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If you’ve followed bike racing for any length of time, you will be well familiar with the Mitchelton-Scott men’s and women’s teams. But there’s another Mitchelton-backed team you might less familiar with. Mitchelton-BikeExchange is a Chinese-based development team that’s also part of the GreenEdge stable but one that enjoys far less of the spotlight.
As Zeb Woodpower writes, the Continental outfit — formerly known as Mitchelton-Scott — is now into its third year, and in 2019 the team has consolidated its commitment to Chinese racing.
Having sent five riders into the WorldTour in its first two seasons, the Mitchelton-BikeExchange Continental team has undergone a significant change in year three. In 2019, the development outfit for WorldTour team Mitchelton-Scott is pivoting from Australia to China.
Although the team is Chinese-registered and Chinese riders have ridden with the team since its inauguration, there is a stronger emphasis on Chinese development in 2019 than there was in 2017 and 2018. The team is doubling down on its ambition of developing Chinese riders to WorldTour level.
For Mitchelton-BikeExchange team manager Shayne Bannan, the strategy behind the shift is multifaceted. As the holder of the sole WorldTour license in Asia and Oceania, GreenEdge Cycling — the management company behind Mitchelton-Scott and Mitchelton-BikeExchange — has a responsibility to assist the growth of professional cycling in the region. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes, and Bannan believes the growth of cycling in China will have a positive global impact on the sport.
In 2019, Mitchelton-BikeExchange is one of 10 Chinese-registered Continental teams and is far from the sole avenue by which Chinese cyclists can look to reach the WorldTour. There are also three Continental teams registered in Hong Kong. Bannan stresses the team’s existence is to assist collaboratively in the broader project to grow and develop Chinese cycling. Although China is the world’s number one producer of bicycles, there’s only one Chinese rider in the WorldTour in 2019: Wang Meiyin (Bahrain-Merida).
In its first two seasons, Mitchelton-BikeExchange raced predominately in Europe. The team won’t return to the heartland of the sport in 2019. Instead, a full Asian calendar is on the agenda. The rationale: to fully explore the world of Chinese cycling, starting at the ground level with the basics of the sport like nutrition, hygiene, training methods and recovery. That’s all while assisting in further developing Chinese racing culture.
“To understand more about China, about the competition, about what is happening there, you need to involve yourself more in that part of the world,” Bannan tells CyclingTips. “I think it is at the level that we need to learn more about what is happening in China, how the system’s set up, how the races are set up, understand more about the culture.”
Bannan isn’t the only Australian currently invested in the development of Chinese cycling. Compatriot and former British Cycling coach Shane Sutton is the Chinese track coach and part of the Global Cycling Project (GCP) which aims to have a Chinese winner of the Tour de France “in 2025”. It’s an ambitious target considering just one Chinese cyclist has ever ridden the French Grand Tour — Ji Cheng. Lyu Xianjing, 21, has been marked as a potential candidate for future success but his immediate focus is the mountain bike race in the 2020 Olympic Games.
Having long since identified China as a growth market, Bannan has a personal connection to Chinese cycling through one of the most influential people in Chinese cycling, Shen Jinkang. Jinkang’s own career ended prematurely in 1980 when his left leg was amputated following a traffic accident involving a truck. In 1985 he became the first head coach of the Chinese national team and nine years later took on the same role with the Hong Kong team. It was during his first role that he and Bannan first crossed paths.
Known as ‘Coach Shen,’ he is also the President of Chinese Cycling Association (CCA) and the founder of Max Success, the race organisation behind the Women’s WorldTour Tour of Chongming Island, the Tour of Fuzhou, and the Giant-Shimano Continental team. Shen is the well-connected figure in Chinese cycling Bannan and his team need onside to achieve their aims and objectives.
In 2013, the Mitchelton-Scott WorldTour team offered a contract to promising talent Choi Ki Ho but the then-22-year-old turned down the offer and quit the sport, citing fatigue and burnout. Since then Xu Gang (Lampre-Merida), Ji Cheng (Giant-Alpecin), and Wang have represented China in the WorldTour peloton. Fellow Mandarin speakers King Lok Cheung (Orica-Scott) of Hong Kong and Chun Kai Feng (Bahrain-Merida) of Taiwan have also secured rides in the top tier of the sport. Bannan is hopeful the Mitchelton-BikeExchange squad can add several more names to that list in the medium to long term.
