Hong Kong protests and the bike race that never happened
Words by Iain Treloar | Photography by Getty, Velon, Matt de Neef and Flickr Commons.
For Hong Kong’s marginalised cycling community, last weekend was supposed to be a celebration. The Hammer Series race was scheduled to decide the winner of the series, with WorldTour teams racing through Tsim Sha Tsui’s skyscraper-framed streets, backed by the glistening prow of Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour. The Hong Kong Cyclothon, a major mass participation event along the bridges and boulevards of the city, was supposed to unite thousands of the city’s cyclists. The Hong Kong Tourism Board would have ticked off another successful milestone in its year-round schedule of major events.
Instead, on Sunday, plumes of tear gas billowed along the streets of the Shatin and Tsuen Wan districts of Hong Kong, as riot police tried to shut down protests. That night, the city’s railway system – one of the most efficient in the world, the lifeblood of Hong Kong – was shut down, placing the city under effective curfew. As on most weekends for the past four months, Hong Kong grappled with a new norm. Replacing the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s most vibrant cities was, instead, an uneasy calm.
Since June, Hong Kong has been wracked by increasingly violent confrontations between the city’s police and its citizens. Hong Kong – a part of China, apart from China – was a British territory until 1997 and retains special administrative and economic freedoms, but finds itself increasingly torn between Chinese influence and western democratic ideals.
Fourteen long weeks ago, a major public outcry over a proposed extradition treaty between the semi-autonomous island state and its mainland rulers, China, brought about two million Hong Kongers – around a quarter of the city’s population – to the streets in peaceful protest. The police response set a template of escalation over the months since, moving through riot gear and tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, and finally, to live ammunition.
Although the extradition treaty was eventually taken off the table, what was left in its place was deep-seated concern about Chinese interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, and increasingly loud calls for independence. The disconnect between the people of Hong Kong and the city’s leadership, along with the heavy-handed response of the Hong Kong Police, exposed a divide in the city. For months, it has widened, disturbing routine and upending order.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the bike race that never happened.
At the start of September, Velon – the organiser of the Hammer Series – issued a press release saying that preparations for the race, scheduled for October 13, would proceed as usual. However, the situation only grew bleaker over the month that followed.
Two weeks ago, on October 1, as the People’s Liberation Army marched through Beijing in a show of force honouring modern China’s 70th birthday, the streets of Hong Kong were more like a warzone. A ragged desperation had set in – a far cry from the peaceful, rational and non-violent protest that Hong Kong prides itself on.
Lately, use of molotov cocktails, graffiti and violence has become more common, and the police response has escalated in turn. That back-and-forth led to the first use of live ammunition when Tsang Chi-kin, an 18-year-old high school student, was shot in the chest by a police officer at point-blank range, on China’s National Day. The next day, a 14-year-old high school student was shot in the leg.
The day after, Velon and the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) pulled the plug on their events, a mere 10 days out. Given the volatility of the situation, they didn’t really have much of a choice.
The Hammer Series, first debuted in Limburg in 2017, occupies an interesting space in the pro cycling landscape. Organised by offshoot team-conglomerate Velon, the series seeks to bring a different energy to the sport – a short and punchy narrative, improved access to the athletes, innovation rather than adherence to staid convention.
Velon’s success in having achieved those goals is debatable, but it’s not for lack of trying. The series has expanded from one event to three – Stavanger and Hong Kong were added in 2018 – with a plan, according to Velon CEO Graham Bartlett, to continue to grow the Hammer Series to a season-long, 8-10 race series (a mooted Colombia edition was on the cards for 2020, but has been shifted back). More recently, the organisation has gone in to battle for the future of its series, filing a complaint to the European Commission against the sport’s governing body, the UCI, for anti-competition tactics.
The arrival of the Hammer Series in Hong Kong in 2018 was, at first blush, a surprising move – although not without precedent elsewhere in professional cycling. The UCI has pursued an aggressive policy of growth into non-traditional cycling markets over a number of years, with the advent of tours in the Middle East and even a Road World Championships in Qatar.
The launch of the season-ending Tour of Guangxi in the southern Chinese province in 2017 demonstrated the willingness of cycling’s institutions to push into new frontiers, with the financial backing of prominent local bodies. The inaugural Hong Kong Hammer Series race, meanwhile, brought professional cycling to one of Asia’s leading cities, and demonstrated Velon’s willingness to pursue a similar growth strategy as that taken by the UCI.
Hong Kong doesn’t have a great reputation as a cycling city – a function of both its hilly geography and congestion – with the majority of the city’s riders conceiving of cycling as little more than a gentle recreational activity, restricted to Hong Kong’s few bike paths.
“Cycling is a minor activity and form of transport in Hong Kong,” a local told me. It’s a perspective echoed by an expat who lived there for a number of years: “The local councils make it as hard as they could. Cycling is seen as something the poor do. Why ride a bike when you can drive an expensive car?”
However, major events like the Hong Kong Hammer Series provide an opportunity to present a curated image of the city as a cycling destination. In the opinion of one local I spoke to, “the government is after the revenue and international recognition more than to promote the sport.”
That said, there’s a small and passionate road cycling community, buoyed in part by consumerism – as CyclingTips found on a visit there in 2013, there’s a vigorous trade in high-end road bikes and gear that belies the relative scarcity of quality riding available.
There’s little in the way of organised events, too. “For the guys who race, there is so little organised in Hong Kong anyhow, that the local racing guys tend to travel to other regional events such as Tour of Bintan, Chiang Mai, KOM Taiwan … ”, a local bike shop owner told me. As for local bunch rides: “road cycling is incredibly marginalised. If you want to ride on the island, you go at 5am to avoid traffic (and heat in summer),” I was told by one expat.
