China’s first Tour de France cyclist chases his dream
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The Tour de France standings can be misleading. After four days of racing, Ji Cheng is 192nd out of 194 remaining riders. Yet already the race represents a double triumph for the 26-year-old cyclist.
When the Tour rolled out from Leeds on Saturday, Ji made history as the first cyclist from China to compete in the Grande Boucle. Ji represents China, but he is employed by the Dutch team Giant-Shimano.
The team’s star is sprinter Marcel Kittel. Ji’s job is to help Kittel win. So far, Ji and the rest of the Shimano team, have done just that. Led out by a phalanx of teammates, Kittel won the first stage in Harrogate, the third stage in London and the fourth stage on Tuesday in Lille.
Ji is accomplishing his twin goals for the Tour.
"My mission is to work as hard and as best as possible for the team and to finish on the Champs Elysées at the end," he told FRANCE 24 before the start.
Ji is from Harbin in northern China. The city is home to a famous ice festival and the temperatures in December, January and February are well below freezing.
"In 2002 I changed sport from running to cycling," he said. Ji took up track cycling, which meant he could train indoors in a velodrome all winter.
"The system is very different to Europe and other countries where cycling is popular," he said. "When I started cycling there were only two road races on during the season."
In 2007, he signed with the Giant-Shimano team, then known as Skil-Shimano.
"Shimano China wanted to support some Chinese racers. They wanted someone to go to a European professional team to race, to finally have a Chinese rider start the Tour de France," Ji told AFP. "I'm lucky they called me and said: 'there's a chance, you're young and good for road biking'."
The transition was not easy.
"The first year I was really sad, it was completely different," he said. "When you come to Europe, it's the small, funny things. When you come home from a race on Sunday and on Monday everything is closed in the city."
"It's a hard life, I have a family but they stay in China, my wife also," he said. "I'd really like my wife to come to Europe."
Ji’s participation in the Tour is a mark of the faith his team has in him.
"When we started working with him as a young talented rider back in 2008 we made a long-term plan and this has seen him develop into the highest level of the sport and we see him now playing an important factor in the sprint formations," Rudi Kemna, the Giant-Shimano coach, told the web site of the sport’s governing body, the UCI, or Union Cycliste Internationale.
Ji has already ridden in the two other major tours: the 2012 Vuelta a Espana and the Giro d'Italia last year for Giant-Shimano.
"For me, personally, finally I did the three Grand Tours, I can say I'm the first Chinese. I'm really happy for that and also for my dream since I started cycling, so finally I got there," he said.
Yet the Tour has a special status.
"When I started cycling in China, the Tour de France was the only race they showed on the TV," Ji said, adding that his participation was "an opportunity to show Chinese cycling to the world."
‘Globalization of the sport’
For professional cycling, Ji’s participation also offers a chance to show off the sport to the most populous country in the world.
"Having Cheng in the team as the first Chinese rider ever to ride the Tour de France will be huge for him and his country and we look forward to seeing the impact this has on the globalisation of the sport," Kemna said.
Ji might also have an impact on cycling in China on both a professional and a daily level. He said he hopes to inspire more Chinese racers.
"I hope for the future we will send more and more riders to European pro races," Ji said. "I hope they can use my experience to see that European cycling is possible."
His ride is also symbolic for a country that was once known as the "Kingdom of Bicycles," because so many people cycled everywhere.
With increasing wealth, more and more people have switched to cars and mopeds and more and more live in distant suburbs. That has contributed to a growing problem with air pollution. Now there is a move to get people back on their bikes.
Last year, more than 150 Chinese cities, including Harbin, took part in "National Car-Free Day”.
For now, as the Tour heads to France, Ji is focused on helping his team and reaching the finish.
"For me riding the Tour de France is a dream come true,” he said.