China set to enter the WorldTour, but what’s the plan?

by Cam Whiting


Late last week a Chinese-led consortium held a press conference in Beijing to announce “The First UCI WorldTeam of China”. The announcement generated significant interest within China and beyond, but actual details about the project are scarce.

So will China actually get its first WorldTour team? How significant would that be? And what might the future look like for the setup? Cam Whiting from Cycling iQ investigates.


A little under two years ago, on October 15, 2014, remnants of the traveling WorldTour circus checked out of the Beijing Parkview Wuzhou and waved goodbye to the abandoned Tour of Beijing for the last time.

Perhaps some of them took one last look across Beichen East Road to admire the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, around which the final 117km stage – won by Lampre-Merida’s Sacha Modolo – circled to an unremarkable halt the day prior. Modolo’s teammate Xu Gang ended the race 11:16 behind overall winner Philippe Gilbert, his 56th overall placing the best by a Chinese rider in the event’s brief, four-year existence.

Few of cycling’s stakeholders publicly mourned the Tour of Beijing’s demise. Many saw it as a desperate attempt by the UCI to demonstrate ‘globalisation’ by selling their beloved sport to a country which they believed couldn’t give a damn about bike racing.

So when a Chinese-led consortium fronted a packed conference room at the same Parkview hotel last Friday for the “Announcement of The First UCI WorldTeam of China” – news of which was dropped on the laps of unsuspecting media only a few days earlier – what might the doubters have been thinking?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PRO CYCLING IN CHINA

Pro cycling has been tinkering with China for well over a decade now, and the reverse is also true.

The Netherlands-based Marco Polo team was arguably ‘first mover’, evolving from motley crew of journeymen to fully-fledged Chinese-registered UCI Continental team by 2006. That same year, Discovery Channel made ex-Marco Polo rider Li Fuyu China’s first ProTour cyclist, thanks largely to the insistence of Trek, which sponsored both teams.

Aside from Li’s brief flirtation with Discovery and his compatriot Ji Cheng’s elevation to ProContinental team Skil–Shimano in 2009, China’s growing presence in professional road cycling remained limited to the sport’s third division. This changed overnight in November 2010 when the UCI shoehorned the Tour of Beijing into the 2011 WorldTour calendar. Two weeks before the controversial event got underway, China’s first ProContinental team, Champion System Pro Cycling, also materialised.

The trajectory since then has been far from linear. After two years spent flailing in the wilderness, Champion System’s wheels finally fell off in 2013 — a deal to supply clothing to ProTeam Lampre-Merida earlier that year turned out to be a much better investment for the Hong Kong-based company. But this was forgotten in 2014 when Ji Cheng (by then riding for Giant-Shimano) made history to become China’s first Tour de France participant.

On the event side, China hosts more days of UCI Asia Tour racing than any other country in the region and, with prize money of US$1 million (AU$1.3 million), the hors categorie Tour of Qinghai stage race is one of the most lucrative pro cycling events in the world.

2016: YEAR OF THE CHAMELEON?

Following months of speculation, Merida confirmed on August 1 that it would be splitting from Lampre to co-sponsor a new WorldTeam project based out of Bahrain.

Though many pundits predicted Lampre had reached the end of its first-division road, the Italian pre-coated steel manufacturer had always managed to find suitors in the past. In the last decade alone, it has been through six incarnations: Lampre-Fondital, Lampre, Lampre–N.G.C, Lampre–Farnese Vini, Lampre ISD and finally Lampre-Merida.

So perhaps the announcement that was parachuted into the social media realm last week shouldn’t have been a surprise:

“You are cordially invited to attend the announcement of the first UCI WorldTeam of China and the contract signing of acquisition of CGS Sport by TJ Sport on Friday 26 August at 10:30am.”

Taken at face value, CGS Sport — the Swiss-based management company holding the existing WorldTour license for Lampre-Merida – was being bought out by TJ Sport, a Shenzhen-based sports industry service provider that, among other things, organises mass-participation cycling events. Was it really that simple?

When contacted by CyclingTips last Wednesday, a Lampre-Merida representative was quick to point out that the invitation was not sent by the team and “the subject was not completely correct and is confused concerning CGS, the team, acquisition and sponsorship.”

THE ANNOUNCEMENT: HEAVY ON CEREMONY, LIGHT ON DETAIL

With no further details forthcoming, the media ensemble may have been hoping that all would be revealed at Friday morning’s announcement. Among the cohort that took to the stage were some familiar faces: CSG president Orlando Govi, Lampre-Merida GM Giuseppe Saronni, sports consultant Mauro Gianetti and Champion System co-founders Louis Shih and Tak Sum Tang.

Alongside them stood two people who, if all went to plan, were set to become more familiar figures in the world of cycling: TJ Sport president Li Zhiqiang and Wang (George) Qifu from investment company Sky&Grass.

After an “emotional” presentation which spoke about the opportunities for the bike to transform China’s cities, Lampre’s 20-year involvement in professional cycling and the unprecedented 15% annual compound growth in the domestic sports industry, followed by the obligatory signing ceremony, precious few details were offered at the announcement. A vague press release issued by Lampre-Merida shortly added nothing new:

An important project has taken its early steps. In a conference which took place in Beijing, our sports group was officially assigned as the basis for the development of the first World Tour team sustained by a Chinese main sponsor, thanks to the cooperation with TJ Sports Consultation.

One of the commitments of TJ Sports Consultation, whose president is Mr Li Zhiqiang, is the development of the cycling in all its usage purposes: cycling as a means of transport which promotes a sustainable mobility and cycling as sports to be developed in all its disciplines and categories. The coordinator of this project is Mauro Gianetti.

