider audience.

Gateway into new sponsors

Cycling hardly has a glut of blue chip companies clamouring to become headline sponsors – just ask Bob Stapleton about his failed search for a new backer for Highroad in place of HTC. China, as the world’s second biggest economy, could offer rich pickings for a sport that is increasingly reliant on wealthy sugar-daddies stumping up the cash to fund teams. The biggest sponsor on show was the BAIC group, a holding company for various automotive brands in China. It’s too early to say whether the Tour will persuade Chinese sponsors to become internationally active but given the initial four-year contract for the race, there’s time to coax them in – by which point there might be a fledging Chinese team in the pipeline.

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Sam started as a trainee reporter on daily newspapers in the UK before moving to South Africa where he contributed to national cycling magazine Ride for three years. After moving back to the UK he joined Procycling as a staff writer in November 2010.