The bicycle is making a comeback in China and opportunities for sports properties are emerging as the government tries to promote cycling and take polluting cars off the roads. Mark Dreyer reports.
THE BICYCLE MAY be among the more relaxed forms of transport, but in China it has taken something of a rollercoaster ride.
Known for years as a country driven by pedal power, it was as recently as 2005 that singer Katie Melua sang about the nine million bicycles in the Chinese capital. However, when Australian cycling enthusiast Shannon Bufton first started to promote the sport in China in 2009, he and his friends did a series of talks warning about the extinction of the bike in China. “At that time Beijing was seeing 1,000 new cars added to its roads every week,” Bufton says. “Everyone was saying the bicycle was dead and done.”
Fast forward a few more years, though, and the bicycle is back in fashion once again.
Shortly after Bufton – who now runs Serk Cycling, a Beijing-based cycling events and consultancy company – opened a bike shop and café, he started to get a lot of media attention.
With all those cars choking China’s roads – and its skies – Chinese reporters had received government directives to promote the bicycle more. At the same time, Bufton says, the perception of the bicycle had changed from something associated with the past to something associated with the future.
“The Chinese are always looking for something cool to get into and a carbon-fibre bike is seen as a luxury item,” Bufton explains. “Health and fitness is a big movement now, so this is something they became interested in. There’s been a gradual, natural growth in cycling since then and the numbers of participants for both competitive and recreational cycling have ballooned.”
Earlier this year, Tour de France organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) announced plans for some Tour-themed races, which will include a Critérium event, similar to one that’s been held in Japan since 2013, as well as a Chinese version of L’Étape, a mass participation event for amateurs held over a professional road course.
More recently, Chinese company TJ Sport Consultation took over the Lampre-Merida team, creating China’s first WorldTour team, which will start racing next year.
This provides the biggest chance so far for cycling to develop into one of China’s most popular sports, according to Sebastian Bertram, business development manager at Germany-based Bertram Brothers ProCycling Agency.
“As a UCI WorldTour team, the new Chinese professional team will have global visibility from January to October and is guaranteed participation in the most prestigious one-day and stage races worldwide, such as the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia,” Bertram says.
China “definitely has the potential to become cycling’s biggest market”, according to Bertram, who adds that “Chinese people need to identify with a Chinese team or rider to follow the sport on a larger scale and to get more involved.”
A nation’s interest in cycling depends strongly on the success of its riders in top events, he argues, explaining that Jan Ullrich’s Tour de France win in 1997 sparked a cycling boom in Germany in much the same way as Sir Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 Tour win boosted cycling’s popularity in the UK.
However, so far China’s Tour de France connection begins, and ends, with Ji Cheng, the so-called “breakaway killer”, who completed the race in 2014 riding for the Giant-Shimano team, but finished in 164th – and last – place. After a decade as a pro rider, Ji is expected to retire at the end of this season, leaving youngsters such as Niu Yikui and Zhang Zhihui with the almighty task of winning over the Chinese public.
“There is still some way to go to get competitive Chinese riders,” Bufton says. “There are riders out there, but they are stuck in the state system.”
As one of the toughest sports in the world, he says, the difference between success and failure is the mental ability to go through pain and crank the suffering up a level. That simply won’t happen, he argues, with many members of China’s national team, who become too pampered at the first sign of success.
“You need to have that love for the sport if you are prepared to make yourself suffer to the necessary degree,” Bufton adds. “You need absolute passion and focus to make it.”
With many elite competitors in China being selected by officials – instead of the athletes actively choosing the sport – that initial bond is often missing. China’s track cycling team, however, has made some breakthroughs, with Gong Jinjie and Zhong Tianshi winning the women’s team sprint in Rio to claim China’s first ever Olympic gold medal in cycling.
Bufton credits French coach Benoit Vetu with inspiring true passion in the Chinese riders by trying a very different approach to the one that had gone before. “Now that a Chinese athlete has won gold, others will look at cycling in a different way,” Bufton explains. “It’s just a matter of time before China has more success on the international stage.”
Outside the Olympics, cycling has certainly been given plenty of attention in China, with state broadcaster CCTV providing highlights coverage of the top events and online streaming platform LeSports showing more than 20 races each year, or more than 150 days of competition. LeSports has also launched a dedicated cycling channel – a first among major Chinese sports media – with the channel’s chief editor, Xiao Shen, saying that viewing figures for the Tour de France quadrupled this year from a year ago, with Xiao adding that cycling attracts broadcasters through its reputation for high audience loyalty.
One of the challenges now is converting that loyalty into participation – and on a wide scale.
Alain Rumpf, formerly director of UCI subsidiary Global Cycling Promotion, which ran the Tour of Beijing from 2010 to 2013, says that many cities around China are interested in hosting events, with the Tour of Hainan and the Tour of Qinghai Lake serving as two annual races sanctioned by the UCI.
“Cycling is a good fit for China, because it brings health benefits, as well as cleaner cities due to reduced pollution,” Rumpf says. “That’s one of the main reasons why Beijing wanted a bike race in the first place,” adding that the Chinese side had been willing to continue the event, though the original four-year contract was not renewed.
China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Wanda Group, acquired the Ironman triathlon franchise last year at least in part, he said, because he saw sustainable transportation as the future, with the bicycle intrinsically linked both to that and to a healthier lifestyle that the Chinese government has been keen to promote.
His significant backing, Bufton says, has encouraged plenty of other investors to follow his lead.
Rumpf adds that Wanda was also rumoured to be buying the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia, which would “make sense due to the value of the rights.”
However, he also points out the importance of domestic riders for a Chinese audience – something he says is now likely to happen with the new Chinese WorldTour team. “Chinese riders will bring more coverage and having exposure in China is highly important for global sponsors,” Rumpf says.
In the end, though, it may just be China’s past that helps its people to reconnect to the bicycle. “Neither China nor the US has a long history of elite cycling,” he adds.
“But China does have a huge cycling heritage. You can’t say that about the US.”