The second edition of the Tour of Beijing unfolds next week much like it did last year: under a cloud of suspicion and controversy.
Last year, it was the threat of teams boycotting the inaugural edition over a long-running spat between the top pro squads and the UCI over the UCI’s efforts to ban race radios. This year, the five-day WorldTour race begins in the wake of the controversial decision to remove Argos-Shimano from the race.
Increasing political tensions between Japan and China have reached a boiling point and organizers last week discreetly removed the Japanese-backed Argos-Shimano team from the 19-squad field.
Race officials, of course, would rather be talking about opening the Chinese market to cycling or the potential to mine possible new cycling team sponsors.
Teams and riders began arriving Thursday in the Chinese capital for the October 9 start of the second edition of the race promoted by the UCI’s commercial arm, Global Cycling Promotion.
Confirmed starters include Giro d’Italia champ Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), worlds silver medalist Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) and defending champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), giving the Chinese race a solid field in the season’s final WorldTour race.
GCP president Alain Rumpf spoke with VeloNews from Beijing on Thursday to talk about Argos, GCP’s finances, how the Tour of Hangzhou was suddenly taken off the table and why he believes fans should give the race a chance.
VeloNews: What kind of changes will the race see this year following its debut in 2011?
Alain Rumpf: In terms of the course, based on our experiences from last year we have tried to improve the route. There will be no time trial this year and some of the stages will be a bit hillier. They will not be high mountains, but certainly some more hills. We hope for some exciting racing over these stages. What will also have an impact is that we have added time bonuses. We have hopefully more movement in the race and the battle for the GC will be exceptional. In terms of the organization, the same people will be in charge. What I can already say, after just spending two days here, the local organizing committee is much more experienced. They have learned a lot in just one year. We are set for an even better race.
VN: From your perspective, is GCP happy with how things are going in China?
AR: For a first edition, we were very happy with last year. Organizing a race for the first time is never easy, especially at the WorldTour level; it is even tougher. The learning curve from the Chinese side is very steep. This year everyone knows what to do and hopefully when you get here you will see that the atmosphere is more relaxed. And we are all in one hotel, which is better for the communication and cooperation.
VN: Last year, there were concerns that fans were not allowed to get close to the riders. Has that issue been addressed?
AR: After the race, in November last year, already the organizing committee told us one of the key lessons is that we need to change so that the public has access to the race, especially in Beijing. This will be different this year. We will see in the first stage in Beijing that this has been addressed.
VN: There was some criticism from some riders and other observers that the race was not worthy of WorldTour status and that other, more established races deserved that recognition before Beijing. How do you respond to that?
AR: First of all, I do not feel this is the opinion of the majority. The feedback we received from the majority of riders was very positive. I have seen some nice comments from Tony Martin on the race, and this is generally what I heard, about the quality of the organization, the security of the roads. And if you look at the quality of the field, it’s a very good sign. We have the winner of the 2010 Tour (Andy Schleck) and the winner of the 2012 Giro (Ryder Hesjedal). There are some other good names. The teams are taking this race seriously and lots of riders are coming back. It’s a good sign that they wanted to come back. From that point of view, it is where it should be. Of course, it doesn’t have the history of a race like the Tour de France. That will take time. We are looking to develop professional cycling and it’s done through this type of race and event. We want to take cycling to new countries and new markets, and this is exactly what we are doing. This is an important part of the globalization of the sport.
VN: Some suggest that there would not be a race in China if it were not for the role of the UCI. Is that correct?
AR: This race would only take place because there were contacts with the highest level of the UCI and the city government of Beijing. It’s important for them to work with an official body like the UCI. This is the case of many places where we have looked to expand.
VN: Planned expansions to debut the Tour of Hangzhou were hastily taken off the table. What happened that the race was not going to be held this year as planned?
AR: We, as Global Cycling Promotion, we were ready. The local organizing committee were ready. The course was selected and we had made good progress. But at a certain stage, we had to come to the conclusion that not all the elements from the Chinese side were there to assure the success of the race. Not everybody was totally aligned behind the project, and that was threatening the outcome. We were not in a position of guaranteeing the quality of the race. The only possible decision was to postpone the race. We wanted to deliver a high-level race, so we decided to postpone the race in agreement with the city of Hangzhou. The UCI is working with everyone involved to make this possible for 2013.
VN: Can you expand on what those factors were? Was it the police? Funding?
AR: I cannot go into specifics about that. Our goal is not to put the blame on anyone. It was an unfortunate situation and we want to keep our chances to organize this race in 2013. The race is already on the 2013 calendar and we are confident it will take place.
VN: Initially, there were talks of a race in Russia, but that seems to have been put on the backburner. What’s the status of expanding into Russia and are other projects in the works?
AR: In general terms, we do have other projects. We are talking to other cities and countries to develop cycling events. We are looking at markets where cycling matches their strategy of development. Specifically about Russia, recently the Russian cycling federation and the central government have repeated their interest to the UCI about a WorldTour-level race. Because it is a strategic country, the UCI is still interested in having a race. It will not be for 2013, because the calendar has been adopted. The project was not ready. We at GCP are ready to step in, so when the guarantees are there for the Russian side, we can move quickly.
VN: There have been talks of going into other markets such as Brazil and India, are those still on the radar?
