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by Matt de Neef
October 24, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos & Matt de Neef
When the UCI first announced the Tour of Guangxi in late 2016, the general reaction was one of scepticism. Putting a new Chinese race straight onto the WorldTour calendar didn’t work out so well with the Tour of Beijing, so why would anything be different with the Tour of Guangxi?
One of the things that is different is the organisation running the event. Gone is the UCI’s ill-fated events management arm, Global Cycling Promotions. In its place is Wanda Sports, a division of one of China’s biggest companies, Dalian Wanda, and the owner of sporting brands like Ironman and Infront Media (owners of the Hammer Series).
In a sit-down interview with CyclingTips and Het Nieuwsblad, CEO of Wanda Sports China, David Yang, spoke of the challenges of getting the Tour of Guangxi off the ground, Wanda’s vision for cycling, and what the future might hold.
(The following interview has been edited for fluency and brevity.)
How much of a challenge was it to pull together the Tour of Guangxi?
Challenges lie in many aspects. When Wanda Group set its vision on cycling, one of the very first initiatives we started to undertake was we talked with the UCI. Believe it or not, in the very beginning there was a lot of scepticism around [the Tour of Guangxi] because they didn’t really see that China would have the kind of beautiful environment that you guys have seen.
They only realise “Oh Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, skyscrapers, air pollution, crowded … red lights all the time” — that’s what people’s impression was. So when we talked with the UCI they’re saying “Are you sure? How can you overcome the air pollution issue …?” Because there was an event in Beijing — it was not particularly successful.
Air pollution was a major concern at the Tour of Beijing, a WorldTour race that ran from 2011-14.
So Wanda took a lot of efforts in convincing the UCI and we are very grateful that the UCI eventually actually were convinced and they saw the great potential in this sport in China. But more importantly they saw a great partner in Wanda Group.
So we were able to introduce Guangxi as not just a beautiful, very scenic region of China but more importantly [we could show] the support from the government. I think that’s really a very important ingredient for any large-scale sports event to be successful.
So through several meetings in different parts of the world, whether it’s in Zurich, or Lausanne, or in Doha — we went to the managing committee of the UCI — they were very open for us to make presentations to the members. And you know it’s a very complex organisation and we’re very grateful that eventually they agreed.
How long did it take to pull it all together, from start to finish?
The first conversation happened in March of 2016. Normally it would take much longer but that’s why there [was] a lot of scepticism — people were thinking “Can you really pull this off?” We said “Trust us.”
Now, you guys sit in a Wanda hotel [ed. The interview was conducted in a Wanda Realm hotel in Liuzhou after stage 4 of the Tour of Guangxi] — we have 100 hotels like this in China. Last year alone we built 50 Wanda Plazas and none of them missed the deadline. So we show them the video and how we build Wanda Malls, how we built Wanda theme parks — that’s a 30 billion RMB (AU$5.8 billion; US$4.5 billion) project for each one of them. There’s 13 of them in China — we never missed a single deadline. So we showed them all that and they said “Well, a cycling event seems to be easy, if you compare that with building this real estate!”
The irony is that in December of 2016 there was an official report from the UCI Road Commission saying “Oh my god, the road condition was not particularly good in Guangxi. We did the first round [checks] and David Yang you need to look at this — you know you need to work hard on this.” [And I thought] “Yeah, we need to work hard on that.”
It seems nearly every road used by the Tour of Guangxi was resurfaced before the race.
And then six months later they came back again saying “Oh, things have changed quite dramatically! Maybe you have a good chance to pull it off!” And then three months after that they said “We’re there. We’re not worried anymore.”
What does Wanda Sports want to achieve with the Tour of Guangxi, and with cycling in China more generally?
Wanda Sports has a vision that we want to really promote people to appreciate sports more, and going beyond just what people traditionally do (i.e. table tennis or badminton). We want them to really appreciate more exciting sports, more popular sports in the world so they will ingrain themselves into the whole platform of the world sports.
So cycling is [like] triathlon or marathon or even others — even winter sports — that I think are not really as popular as they should be. So that’s why Wanda want to invite the best athletes in the world in those disciplines to come to China so that people can be really impacted.
What does Wanda Sports get out of that?
For us, if we really do those things well, we see this as a viable business model that we can deploy in the future. Because the more people who start doing cycling then our events will become more popular and then TV and digital media will provide more coverage and then hopefully economic benefits will be generated over time.
So why Guangxi? Why hold the race here? Is it the government support and the scenery, as you say, or is there more to it?
In the process of convincing the UCI we had to define a place that was not going to be plagued by air pollution. There are a few choices and Guangxi of course is among the better ones. And it’s easy — we don’t have to really do anything. You look at the sun, the breeze, the blue sky, the ocean, the mountains … it certainly stands out.
And [provincial] government support has been tremendous. They spent 2 billion RMB (AU$390 million; US$300 million) in the process and … paved the roads and got it into shape. You saw the police — you saw the safety. You saw the people — the passion, they are cheering all the way. It’s pretty amazing. Some people are saying “David, it kind of reminds me of the Tour de France because you see we’re in a rural area — they just really treat this as a festival.”
And then the third element … is we really see the hunger of our people. They are really dying for world-class sports events. They really want to get their fingers on this. I think the inspiration factor is very very important because you want younger generations, you want people who didn’t really have access to cycling as a sport, to have the feel, have the appreciation of the sport. Then they probably can really grow up as a cyclist and become a cyclist to compete.
Will Wanda create cycling events for amateurs, as well as professionals, creating a sort-of pyramid of cycling participation in China?
