Giro d'Italia boss Michele Acquarone, a proponent of the globalization of cycling, is excited about welcoming the first ever Chinese rider to participate in the Italian Grand Tour. Eight months after completing the Vuelta a Espana, Ji Cheng will line up under the colours of Argos-Shimano next week in Naples.
"I'm looking forward to it even though I don't know much about Italy, except that I've heard about the climbs being harder than in Spain," Ji told Cyclingnews in Marmaris during the Tour of Turkey.
Ji is not a total stranger to Italy, He has taken part in the past two editions of Milan-San Remo, but admitted that he doesn't know the existence of organizing newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport which gives its pink color to the leader's jersey.
Ji hails from Harbin, a "small" city of 3.3 million people in the province of Hei Long Jiang in the far north east of China near the Russian border. "Our normal climate in the winter is -36°C," he said. "The record is -55°C, but I've not experienced it personally."
A son of a housewife and an interior designer, he comes from a family that contravened the one-child policy. He has a sister and remembers that his parents were fined 3000 yuans (around 370 euros) for the birth of a second child.
"At school, I was a runner, and I always won, so I got a chance to enter a sports school," said the 25-year-old. "In 2002, because it was still cold for running in April, I moved to cycling and started on a home trainer. Only one month later, I took part in my first competition on the road: 12 laps around Laoshan, the venue of the Beijing Olympics for track, BMX and mountain bike. It was been the hardest race in my life. I didn't even have cycling shoes." He was then assigned to track cycling for the 2005 China Games in Nanjing.
"In 2006, I heard that Shimano wanted Chinese riders for their team in Europe," he said. "They interviewed me and asked if I could cook by myself and speak English. I answered that cooking is my passion, and I can learn English, so I joined Skil-Shimano in 2007, and I've lived in Hengelo since. You can ask my teammates: I'm the best chef on the team! My speciality is to cook Coca-Cola chicken wings."
On the bike, Ji has made a name for himself by pulling the bunch for hours. A worthy domestique, he has been identified as "the breakaway killer" since he brought the bunch across to escapees on many occasions during the 2012 Vuelta at the service of John Degenkolb, who won five stages and will be once again his captain for the Giro.
"With Argos-Shimano, we know how to control the flat stages," he said. "Even the riders from other teams like Lotto-Belisol come up to me sometimes and ask, "Hey Cheng, you're gonna pull?' It seems like everyone likes to follow me. Usually, in 10 kilometers, I close a 10-=second gap. I always ride at 75% of my possibilities, so on hard days, I can push more."
"I've learned cycling in Europe. When I first arrived, I was shocked to see people sprinting to corners instead of braking. Chinese riders have a lot to learn here, technically and tactically."
Followed by a crew of CCTV who produced a documentary on his participation in the Vuelta last year, Ji feels like he is on a mission. "I might not be the most talented cyclist from the country, but I want to show everyone that a Chinese [rider] can also do the job, providing that he acts as a professional," he said. "I'm doing these Grand Tours to give inspiration to my compatriots. What I've achieved so far has had some impact back home among the cycling fans, but if I happen to ride the Tour de France next year or the year after, it would be massive for China."
The "breakaway killer" also has a dream of reversing roles. "Team work comes first, but winning a race is always in the back of the mind of a racer," he said. Acquarone would love to see that on the roads of Italy next month.