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The UCI is forcing us to like cycling in China. Well, I do like cycling, and I kind of like China. So here goes.
Sticking to my guns, let me start my Tour of Beijing preview with some very good reasons not to be overly happy about this race.
Why, UCI? Why?
So let's recap all of China's contributions to the sport of top-level road cycling:
- Chinese riders have racked up 104 CQRanking points this year, led by Gang Xu of the Champion Systems Pro Conti team (38 points, including 5 at the .HC Tour of Oman). [Spain tops out north of 12,000 points.]
- Chinese manufacturing accounts for something close to 99% of the electronic devices used by riders to zone out to music or call their parents or post something on Twitter.
Aaaaand... we're done. Now, don't hear what I am not saying. For example, I'm not denying China's place on the world stage (big). I'm not denying the fabulous Olympics staged in Beijing, including a very lovely road race, just four years ago. I'm not denying that the bicycle has a very large place in Chinese life, more so than the US. I'm not denying the potential for China, with its large and very serious athletic programs, to carve out a place in the pro cycling world.
But I am saying, point blank, that China has almost nothing to do with top-end bike racing right now. Here's a list of countries who do not currently host any World Tour events: United States (we're a separate country from Canada, yo); Colombia; the entire United Kingdom or the British Isles or whichever one includes Ireland; Norway (Norway!); Belarus; Sweden; Slovakia; Slovenia; and the Czech Republic. To name a few. What do all of those countries have in common besides a lack of UCI World Tour attention? An overreliance on potatoes and/or black beans for their diet. And a contribution to pro cycling that fricking dwarfs that of China. Thinking about modern times? China ranks 60th in CQ points, behind Taiwan (thanks for the carbon frame!) and Hong Kong. Behind Serbia and Costa Rica. Behind Indonesia and Moldova, among many, many others. You get the point. Add in cycling history -- can I just take a wild guess that no Chinese rider has won a grand tour or a monument? -- and it gets worse.
Obviously the UCI is motivated by money, or by currying favor with the Chinese, which is all the rage among indebted governments. I get it, I'm a man of the world (as far as I know). I'm sure Pat McQuaid's master plan to grow the power of
cycling the UCI includes raising the profile of China, the audience/potential capital source/potential athlete source, as a key component. Hell, I'm not even against the Mondialisation of the sport, generally speaking. If Belgians can get behind foreign Ronde winners, I shouldn't have any real cause to complain.
But like I said earlier, a UCI World Tour race in China is about as relevant as a table tennis world cup in Rome. There's nothing stopping you from making it happen... except common sense.
Oh, and shipping athletes to China in search of points is not nothing. China is a long way from home for everyone -- except Yukia Arashiro and a few of his countrymen, none of whom are going anywhere near the race in light of the tensions between China and Japan over those precious, precious barren rocks offshore from Taiwan. [Whatever "face" is, it sounds expensive.] In order to race effectively, you have already decamped from Europe or the Americas a week ago. Even from Australia it's no walk in the park.
All of which is doable, as we learned in 2008, but of course this means that the entire European calendar for October is a non-starter. Want World Tour points? No Paris-Tours, no Emilia or any of the other Italian races. I suppose the change for Lombardia is a positive thing, in hindsight -- at least you can do the Falling Leaves and still get to Beijing with your sanity intact.
The Race Itself
Looking for excitement? Eh... good luck. Of course, the riders make the race, and if you can round up a breakaway of guys desperate for last-minute UCI points, you might be on to something.
Last year's race was a snore-fest, with Tony Martin smoking the opening ITT and the remaining stages all finishing with gaps of no more than one second. This year, to the race's credit, it looks like things have opened up a bit more. Stage 3 features a mountaintop finish at the Badaling station of the Great Wall, arguably as visually impressive a finish as the Giro dell'Emilia. Not terribly selective, and recall the Olympics did seven circuits to try and drop the non-climbers, with modest success. This time it's a single romp up to the wall, with some 6% climbing of note earlier in the race. Stages 2 and 5 feature mid-race ascents, but stage 2 is a repeat of last year, which ended in a Heinrich Haussler sprint win, so my hunch is that there will be little if any selection outside of the Great Wall. And even there... we'll see.
OK, I can do this. I spent a couple months in China back in the day, and while I don't recall anything about it that said "bike race!" to me, I can name several advantages.
Weather there can be pleasant -- or horrible, but this year it's pleasant FTW. Also, while I don't recall the roads having any of the qualities you look for, I know that they redid a lot for the Olympics, so its probably pretty dialed, if dull. Oh, and having an autocratic government comes in handy when it's time to host a bike race, assuming they want it. Protests? Forget it. Haggling with private entities honing in on your VIP business? Not happening, or if it is, you can always play the "relocate your families" card. So expect things to go very smoothly.
On a more serious note, I do think it's cool for the riders to go there. Unless you resent China for any of the myriad reasons to do so (seen the Panchen Lama lately?), it's a truly fascinating place to check out. China's place in the development of human society is well documented, and no joke. The people are very interesting -- and I don't care if that's a gross generalization -- as long as you don't have Party Officials acting as your escorts. In short, if I'm Taylor Phinney I'm probably not wasting my time in Beijing lamenting the absence of the time trial. It's a fun trip. Given that it's a five-stage race over modest terrain, I'd guess you can even afford a little nightlife. After all, the race revolves around the city so I am guessing no teams are camping out in the sticks.
Who can win?
Er... here's a short list of guys who can climb a little, and aren't known (to me) to be completely burnt out:
- Simon Clarke -- would be a great way to cap off his breakout season.
- Rui Costa -- Probably the favorite. Movistar are on fire and he's good on this terrain.
- Ryder Hesjedal -- Not sure about form, but this course is in his wheelhouse and Garmin know how to defend.
- Moreno Moser -- New Sheriff in town?
- Edvald Boasson Hagen -- King of the SSSRs with a little climbing in them.
- Johnny Hoogerland -- Unleash the CrAzY!
- Sneaky pick... Daniele Bennati. If the climbing isn't selective and Benna hangs around, don't be too shocked. He was sandwiched between Van Avermaet and Santambrogio in Gran Piemonte. Like I said, only if they don't make it selective.