The flawed beauty of the Tour of Guangxi: a first-hand account

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The roar is deafening. Hundreds of young men and women line the race route, cheering, chanting and shaking plastic clappers with great vigour. The volume only increases as several riders roll slowly by, warming up near the start/finish line.

On the PA, the race’s English-language commentator tag-teams with his Mandarin-speaking counterpart, the pair setting the stage for the day ahead. They talk of how excited the riders are to be here, how thrilling the racing is going to be. Local dancers take to the road before the race, their performance just one of the many cultural demonstrations we’ll see over the next week.

It’s the opening day of the first-ever Tour of Guangxi, a controversial new WorldTour race held in the south of China. There’s a real sense of anticipation and excitement in the coastal city of Beihai as the riders prepare themselves for stage 1. But that excitement is only part of the story — there’s a lot more to this race than meets the eye.

Beyond the spectacle

It’s hard not to be inspired by the excitement of the crowds. All dressed in identical blue shirts and white hats, they’re here to welcome some of the world’s best riders, and to celebrate the opening of a brand new bike race. But their chanting, stirring at first, soon takes on a slightly different hue.

Group leaders prowl the space between the crowd and the race route, whipping their charges into a frenzy and ensuring they stay on message. A local gentleman translates for me, explaining that the crowds are chanting “We love China, we love Beihai.”

Crowds such as these will be bussed in to the start and finish of every stage in an attempt to create a rousing atmosphere around the race. It’s an effective strategy, but as an outsider looking in, it’s hard not to feel like the spectacle has been manufactured. There’s as much emphasis on putting on a great show as there is on delivering a world-class bike race, something the riders themselves have noticed.

“The organization and the road closures and stuff is mind-blowing — they’ve basically shut down a seven million population city for us to have a bike race,” said Jack Haig of Orica-Scott, speaking to CyclingTips in Nanning. “And the amount of people on the side of the road …

“I think also that we’re maybe not seeing the real China. When we were riding from Beihai to here, everything’s pristine and everyone in the small villages are dressed up in their nicest clothes. So for sure it’s a bit of a show, but it’s also quite nice.”

Daily cultural performances helped add to the spectacle of the event.

And it’s not just the spectacle of the race that feels somewhat manufactured — the same could perhaps be said of the Tour of Guangxi’s very existence. When the race was first announced, the reaction from the cycling community was one of considerable scepticism. There was a feeling that, like the Tour of Beijing before it, the Tour of Guangxi is something of an artificial race.

Where other races have spent years, if not decades working towards WorldTour level, the Tour of Guangxi is there in its first year. And while other WorldTour events exist where racing culture is alive and well, Guangxi — and China more generally — is lacking in that respect.

It wasn’t just fans and the media that viewed the Tour of Guangxi with scepticism — the UCI did too. Early in discussions, the governing body was concerned about the potential for air pollution — something that plagued the ill-fated Tour of Beijing. Later they were worried about the quality of the roads in Guangxi.

It took months of convincing, and a couple of billion RMB (AU$390 million; US$300 million) from the provincial government, to get everything up to standard for UCI approval.

A new spectacle

In the many towns along the Tour of Guangxi race route, spectators turn out in impressive numbers. In some towns, tens of thousands gather by the roadside, watching the foreign professionals whizz past in a blur of colour.

There’s a different feel to these crowds than at races in cycling’s European heartland, or even in newer markets such as Australia and the U.S. The people in Guangxi aren’t fans of the sport. They’re motivated not by an entrenched love for cycling, born out of decades of tradition and culture. Rather, they’re motivated by a simple curiosity, intrigued by the spectacle that’s closed their roads and attracted some of the world’s best cyclists.

The spectators of Guangxi don’t bring banners bearing riders’ names; instead they wait patiently, stoically, by the roadside, smartphones ready to capture the action.

English-language commentator Brad Sohner notes how different his job is in China, compared to at races in Europe or the U.S.

