Ji Cheng sets out for his final season

Ji Cheng’s tenth professional season might well be his last, as the first ever Chinese cyclist to start and complete a Grand Tour has retirement in sight at the age of 29, with a possible future in television to promote cycling in his country.

“I’ve never started a season so early,” Ji told Cyclingnews in Adelaide after stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under. “I always heard a lot of good stories about this race. It’s summertime, there are koalas, kangaroos and so on. It’s a WorldTour race, quite well known in China, since we now have cycling websites and web portals LeTV and Hysport who report about the races. When I heard in November about the possibility of coming to Australia, I secured a visa before I found out my definitive race program during a training camp in Altea in Spain, in December.

“It’s a bit of a shock for my body since I’m from the north of China [the Heilongjiang province] where the average temperature at this time of the year is -31°”, the Giant-Alpecin rider said. “I’m not at 100% of my capacities yet. Initially we came here with ambitions for [Tour de France Pra Loup stage winner] Simon Geschke who is a good uphill sprinter but he’s suffering from an injured knee so we switched to Tobias Ludvigsson as our GC rider.”

Ji completed the Vuelta a España in 2012 and the Tour de France two years later, and he made himself a household name when he rode the Grand Tours at the service of sprinters John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel, earning the nickname “breakaway killer” as he spent lengthy hours pulling the peloton behind the escapees. He’s on Giant-Alpecin’s long list for the Giro alongside Tom Dumoulin this year but he’s not sure yet if he’ll ever ride a Grand Tour again. He got married in 2013 and wants to make his family his priority soon.

“I’m up for contract this year and I feel that I’m now enjoying my tenth and last season racing as a professional in Europe”, said the Chinese who started with Skil-Shimano in 2007 and has been based in the Netherlands since.

“I will remain active in cycling for sure but I feel it’s time for me to move on to the other side of the fence and help Chinese cycling to develop. I’d like to give the talented 15 or 16 year-olds a chance to reach the pro level. I’ve always said that there are more talented cyclists than me in China, especially younger ones. I’ve paved the way for them even though I’m not a sprinter, I’m not a climber and I’m not a time triallist but now it’s clear that a Chinese rider can ride the Tour de France.

“I want to see Chinese cyclists competing in the Asian championships, in the world championships and in the Olympic Games, which is not the case yet despite the quality of the riders we have now. I closely follow the progress of some of them, like Niu Yikui, who is from my province, and Zhang Zhi Hui, who is starting his second season in Europe with SEG Racing.

“Here at the Santos Tour Down Under, the organizers and TV networks use the experience of former riders like Robbie McEwen and Jens Voigt. In China we don’t have many people like that yet. [Former Discovery Channel and Radio Shack pro] Li Fuyu does a good job with his Hengxiang team. I foresee a great future for cycling in China where the sport can help to fight pollution and stop people from smoking.

“Last year I didn’t race the Tour de France but I commentated on it on TV for CCTV and LeTV in a studio in Beijing. CCTV holds the rights for the Tour de France but they don’t show it live every day. Last year they told me they’d do it daily if I accepted to comment on every stage, but I still had a job to do as a pro rider so they broadcast the first two stages that I commented and the few last ones. I was a bit nervous at the beginning but I quickly found myself at ease since the pro peloton is my daily bread.”

Ji added that he might well bring the curtain down on his time with Giant-Alpecin at the Tour of Hainan in October, as it is understood that the team plans to return to the race. “It would be nice to conclude my career in China,” he said.

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