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The Tour of Beijing is no more. After four editions, the Chinese stage race will no longer close out the UCI WorldTour. Jane Aubrey has worked on the Tour of Beijing for the past two years and wrote the following about why the race’s cancellation is genuine shame.
When the Tour of Beijing’s demise was announced by the UCI, plenty of people who had never been to the event passed judgment. It was somewhat frustrating but nevertheless reflective of a society that now champions the ‘citizen reporter’.
2014 marked my second trip to the Tour of Beijing as a contractor to Jump Media & Marketing who in turn run the international media services for the race organisation. I’ve never been told to toe a particular line and I’m writing this piece of my own free will. I go to the race as a free agent and report on the events as I see it. Spin? There is none. It’s my job to tell the story of the race and it’s a privilege to do so – I take my role seriously. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I wouldn’t work otherwise.
Over the last two years I’ve seen a fair spectrum of the only Asian event on the WorldTour. The good, and the ordinary. This is a view on the race from the inside.
Concerns over air quality and Beijing are not new. It was a talking point in the lead up to the Olympic Games in 2008. I distinctly remember returning to my hotel of a night during a backpacking trip nearly a decade ago and finding my face covered in particles of black grime.
I’ve had the scratchy throat, also known as the ‘Beijing tickle’, and irritated eyes. Then again, I’ve also had disturbing nose-blowing incidents after wandering around the Sydney CBD and have experienced the delightful phenomenon of ‘tube snot’ travelling in London. Those occasions have left me wondering just what was ending up in my lungs and when it comes to athletes enduring the same conditions, I’m left with only genuine concern.
It’s important to remember that the majority of the race is conducted outside of the city, so the conditions that you fly into upon landing at the airport may very well be different by the time the peloton sets out for the opening stage. Much of the city’s air pollution issues are down to geography – Beijing is cradled on flatlands with mountains to the northeast and southwest that trap the air.
“We put a lot of attention in the course planning, making sure that the race would stay outside of Beijing for the first four stages,” explains Alain Rumpf, Director of Global Cycling Promotion. “We would only be in Beijing for the last iconic stage from Tiananmen square to the Bird’s Nest. It has worked because we have been able to hold every stage even if the situation in downtown Beijing was not very easy…”
This year, I arrived in Beijing off the back of guóqìng jié, or the seven-day-long National Day. The sky was a stunning blue with local residents escaping the city and industry grinding to a halt. The race depart on October 10 was a three and a half hour drive to the north, in Chongli, a city that is part of Beijing’s bid for the Olympic Winter Games in 2022.
Banners that proudly boast Chongli’s reputation for some of the cleanest air in China, dot buildings and mountainsides. It was a popular destination over guóqìng jié for the very same reason. As everyone started returning to work and the countdown to the Tour of Beijing grew near, the sudden influx in activity saw pollution levels in Beijing and surrounds spike to alarming levels.
Ahead of stage 2 in 2014, where the day began in Chongli and was supposed to descend into Yanqing, concerns were raised over the air pollutant levels at the finish point. What occurred was a calm and considered conversation between the race stakeholders – teams, the local organising committee and commissaires. It was impressive and a great example for other races where questions over safety have been raised due to weather or otherwise.
“We wanted to have a clear situation where everybody started the race knowing exactly what was going to happen,” said Rumpf.
As it was, conditions on Yanqing improved significantly over the few hours once the stage got underway, but to have a ‘wait and see’ approach would have only resulted in confusion. Hayden Roulston from Trek Factory Racing was one of four riders at the 2014 edition of the race to have taken part every year since 2011, and he put it like this:
“When you descend off the mountain in the car you can see the smog, it looks like it’s a big storm coming but it’s actually just smog. They had to take the decision for our own safety but at the end of the day there’s nothing else they could have done.”
Would the pollution issue have been dealt with in such a manner in 2011? Possibly not, admits Rumpf.
“We have certainly witnessed an evolution in how the situation is managed locally. The first year the government did not want to acknowledge the situation so it was a kind of taboo subject and very difficult. In 2012, it was a totally different situation. The government had acknowledged the situation, the public had lots of discussions about it on Chinese social media and in the mainstream media as well.”