Yes, definitely. That’s a very good point you touched upon. We are thinking about another event called a Velothon. It’s also a UCI-granted concept. It’s more likely we do that in the bigger cities and then probably more around a city and then get more people involved and more amateurs.
You can see … a lot of amateur cyclists come here just to follow the race — their own helmets, their own jersey and ride their own bikes. Those guys are dying to get on the track. So what we’re going to do is invite of course the elite athletes to come in and at the same time lead mass participation. So that’s our goal.
We are trying to do at least one, maybe even two, in 2018 and even more in the future. And I think it’s very very important for people to really get the pulse of this sport. Not just kind of watch — they need to participate.
The hope is that the Tour of Guangxi won’t just attract fans, but that it will also inspire those fans to ride.
Wanda Sports has a five-year contract with the UCI to run this race. Do you see Wanda Sports’ involvement in cycling existing beyond that?
Yes. Definitely. Because the more I practice cycling, the more I appreciate it. And now I’ve got my wife started doing it. So every Saturday my wife and I go to the gym and we do the spin class. We have every time 24 of us getting on a bike and we’re doing all the different programs. Before, after only three minutes I was done; now I’m about 45 minutes and I’m still riding.
It’s just a great sport. And nobody knows! I would say that in China a very small percentage of the population would appreciate that. People don’t really have a chance to appreciate it.
You have the Tour of Guangxi, you already have a stake in the Tour de Suisse. Are other projects on the horizon for Wanda Sports when it comes to road racing in Europe? [ed. There have been rumours of Wanda buying the Tour de France from ASO]
We had interesting discussions with different parties and even with Yann [Le Moenner], the CEO of ASO. I’d say he’s a very good person, a very good professional. I got to know him last time I was in Paris and we had a great conversation about potential cooperations in many many different aspects.
I think the Tour de France has a very special place in the sport of cycling. No one can replace that. Because of the Tour de France cycling can become such a popular sport. Being a cycling sports lover, I kind of respect that and I really appreciate that. So I hope that we can really learn a lot from those guys. I have sent delegations to go to watch and we can certainly do that.
And then Tour de Suisse has been successful and we are trying to work out a better calendar position but in the meanwhile we have Ironman, we have Infront — we are really doing a lot of stuff. And Andrew Messick, who is actually CEO of World Triathlon Corp, used to run the Tour of California for several years. So he’s a passionate cyclist. So we are looking for opportunities to do more.
One of the things that’s different about the Tour of Guangxi is the massive numbers of security staff on the side of the road. Can you explain the philosophy behind that?
It’s a dilemma, frankly. People say “Oh, David, good job on the safety side.” At the same time I cringe — it consumes a lot of public resources. If they [the Guangxi provincial government] ask Wanda to pay for everything, I would be broke tomorrow. That will not become viable anymore. So for us we have to find ways to find a middle ground somewhere.
The inaugural Tour of Guangxi has employed a staggering number of security staff.
I think today if you ask me this question I think Guangxi government has done an excellent job. I was talking actually this morning [with] the head of Guangxi province’s security. He said “David, are you happy?” I said “I’m happy.” He said “I’m glad you’re happy, but at the same time do you know how much I’ve put in?! If you do this every single year I will have more grey hair! You cannot let this happen so intensively.”
I said “Don’t worry — this is a process. Why is the Tour de France so successful but it requires much less, maybe, monetary-wise investment from the government? Because people are used to it. Every year they know what they expect. They can really cheer for the peloton, they can cheer for the leaders, but at same time they wouldn’t hurt riders; they wouldn’t cause any problems.
“Those guys grew up … when they were five years old the boys and girls were standing by the roadside to watch. 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.”
So what we’re hoping for … we want to do it long term because the longer term we do this, the easier the process can become. And then you see the people — this year they’re all cheering for it, next year they will cheer for it but they wouldn’t really try to cross the road right before the race comes in! So this is an educational process.
But some fans at the Tour de France still cause trouble by getting too close to the riders, perhaps when they’ve had a bit too much to drink …
We all have different issues. Over there, it’s maybe a little more an alcohol issue. Here it’s more like people are too eager to jump ahead [of the riders]. I think that little string of security helps, but I think the number of [security staff] we should use should come down over time.
Right now you see, especially in cities, almost every 10 meters you have a volunteer standing there — they’re not real police. They’re just kind of wearing a … they’re not real police. We have a lot of volunteers. But the next year we’ll hopefully [have them] not 10 metres [apart]; maybe 100 metres.
Do you have an idea of roughly how many people are involved in security at the race? It must be in the thousands or tens of thousands?
No. I wouldn’t even dare to guess.
Is there a chance we could see the Tour of Guangxi expand beyond six days in the future?
For us, of course, we take it one step at a time. So even now, today is the fourth day — it’s too early to talk about success yet. We still have two more days to go. We have the UCI Gala to be held in almost 48 hours. So we take one step at a time and we’re sure that will be a much bigger scale in the future.
Of course Tour of Guangxi itself is six days, but there could be another tour in some other part of China. We’ve already received a lot of positive feedback from other parts of China and other provinces saying “Why can’t we have it?”
Even today I was watching the internet … there’s so many positive comments. Even from the local residents in their local cities they would say “Gosh, I have never even realised how beautiful my city is. I’ve lived here for 20 years and I didn’t really appreciate the beauty.”
Because when people see it on TV or on digital media, they see the helicopter, the birds-view of the city … oh my god. That really triggers a lot of pride. I’m sure other parts of China, the governments, will probably think the same way.