China's first Tour de France cyclist wants Chinese to get on their bikes

Ji Cheng hopes his pioneering appearance in the famous race will encourage compatriots to rediscover their love for cycling

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 10:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 10:38am

The first Chinese cyclist to compete in the Tour de France hopes he can help his compatriots rediscover a lost affection for cycling in a country where bicycles were once ubiquitous.

Ji Cheng has gained prominence this year for becoming the first Chinese participant in the world's most prestigious race. The 27-year-old professional cyclist may rank last in 166th place - about 4½ hours behind leader Vincenzo Nibali - but he has won admirers because his job is doing the donkey work and sacrificing himself for his team leader, sprinter Marcel Kittel.

Speaking from the south of France, Ji said he wasn't satisfied being the "Lanterne Rouge", a moniker that comes from the red lantern at the back of a train. But he was positive about his Giant-Shimano team.

It's not for work, it's not about watching the time, it's just riding bicycles. People discover it's really nice. You can make a lot of friends
Pro cyclist Ji Cheng 

"There's nothing too disappointing. It's going really well as a team," said Ji, who put in long shifts in the front of the peloton in the first week of the Tour. His focus is to make it through the gruelling climbs in the Pyrenees and ride down the Champ Elysees in Paris on Sunday.

Giant-Shimano rank 21st out of the 22 teams.

The Harbin-native said he discovered professional cycling aged 12 or 13, when his coach suggested he switch from athletics because the chances of a long career in that sport were slim. "I didn't even understand what cycling was at the beginning," Ji said.

Ji's trainer suggested long-distance skiing and cycling, and Ji chose the latter. "It was very cold in winter. I don't really enjoy that," he added.

Temperatures in Ji's native Heilongjiang province can fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter.

Ji first participated in a European race in 2007 and quickly learned how to fight and scrap for position in a competitive and hostile environment. He was the first Chinese cyclist at the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, also riding for Giant-Shimano.

Ji said he hoped his presence at European races could raise awareness of the sport because it is only slowly being rediscovered in China.

"It's not for work, it's not about watching the time, it's just riding bicycles. People discover it's really nice. You can make a lot of friends," he said.

Ji regularly posts photos and updates on his Weibo microblog, where he has a following of more than 16,300 fans. In comparison to other Chinese sports stars, however, his fan base is small. Li Na, China's first tennis player to win a grand slam title, has more than 23 million followers.

But Ji is hopeful his sport is gaining popularity back home, where most have abandoned bicycles for cars, motorbikes and electric bikes. "When I come back to China on holiday, I see lots of people cycling, hundreds of people," he said.

Still, China had to clean up the environment first and provide infrastructure that made everyday cycling feasible, he added.

"Now, everybody sits in cars. The government should say: 'You live in a city, you can take a bike to go to work'."