If there is a singular way to push one out of a comfort zone, it’s food. Travel to a cycling race and you’ll find what’s on offer at the team buffet, more often than not, errs on the side of caution. At the Tour of Beijing, a chef is brought in by the race to maintain standards expected at an event of this level. ‘Chef Ben’ as he is known, does a great job and it cannot be easy.
One of the particular concerns at the race, especially following the Michael Rogers’ case in 2013, has been over clenbuterol. The World Anti-Doping Agency has now been issuing warnings over the contaminant for several years and as has been the case since 2011, teams arriving in Beijing this season were reminded to stay vigilant.
If there was one particular change that I noticed this year, it was that there was far less red meat available at the team and staff buffets. While the onus is always on the athlete to be responsible for everything they ingest, Tour of Beijing organisers made it that little bit easier to avoid clenbuterol contamination.
According to Roulston, Rogers’ experience took some of the shine off the race, despite the best intentions of the organisers.
“At the end of the day, the riders have got to know that any race we go to, we’re not going to test positive or something like that – that’s huge.”
Additional sources of protein, in place of meats, are supplied for riders at the Tour of Beijing and Rumpf believes that in spite of the Rogers case, the matter has been handled effectively.
“It’s not just about Mick Rogers’ case and I feel very sorry for Mick and what happened,” Rumpf says.
“It has worked. Right from the beginning I have discussed with team managers and with riders and giving very clear instructions, do not eat meat. Riders are here for about seven, eight days and it’s totally possible to have a diet, which allows them to perform at their highest level and does not include possibly contaminated meat.”
Was it ever an option to import food in for the riders? The answer is no and again, much of this comes down to taking a cautious approach. Hygiene still could not be guaranteed.
Giant-Shimano sports director Lionel Marie, who was at the Tour of Beijing for the first time in 2014, believes that it’s up to everyone to look from a broader perspective.
“I like the Chinese food. It’s a problem for the riders more than it is for the staff. We got advice from the doctors. If you want to do this job, you have to be open. You need to travel everywhere in the world. If you want the French frites and a steak, it’s the wrong job to be in.”
A question of development
The Tour of Beijing was the project of the UCI’s Global Cycling Promotion arm, with Asia a key market in the UCI’s push for globalisation of the sport. Chatting with riders and teams this week, there was a definite question of ‘what now’ being raised along with an unwillingness to discuss the political maneuvering that came with the decision to discontinue the race.
China is classed as a developing nation of 1.3 billion people, which is also home to the world’s second largest economy. According to the World Bank, “Official data shows that about 98.99 million people still lived below the national poverty line of RMB 2,300 per year at the end of 2012.” That’s around $430 in Australian currency – and $200 less that the Australian minimum weekly wage.
When that’s the case, of course there are all sorts of socio-economic gains to be had and China’s place and impact on world sport, will be one small element of that.
There are around 50 days of racing in China within the UCI AsiaTour. “These races are essential for the development of the sport and for opportunities for teams and riders against their international counterparts,” says Rumpf.
A notable absence from this year’s Tour of Beijing was a Chinese team. The national team was invited to compete in 2011 after a training period at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Switzerland. Complications arising between the Chinese Cycling Association and the City of Beijing meant that the team’s appearance was not repeated again. Chinese-based team Champion System competed in the 2012 and 2013 editions. This year, there were just two Chinese riders on the start line – Ji Cheng (Giant-Shimano) and Xu Gang (Lampre-Merida).
Rumpf is adamant that Chinese cycling “needs champions” and “there must be some good genes hiding somewhere and a potential Tour de France winner.” For that to happen, opportunities must be granted by race organisers.
Some important gains have been made and it’s something that Orica-GreenEdge General Manager, Shayne Bannan has witnessed and assisted with over the last two decades in his former capacity with the Australian national program.
“The Chinese used to go away with their teams and not have a lot of resources. The development of the Chinese athletes has been quite remarkable. I would like to think that the progression of that has been seeing more Continental teams set up in China, certainly more races in China and hopefully one day we’ll see a Chinese rider win a stage of the Tour de France.”
If other sports with a global presence are anything to go by, basketball’s Yao Ming and tennis’ Li Na for example, it’s certainly within the realms of possibility.
Gone too soon?