The WorldTour team, which will continue along and will boost the activity of the traditional Italian sports group which collected much success in more than two decades in the most important cycling races, will be the flag for the promotion of this project and will have long terms tasks that, on the agonistic field, will be four-year terms.

The goals of the team will be the achievement of a high level of competitiveness in the Tour de France and the development of the Chinese cycling in view of the participation to the next Olympic Games.

More details about the group of partners which support the team and the roster will be soon announced.

Fortunately, CyclingTips was able to reach ‘project co-ordinator’ Mauro Gianetti who arrived back in Switzerland yesterday, to find out more.

03

A BOLD, BUT STILL VAGUE, AMBITION

“It’s many years of connections and hard work to be part of this great project,” explains Gianetti, a former pro cyclist and sports director, from his home in Ticino. “I’ve believed for a long time that cycling not only as a sport for results is important, but for using the result and using the image of the team to create related projects. It is possible to motivate people to use bikes, for transport and create a society a little more healthy and more conscious of the necessity to not create so much pollution.”

“The feeling at the announcement was very emotional for me, because I didn’t expect so much enthusiasm around this project,” he replied, when asked for his impression of the atmosphere at the press conference.

“Not only the questions but also the TV stations gave a big space for this project and many many newspapers have announced the news. I can’t read Chinese, but people who translated for me said it was like a bomb, like a medal in the Olympics. It was like they were waiting for this moment, and we saw a big emotion around it. I think the team will be a real flag for the movement of cycling in China.”

But what exactly is the ‘project’ and how did Gianetti, who has run an independent sports consultancy business for the past six years, find himself at the centre of it?

“I contacted (Champion System’s) Louis Shih a few years ago when he had his Continental team in China,” explains Gianetti. “I thought it was a nice project with ambitions of growth. At the time, he told me his dream was to one day be a partner of a WorldTour team.

“One year later came the opportunity to be the team sponsor of Lampre with clothing, so I made a call to Louis and said ‘I now have the opportunity you’re looking for’. We started to work with him and I helped Louis to restructure Champion System in Europe.”

In the years that followed, the pair continued to discuss opportunities in China and had already lined up potential partners there who were willing to invest in a national cycling project with a WorldTeam at its core. The main problem was finding that team.

“The plan was not to create a new team,” says Gianetti. “An existing team is always better, because it doesn’t need two years just to learn how to work.

“At the time Merida decided to go another way, I was not involved too much with (Lampre-Merida), as my job was to concentrate on China. But I saw the best opportunity was Lampre, because it had a continuity with 25 years experience and Giuseppe Saronni is a great friend with professionalism and know-how. I saw in that moment a structure that was ready, with a license, to jump into this project in China.

“TJ Sport has sponsored the team, which will become a Chinese team and related with the team will be created all other types of projects to increase the use of the bicycle in China. We will use the image of the team as a flag for all the country for developing other projects. The team’s job will include every year some Chinese riders, even staff, because the idea is to create a strong champion in future, but also personnel – to create a ‘school’ for a high level team.

“It’s not only a team that must win races, it is a team with another goal which is most important – win races and bring people to cycling. This is what makes this project without precedent. It is for the entire country.”

STILL ONLY ON PAPER

Just as his new colleagues stayed tight-lipped on Friday, Gianetti wouldn’t be drawn into answering many questions related to the new team’s UCI license, sponsors, equipment suppliers or roster and was at pains to point at that it was up to the team’s general manager, Giuseppe Saronni, to answer such questions. (Saronni declined to be interviewed.)

On who will be the new sponsor: “We will announce the sponsor of the team in the next month and the important thing is to understand that TJ becomes the main sponsor of the team and we will see other sponsors coming in.”

On the investor behind the project: “Mr Wang believes in cycling and a future where the environment is respected more. This is also why he invests in the project, because his dream is to bring back the bike into the cities and to bring more people into biking. He is a fan of cycling, he bikes himself and this is why he is so motivated. Many, many, big companies believe in our project because they think this way too.”

As for the license, the UCI should hand down its decisions on who gets a WorldTeam license in November. While two teams are leaving the WorldTour ranks at the end of this season — Tinkoff and IAM — competition for licenses is likely to be fierce. The UCI has cut the number of available WorldTour licenses from 18 down to 17 for next year, and three teams are now fighting for the one remaining space: Bora-Hansgrohe (which has signed world champion Peter Sagan), the new Bahrain team (which has signed four-time Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali), and the TJ Sports-Lampre setup.

But Gianetti is hopeful that the next iteration of Lampre will be the beneficiary of good news.

“Of course, the fact it is an existing team, a continuation of Lampre and we’re in the first 16 teams… I think, we hope, we will achieve the license,” he says. “Of course, because it’s such an important project, it’s good for everybody. We will have all the papers clear – what is important is to meet all the prerequisites in order to get the license.”

There will “of course” be a feeder team and, as part of the project, Gianetti will “have a look” at women’s cycling “because we see it’s necessary to develop cycling for women as part of this movement.”

“The main goal is to have in three to four years, five or six Chinese riders at a good level in the WorldTeam, to be in the big races with an attitude like all the other European guys who start to win the race.

“We don’t speak about the Tour de France, that will take more time, but to teach some young talent about road cycling, to bring (them) into the WorldTour team and, as soon as possible, get to a high level.”

About the author

Cam Whiting is the founder and publisher of Cycling iQ, a website focused on Asia’s role in the globalisation of road cycling. Whether it’s a new UCI race in Indonesia, chatting with a pro cyclist from Japan, a visit to the Chinese factory that makes frames used in the WorldTour or uncovering data on road bike sales in India – if it’s related to road cycling in Asia, it will be at Cycling iQ.

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