AR: It’s not mature enough to quote any country specifically; however, obviously we are targeting countries with a high sporting potential, where cycling can be developed, with a good economic potential. Those countries you have quoted — Brazil and India — may or may not be there.
VN: Ah, spoken like a true lawyer! How do you react to criticism that the UCI, via GCP, has a direct conflict of interest, and that it has crossed the line by becoming owner of races it also must govern?
AR: I have a very pragmatic approach. First of all, as we have just discussed, this (Beijing race) would not have happened without the presence and support of the UCI, because the government, the city government, wanted to basically speak with another government. The existence of this race shows that the GCP project is valid because it has produced something positive for the sport. I also look at things in the pragmatic way by noting that these reproaches or critics came at a time when there was a lot of division in the sport. Some people disagreed with the UCI and found this as a way to be critical against the UCI. Now things have changed; there is a lot more unity inside professional cycling and I know that these critics are not so common. The essence of GCP is to put everyone around the table, with the UCI, the teams and sponsors, and to work together to do things that are positive for the sport. The Tour of Beijing is positive because it opens the Chinese market to the sport and it allows Chinese cycling to develop.
This year, for example, Movistar is participating with a Chinese sponsor that is linked to their main sponsor, Movistar. In terms of sponsorship, the race is bringing something positive. You will see next week that several teams are organizing hospitality operations. They also see potential for the Chinese clients, for potential contacts. With a pragmatic approach, that’s how we need to look at this whole situation.
VN: There are also questions about GCP’s finances. Is GCP a stand-alone entity or has the UCI been using general funds to top up its coffers?
AR: This gives me the opportunity to set some records straight. I have heard that some assumptions have been made about the financials of the GCP and the relationship with the UCI. I would like to clarify one thing. In September 2009, the UCI ProTour Council, as it was called at the time, decided to allocate 730,000 euros to launch the GCP project. The council took this decision with its members in a very transparent way. All the figures we have seen, and they are all in the UCI financial reports, have been part of this initial investment of 730,000 euros. In 2010 and 2011, part of the budget of the GCP came from that initial sum. No further allocation was made after that.
VN: No other money from the general fund has been transferred to GCP?
AR: Absolutely not.
VN: These past few weeks also saw the controversial removal of Argos-Shimano from the race. What were the elements behind that decision?
AR: It was a decision taken after consultation of all the parties. Nobody forced anybody to do anything. The team, the local organizing committee, and the GCP all decided that the best possible thing to do was that Argos-Shimano withdraws from the race. This was, first of all, based in what happened in other sport events, not only the Tour of China, but also in badminton. This is something that is not just the Tour of Beijing. It is something that all sport is faced with currently. For safety reasons, the best possible decision was that the team stayed away from the race. We are sorry for that, but it was part of the decision that we made together.
VN: Many outside of China do not know what’s going on. Is the situation there so hot that the riders could not have their safety guaranteed?
AR: This concern came from the two sides. The Chinese authorities are concerned that unfortunately the presence of Japanese interests in these events could trigger some protests that could not be controlled. On the other side, Japanese companies and individuals are concerned for their safety and for their reputation. It’s regrettable, but we could only take the advice of the experts and protect the safety of the participants.
VN: And the inclusion of the Chinese-backed Champion System team, was there a connection between Argos-Shimano’s departure and its presence in the race this year?
AR: There is no connection. There was no plan to do that. We wanted Argos-Shimano in the race. Champion had applied for a wildcard entry, but we could not take on more teams than we had. Now, with the absence of Argos-Shimano and the Chinese national team, it made it possible to include Champion System. Now we have 19 teams. The 18 ProTeam squads and Champion System.
VN: And what happened with the Chinese national team pulling out?
AR: We were informed late that the Chinese cycling federation did not want to participate in the race. We wanted them to start, especially after their performance in last year’s race. It was an unfortunate situation. We are happy to invite Champion System, which was able to organize a team very late. We will still have a strong presence of Chinese riders, which is very important to us. Part of this race is promoting the sport in their country and to give Chinese riders a chance to participate against the best riders in the world.
VN: Finally, what would you say to the cynics who believe that the Beijing race is only some ploy to make money for the UCI?
AR: My message would be to come to Beijing and see it for your own eyes. The experiences everyone shared last year who were there are positive. Tony Martin was very excited to come back to China. The teams have started to arrive and I can see their enthusiasm. We had five teams arrive today. They were happy to be back. It’s quite an experience to race a bike in a place like China. Being here last year certainly changed the minds of many people.
Editor’s note: A few hours after the interview, Rumpf e-mailed this message:
Two things I wanted to add as I am fighting jetlag in my hotel room:
— GCP has received €730,000 from the UCI ProTour reserve fund in 2009; it is technically not a loan but a grant, however this amount has already been more than largely refunded to teams and riders in just two editions of the Tour of Beijing, via prize money and participation fees, without mentioning the extra exposure that they get worldwide via the TV and internet coverage.
— I said “come and see with your own eyes,” I should have added: “and take your bike!” The riding around Beijing is just amazing with perfect roads and rolling hills. There is little traffic and the landscapes are stunning. Also, every cyclist should experience urban cycling in Beijing once in his life.