If the question was asked where I sit in regards to the Tour of Beijing’s non-continuance, I would have to admit, I am very sad to see it go. I genuinely believe it has a place on the WorldTour. It’s the sport as a whole, which will be missing out with the race off the calendar.
If there was one element that I found troubling in the backlash around the Tour of Beijing, it was that other Chinese races – the Tour of Qinghai Lake, the Tours of China I and II for example – where conditions for riders are known to be harsh and more so than at Beijing, were somehow okay for riders to endure. Where’s the outcry and the calls for change?
Throughout the week of the Tour of Beijing, there was a gradual relaxation and the vast majority of people seemed happy to be here. One such example was Europcar’s Dan Craven and the evidence is there for all to see on his Twitter feed. When I spoke to him at the start of stage 3, his change of heart was already underway.
“I don’t know if I have, but I feel as if I’ve been a bit critical of the race on Twitter,” he told me.
His is an important voice in the discussion about globalisation and cycling as a Namibian, and has been front and centre throughout the recent rise of the sport on the African continent.
“I come from Africa, I’m a little bit more used to roughing it than your average pro is, a little bit less scared of the dirt and stuff,” he puts it.
Craven admits what he experienced at the Tour of Qinghai Lake did actually scare him.
“I did it once and I’m very glad that I did because it’s a great experience. I don’t necessarily want to go and do it again. You come out of Qinghai either having ended your season or having put in a massive block to have a super end of year season. You don’t have a mediocre season after Qinghai, you’re either dead or you’re flying. It seems that the number of people who were dead, was higher than the number of people who were flying. Why does any bike racer want to take that risk?”
Local authorities too, have gradually relaxed. The strong police presence, the seemingly endless string of uniforms lined along the route with their back to the race, was only in attendance on stage 4. Instead they were replaced, mostly at the opening 30km or so of the stages, by plain-clothed local government representatives.
The security has been a talking point between race organisers and government authorities.
“Our first reaction was to sit down with the organising committee and explain,” said Rumpf. “This is China. In Beijing especially, the government is very careful with any crowds. It’s for safety.
“Of course it’s different, it’s not the Alpe d’Huez, and we’re not used to it. We have seen an evolution over the four years so it’s a bit different today but I think it will always be like that.”
Change takes time. When it comes to another WorldTour event, Australia’s Tour Down Under and it’s Queen Stage on Willunga Hill, the thousands of fanatical fans that now line that final climb was not a phenomenon that occurred overnight. The crowds at the Tour of Beijing in 2014 were the best that I’ve seen and more people were allowed to get closer to the race. The crowds towards the end of stage 3 in Qianjiadian Chao Yang Temple where Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) won were particularly large for the race and impressive.
In terms of safety for the peloton, there has been unanimous support for the parcours. Beijing is a stunningly beautiful race run on very well maintained roads.
“We don’t get roads that nice in Europe,” says Roulston.
BMC’s Marco Pinotti closed out his career in Beijing in 2013 and said it was “the safest” race he experienced – it’s something that Rumpf is particularly proud of.
The Tour of Beijing has been a learning process for everyone involved and all the while there’s been an important line of cultural sensitivities and respect that all parties have been required to walk. For that reason, the introduction of the panda, as the unofficial race mascot, was a gradual process.
“I think it was a matter of building trust with the organising committee… we wanted to respect how things are done here. The panda was a natural evolution and this year was widely accepted. Maybe we could have done it earlier in hindsight.”
I believe that you would struggle to find a race anywhere on the calendar that does not have its challenges. One of the things that makes Asia what it is, is the certainty that just about anything may come your way and you’ve just got to be prepared to deal with it – as several teams did last week when their bikes were held up by Chinese customs officials.
The Tour of Beijing and its demise is a source of mixed emotions. When air pollution levels were low, the majority of participants were happy to be at the race and that’s understandable.
“I would almost say today is a surprise as opposed to the stage being shortened is a surprise because there are clear skies,” Craven joked.
The Tour of Beijing has a soul. It is a Chinese race. To make it just like an event in Europe would be beside the point.
Over a short period of time, improvements to the Tour of Beijing were definitely made. As for what’s next, the continuation of any gains that have been made over the past four years and the legacy of the Tour of Beijing now lies in the hands of the UCI.