Dream come true for Ji Cheng at Tour de France
Road specialist will be first Chinese to ride in the Grand Boucle
Ji Cheng said it would be a dream come true tomorrow when he becomes the first Chinese rider to compete at the Tour de France.
It will also complete a personal ambition for the 26-year-old from Harbin in the northeast of China as he will achieve the clean sweep of taking part in all three grand tours, following his participation at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana and last year's Giro d'Italia.
"For me, personally, finally I did the three grand tours, I can say I'm the first Chinese. I'm really happy for that and also for my dream since I started cycling, so finally I got there. I'm really, really happy," he said.
It has been a long road for Ji, who started out as an athlete before switching to track cycling and then moving on to the road.
He came to Europe eight years ago with Dutch team Purapharm before moving a year later to Giant-Shimano.
But he has since been struggling to make his mark.
"Shimano China wanted to support some Chinese racers. They wanted someone to go to a European professional team to race, to finally have a Chinese rider start the Tour de France," Ji said. "I'm lucky they called me.
"I'm really, really happy. The first year I was really sad, it was completely different. When you come to Europe, it's the small, funny things. When you come home from a race on Sunday and on Monday everything is closed in the city because they have some special holiday."
Things have not necessarily got any easier since then as Ji is now married, but hardly sees his wife.
"It's a hard life, I have a family but they stay in China, my wife also," he said.
"Sometimes, like last year, I went back for one and a half months to stay in China, where we also had some races.
"It's different because there are six hours' [difference] between Europe and China and you're a rider so sometimes you wake up, eat breakfast and go training.
"When you come back, my wife is probably already asleep because she's got a job, so sometimes we have to find a solution and a way to have more contact."
But all the sacrifices will seem worth it for Ji once he sits on the start line in Leeds tomorrow.
He will be a pioneer and he's hoping his example will inspire others to take up cycling and try to emulate his feats in making it to the biggest races.
"For my career, I can start the Tour de France, it's already a victory. I can say, I'm the first one to start, but I hope the people can follow my experience," he said.