So whilst Hong Kong’s road cyclists may not have much to call their own, that almost amplifies the sense of tragedy when it’s taken away.
Following the events of early October, that’s exactly what happened when the decision was finally made to cancel both Hong Kong Hammer and Hong Kong Cyclothon.
Graham Bartlett, Velon’s CEO, told CyclingTips “As you can imagine this was a difficult decision … In the end safety for all concerned, the fans, the riders and the race volunteers and officials was our paramount concern.”
“When the protests began, we started monitoring events in Hong Kong and were given regular updates by the Hong Kong Tourism Board,” Velon told CyclingTips. “As in any project plan, you have to set ‘go/no go’ deadlines and when we got to the beginning of October and reviewed everything, the decision was taken jointly with the Hong Kong Tourism Board not to proceed this year and to refocus on 2020.”
The sporting implications of the cancellation of Hammer Series Hong Kong were relatively minor. Jumbo-Visma was crowned series champion; planning began on the 2020 edition. Andrew Clark, Hong Kong Tourism Board’s regional director – Australia, New Zealand & South Pacific, said in a statement to CyclingTips that “we have already started working with Hammer Series [ed: Velon] on the Hammer Hong Kong in next year’s HK Cyclothon”, and that HKTB would launch a large-scale promotion “at an appropriate time” to “rebuild Hong Kong’s tourism image”.
The Hong Kong Hammer Series race isn’t a particularly important race in a broader sense. Even if it had been run, its outcome would have been overshadowed by Il Lombardia and probably even Paris-Tours, both raced over the same weekend. For most cycling fans around the world, the cancellation of a fringe bike race in a location on the periphery of world cycling would have been a total non-factor. But that’s easy to say with the cool remove of distance, and of course, it’s not as simple as that – especially at a local level.
When Hammer Hong Kong and Hong Kong Cyclothon were cancelled, the city’s cyclists lost their biggest event of the year, and arguably the one day where their existence is actually legitimised in Hong Kong. In one local rider’s explanation: “Cycling as a sport is not well respected by our authorities, so it was not surprising that they would cancel the events. But I personally signed up for the event and was very disappointed [that Cyclothon wasn’t proceeding].”
Economically, Hong Kong’s summer of protest has been turbulent. In figures provided to CyclingTips by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, tourist arrivals during August had dropped by 39% year on year, with a 42% drop in visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong’s biggest tourism market. From July 2 to mid-August, the stock market plummeted by more than US$600 billion.
Small local businesses are feeling the pinch too, in large part because the city goes into virtual lockdown on weekends when the protests take place. A local bike shop owner told me that “as a business – which seems consistent with most industries here – the impact seems to be a decrease of trade around 30-40% on total cash flow.”
Somewhat ironically, access to cycling hasn’t changed all that much for committed riders – in some cases, it’s even improved. One source told me that “in fact, one of the best ways to get around at the moment is by bicycle as the roads are slow.” Another said that whilst “it is hard not to run into busier areas that might spark protests at some point” due to Hong Kong’s cramped geography, “the situation has not made it harder to ride.” Nonetheless, he said, “we are more cautious than ever.”
But the physical implications of the protest and its broader societal impact are two separate things. “What has been highlighted is the government’s complete impotence,” the bike shop owner told me. “I feel that it has [clarified] to the Hong Kong people that we do not have a central government in place that is able to work with [its] people and respect and listen to them.”
The cancellation of Hong Kong’s two major cycling events underlines a broadening rift in a beleaguered city. “Our lives have changed from a safe, non-political and orderly one to a lawless and terror-driven environment,” a local told me. Weekends have transformed from a time of rest, into “for most, a time of desperate protest. Away from the key protest sites, you will still find demonstrations in many different forms, from graffiti on walls, students holding hands and forming chains around their schools, and people shouting protest-related phrases from their high rise apartments at night. There is barely anywhere that is ‘normal’ anymore,” he said.
The protest movement has made global headlines for burning barricades and vandalised infrastructure – acts of a hardline minority – but popular support for the protests is widespread. “The protests in principle are extremely well supported, however, I know of no-one that condones violence or vandalism,” one Hong Kong resident told me.
Peaceful resistance on a vast scale remains the norm, transcending age and class. To date, more than 2,300 protesters – students and grandparents, mothers and fathers, from 12 to 71 years of age – have been detained by police over the past few months. That in itself is a vast sum, but is also just the tip of the iceberg in illustrating the ubiquity of dissent. The protests have touched the entire city.
On the weekend, a four-metre-tall statue of a gas mask-, goggle- and helmet-wearing female protester was installed on Lion Rock, a famous mountain overlooking the skyscrapers of Kowloon. Named ‘Lady Liberty’, the statue is a symbol of defiance inspired by the Goddess of Democracy statue erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Right on theme, Chinese president Xi Jinping responded to the ongoing protests this weekend by threatening dissidents with “crushed bodies and shattered bones”. On Monday night, petrol bombs were thrown at a police station, a bomb was detonated and a police officer was stabbed.
On the streets and ideologically, there is a fierce battle being waged for Hong Kong’s soul, with no clear path for de-escalation. As the scale of the problem expands, normality contracts.
You can look to the torched train stations and the tally of wounded civilians and police officers for proof of that, or you can look at the everyday – the bike shops facing drastic declines in turnover; the events being cancelled; the riders planning their routes around the movements of riot police. In the scope of an unfolding crisis, cycling is the least of Hong Kong’s problems, but sometimes it’s the loss of the little things that sting the most.
In 2020, the plan is for the Hammer Series to return to the city. A year from now, we may again see teams of professional cyclists race along the skyscraper-lined streets of Hong Kong. But what Hong Kong will that be, and at what cost?