In 2019, there are eight registered Mitchelton-BikeExchange riders, none of whom are Australian. Chinese national road champion Yikui Niu, Jiankun Lui, Zhi Hui Jiang, Ran Hao, Nazarbieke Biken, and Wenhui Bi are the local riders, while Brayan Chaves of Colombia (Esteban’s younger brother) and New Zealander James Oram make up the squad. Jiang, 25, already has a taste of the WorldTour life having ridden as a trainee with Lotto-Jumbo in 2016.
“There was limited availability there with some older Australians but for the younger Australians with plans to be in the WorldTour, Europe is where they need to be at to learn the trade,” Bannan says. “James is at that point in his career where he is hoping it’s a stepping stone back into Europe. He’s a bit older, he provides good maturity, and he fits. The same with Brayan, he is hoping to use the team as a stepping stone.”
While Chaves and Oram will be looking to post performances and results that catch the eye of WorldTour teams, the six Chinese riders will race largely without expectation.
“What I see as the key performance indicators is our ability to educate, our ability to have them on training peaks, understanding and using power cranks, our ability to interact and engage more,” he says. “I really see that as the platform to take it forward. In two or three years, a major key performance indicator will be performance and results.”
Bannan and the team will continually assess the progress of the riders and, depending on which targets are hit, adjust the racing schedule, including looking at Europe, and ambitions accordingly.
“Now, fundamentally, it’s the education of the riders and the education of giving them the tools to understand what the requirements are to reach of the WorldTour level. But we are a little bit away from that yet,” Bannan says. “This year is really getting into China and understanding more. Trying not only not to have an impact on riders within our team but also be a part of an educational process that [will allow us to] assist provincial coaches and up-and-coming Chinese riders.”
For Bannan, representation is key and for the long-term sustainable success of the project, more Chinese riders are needed in the WorldTour peloton. But it is a process that can’t be rushed.
“I think Chinese cycling is growing and developing and my philosophy is that if we can assist China to become a great cycling nation, that will benefit all of us globally,” Bannan explains. “You just have to look at the large population of China and if we can create a role model and more interest in cycling in China, that is going to create a lot more fans. That is the basic principle behind it.”
Bannan is also hopeful of a commercial windfall from the investment in developing the sport in the world’s most populous country. It’s a point he has previously raised in conversation with CyclingTips. The increased interest from Chinese business in the sport in recent years is just a glimpse of the potential.
Last year, the team announced a ‘sponsorship and partnership’ with billionaire Adam Kwok of Sun Hung Kai Properties, signalling its intent to build commercial relationships with Chinese and Hong Kong businesses to enrich the sport. Although the deal did not eventuate into a naming rights sponsorship, the groundwork is being laid, as suggested by links to global telecommunications giant Huawei in February.
“There are also of course a lot of global companies basing themselves in China and vice versa with Chinese companies exploring foreign lands, setting up in Europe and elsewhere,” Bannan said. “I do see that as being one of the motivations but also [it’s] to stimulate the commercial interest in that region. There will be, hopefully, more commercial support as well. It is part of the big picture.”
For the riders of Mitchelton-BikeExchange, the season began with a training camp in Hainan before taking part in the UCI 2.HC Tour de Langkawi. Oram finished 17th overall at the Malaysian race, the 25-year-old describing the experience to CyclingTips as a baptism of fire.
From here the team’s calendar is full of Chinese races: the inaugural Tour of Taiyuan, the UCI 2.HC Tour of Qinghai Lake, Tour of China I and II, and the Tour of Hainan and Tour of Fuzhou towards the end of the season. That’s a mix of different races across a multitude of terrains in various climates. Each race is sure to be an important lesson in the career and future of the Chinese sextet. And that exposure and experience is precisely what the team is after in season 2019.