“It’s going back to square one because cycling is obviously very new in China and most of the fans … we just assume they have no knowledge of cycling,” he told CyclingTips. “You kind of have to regress back to Cycling 101 and talk about the basics, tactics, drafting, teamwork, that kind of stuff, but it’s kind of fun. It’s cool to make new cycling fans which I think we’ve doing over the past few days.”

At most races around the world, fans crowd the barriers and get as close to the riders as possible (sometimes even too close). Spectators at the Tour of Guangxi, by contrast, are kept back. Several metres separate the roadside barriers and security tape that spectators gather behind. This space is occupied only by security staff and police that stand with their backs to the race, keeping an eye on the crowds (see image above).

David Yang is the CEO of Wanda Sports China, the organisation behind the Tour of Guangxi. He told CyclingTips that these security measures are about educating new fans; fans that aren’t used to bike racing in the way their foreign counterparts are.

“When they were five years old the boys and girls [in Europe] were standing by the roadside to watch [bike racing]”, Yang said. “And here, you look at people — they’ve never seen this before. Not in 100 years they have seen this, seriously. So this is a process.
“This year they’re all cheering for it, next year they will cheer for it but they [won’t] really try to cross the road right before the race comes in! So this is an educational process.”

It’s not just in the cities where security measures are taken seriously. Security staff monitor every section of road in the long stretches between towns, often standing less than 50 metres apart. The sight of security guards keeping an eye on empty fields and rock walls is perhaps one of the most enduring images of the inaugural Tour of Guangxi.

David Yang admits the security presence has been overkill in year one, saying “Next year we’ll hopefully [have them] not 10 metres [apart]; maybe 100 metres.”

The riders

One of the biggest challenges facing the Tour of Guangxi is its unenviable place on the calendar. Held in mid-October, the race is the last of the season’s WorldTour events, and it shows.

Speaking to riders and team staff alike it’s hard to ignore a general feeling of weariness. Many of the riders have been racing since January and are more than ready for their off-season break. In fact, it would seem that few riders are at the Tour of Guangxi because they want to be.

There are certainly those with ambitions for the race, eventual winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) among them. Likewise, some are here with the the motivation of performing well and securing a contract for next season, such as Daniel Teklehaimanot (Dimension Data). Others are simply motivated by the prospect of visiting a new country for the first time.

But for the majority of the peloton, it seems racing the Tour of Guangxi is more of an obligation than a source of excitement. Which is not entirely surprising when you consider that, while they’re busy racing, their teammates are already well into their off-season.

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The race itself

It was clear when the Tour of Guangxi route was revealed that it wasn’t going to be the hardest race of the year. Three flat stages would be followed by three lumpy stages, with the 3km climb to end stage 4 being the longest ascent of the race.

As BMC performance manager Allan Peiper notes, the easier route is by design.

“They’ve adapted the parcours to suit the time of year and the travel the riders have made,” said Peiper on the morning after the race’s queen stage. “So it’s been pretty straightforward stages, some small climbs but nothing really spectacular.

“Yesterday it was actually a really nice stage with a nice finish at the end. Some riders complained a little bit that the climb wasn’t hard enough, wasn’t long enough, but I think it was a spectacular finish anyway.”

Peiper is right — parts of Guangxi province, one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, are undeniably beautiful. The southern coastline near Beihai, the winding roads and karst mountains near Guilin, the Nongla Scenic Spot that hosted the stage 4 finish — the race showcased some of the natural beauty of the Guangxi province (see video below).

But apart from the Nongla uphill finish, the course was, sadly, lacking in excitement. The first three stages all lead to sprint finishes, and all had the same winner: Fernando Gaviria (QuickStep Floors). Stages 5 and 6, while featuring some climbing, also culminated in sprint finishes, one won by Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo), the other by Gaviria. Only stage 4 wasn’t won by a sprinter, the uphill finish propelling stage winner Tim Wellens to overall victory.

It meant that, from a racing perspective, the first edition of the Tour of Guangxi lacked the sort of storylines that help capture the imagination of the fans. One rider won four stages, and might have won five, and only one stage of the race’s six had any real impact on the general classification. And given just three stages received TV coverage and limited online streaming, the possibility of attracting a worldwide audience simply wasn’t there.

