The UCI officially announced the creation of the Tour of Guangxi stage race, to debut in October, 2017. It’s six stages around one of the most evocative landscapes on Earth, featuring... whoever still has anything left in the tank that late in the season. For World Tour points. So yeah, people will come.
The idea of a Tour of Guangxi is so new that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry yet. It’s thoroughly weird to have a race invented out of whole cloth, in a region that has no connection whatsoever to the elite pro racing scene, but a lot of weird things are happening these days, and unlike most of those I can at least imagine this one working out just fine. China turns off a lot of people with its authoritarian politics and deplorable human rights record, and if I keep typing until I get to the subject of Tibet, I might never return to a cycling discussion. But it’s also a rapidly modernizing country, huge player on the world economic and geopolitical scene, and most populous nation on Earth. And in places like Guangxi, you can be transported back to a time when China was less controversial and just a thoroughly fascinating place.
[Seriously, just release the Panchen Lama and we can all get on with things.]
Beyond the basic notion that there will be a race and it will go through both urban and rural areas, we know almost nothing about the event. But I’ve traveled to Guangxi, back in 1994, so I can offer a few ideas. First, my 1994 reference point is pretty close to useless; even back then China was modernizing so rapidly that my brand-new Lonely Planet book was at least three price hikes behind reality for just about every decent place to stay.
Second, the true beauty of the place are the limestone hills, which take every formation imaginable except that of a mountain that you could climb on a bike. So as dreamy as it will all look, my hunch is that the races won’t be very selective. The valleys are occupied by broad, fast moving rivers, like the Li River that we rode from Yangshuo to a local market, but had to come back by bike because the current was too strong to carry us. Anyway, I would guess that the country has put together some really nice, modern roads in those valleys, and they are about as challenging to a cyclist as your average Polder path. I’m guessing we will see at least three bunch sprints. But from a look at the map there are some national or regional parks, where there are probably some nice park roads with some pitch to them. [Oh, and the air quality problems that were an issue in the Olympics have nothing to do with this part of the country.]
The real significance of the Tour of Gaungxi is money and power. Already we have seen the venerable Lampre team rebranded as TJ Sport, after its new Chinese sponsor, and the license issued as Chinese-registered. This despite very few Chinese riders holding World Tour contracts, for now. The owner of the Tour of Guangxi, Wanda Sports, is part of a massive conglomerate who can finance a little bike race with the loose change that falls out of pockets in the executive board room. Marshaling Europe’s sports heroes and putting them on TV in front of China’s signature landscapes is a classic power move.
Will it work? Only if the Chinese develop any interest in the sport. Nothing dooms a race faster than a total lack of spectators, depriving the event of any atmosphere, so whether people turn out for the Tour of Guangxi like you see in Europe or America or Australia is to be determined. What would help eventually are some Chinese riders competing to win. China is rife with athletes and the Beijing Olympics (plus affluence and greater world acceptance) has set the country on a path to relevance in any number of sports. Given that every one of its 1.3 billion citizens has a bike, it makes some sense for the racing of bikes to be a thing in China. But that’s pretty facile logic; in reality China is overcoming half a century of extreme poverty and cultural misery, to put it mildly. While Maitre Jacques was torturing Pou-pou in the Alps, something close to not a single Chinese citizen was even thinking about bike racing in the form that we know it. Thus, like so much of modern China, it will have to be created anew if a road cycling scene is to exist in China at all.
Undoubtedly that is happening to some extent — Ji Cheng says hello — and the longer-standing track scene can probably help move things along. And while China and Taiwan have an official relationship that could best be described as apocalyptic, my sense is that the citizens of each place are still connected by the grace of all the gods who made them Chinese. Taiwan may not be “China” but it’s still the Middle Kingdom. So athletes from Taiwan, where road cycling is pretty big, might increase the interest of fans back on the mainland. I’m getting out of my depth here, so any China experts please jump in here. Oh, and there will be sportives, for the locals to come out and ride. Like I said, I’d be shocked if some sort of roadie scene weren’t beginning to take hold.
Ultimately, China’s presence in so much of what the world has and does is a story that’s getting bigger by the day. Cycling could certainly stand an influx of talent from outside Europe and the Euro-influenced countries who make up virtually the entire peloton right now. Yes, there will be concerns about whether this race is appropriate or just a UCI cash grab with too little local support to make it fun (I’m looking at you, Doha World Championships). Yes, there will be questions about putting big events on the World Tour calendar so late in the year. Yes, there will be questions about whether Chinese teams can comply with the ethical standards of the sport, given the history of state-sponsored doping programs back in the 1980s and 90s. But back in the west, there are a lot of glass houses.
China is a part of every country on Earth, through its adventurous migrants to its cultural and economic contributions. Hell, China is where most of the bikes are made, and that alone merits an audition for the show, right? The UCI may not have the exact right motives in diving straight into a Tour of Guangxi, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong either. Anyway, it’ll be fun to see what happens.