Air quality

One of the reasons Wanda Sports opted to hold its new WorldTour race in the Guangxi province was the promise of considerably lower air pollution than in Beijing and elsewhere. The first four days of the race delivered the beautifully clear blue skies organisers had hoped for. But in Liuzhou and Guilin, on stages 5 and 6, the smog was hard to ignore.

An air quality index website indicated that conditions were “Unhealthy” in both cities when the race was in town — worse than in Beijing and Shanghai on those days.

It was an unfortunate way to end the race but one that was obviously beyond the control of organisers.

The air quality wasn’t good on stage 5, both for the start in Liuzhou and for the finish in Guilin.

The future

If there’s anything we’ve learnt from the Tour of Beijing and the Tour of Guangxi, it’s that creating new WorldTour races in China, from scratch, is polarising. But on a theoretical level, it’s not such a bad idea.

Expanding cycling beyond its traditional borders and traditional markets serves to benefit many. Globalising the sport means more fans, which in turn offers greater reach to sponsors. And as team managers will readily attest, stable sponsorship is perhaps what professional cycling needs most.

And China, with its population of nearly 1.4 billion, its considerable (and growing) interest in sport, and its burgeoning wealth, is a market full of promise. It’s little surprise that so many of the sport’s top teams are actively surveying the Chinese market for potential sponsors.

Wanda Sport, organisers of the Tour of Guangxi, should be applauded for their efforts in the sport. They’ve got their own motivations, certainly, but their investment into the race and cycling in general should be seen as a positive development.

And there’s every indication that Wanda’s interest in the sport isn’t a flash in the pan. The Tour of Guangxi has a title sponsor, Gree, for five years, and Wanda hopes to run the event long beyond that. There’s also talk of starting up another tour in China and/or expanding Guangxi in the future.

It’s true that China lacks the racing history and culture that other countries have, but that’s not to say it can’t be developed. It’s not an overnight process, for certain, but there is an enthusiasm for racing here. And sure, that enthusiasm is currently motivated by a fascination with the spectacle, rather than a love for particular riders or the race itself. But fascination is how it starts.

Spectators that saw Fernando Gaviria sprinting to victory, or Wellens climbing to overall success, might well be tempted to follow those riders’ progress during the rest of the season. And if they are inspired by the exploits of the professionals, perhaps they’ll be tempted to ride or even race themselves. And if they do, that’s a win for the sport, for event organisers, and for those with sponsorship money to spend.

Large crowds turned out throughout the race. The next step is to get them invested in the sport, not just fascinated by the spectacle.

Of course, these are theoretical benefits; converting them into reality is the hard part. The Tour of Guangxi is unlikely to gain international acceptance in one, two or perhaps even five years. After all, the cycling world never really warmed to the Tour of Beijing even by the end of its four years. And as for building a culture that loves, appreciates and fosters bike racing, that will take much longer again.

But, for an event that was first mooted just 19 months ago, the first Tour of Guangxi was certainly an impressive spectacle. It was organised to a high standard and the number of people that came out to watch the race was truly staggering. And as mentioned, it’s certainly a beautiful race.

That said, there are certainly things that can be done to improve the Tour of Guangxi. Finding an earlier spot on the WorldTour calendar will be a big step forward (if not a crucial one) and has been hinted at already by Wanda. Perhaps a February berth, as a follow-up to the Australian WorldTour races, could be a better fit (easier said than done, of course).

International TV coverage for every stage is an absolute must and a glaring omission from this year’s race. A more interesting parcours would only help generate wider interest. Attracting a stronger women’s field for the companion one-day race should also be a priority.

These are some of the things Wanda Sports can work towards. Winning international acceptance and building a strong cycling culture in China will take a bit longer. But it would seem a strong foundation is being built.

Disclosure statement: Matt de Neef travelled to the Tour of Guangxi as a guest of Wanda Sports.

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