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Cheng on cycling in China: ‘We need more races’

BEIJING (VN) — Ji Cheng (Argos-Shimano), China’s first Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España rider, wants to see his country continue to progress. The Tour of Beijing and his team, he said, are giving the Chinese a chance.

“The Chinese are the same as the Europeans,” Cheng told VeloNews. “I’m that example, if you have a good program, you can improve and make it to the top level. I can do it; the others can do it as well.”

The 26-year-old starred in the Tour of Beijing, China’s only top-level race that wrapped up Tuesday, because of his participation in the 2012 Vuelta and the 2013 Giro. The organizer selected him to sit alongside Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and world champion Rui Costa (Movistar) in the pre-race press conference. Every moment since, before or after the stage, the Chinese journalists have mobbed him.

It was a similar scene at the Giro when about 10 journalists flew to Italy just for the Chinese rider. The build up in Naples was so intense, with both the Chinese and international media curious, that Cheng had to limit his interviews. Overall, though, Cheng likes his ambassador status and wants to keep the momentum going.

“In the first two years I wasn’t able to come to the Tour of Beijing, but I heard that last year they closed everything and that they blocked the fans,” Cheng said.

“There were serious problems with the islands between China and Japan last year and the government was scared something was going to happen. It was bad for this race but the government just wanted to try to protect the riders and staff. This year, I see that the fans are on the roundabouts, at the starts and finishes. I think it’ll change year by year. We are going step by step.”

Cheng, who comes from the northeast part of China near the boarder with Russia, stood in the middle of Yanqing’s main square for a stage start dressed in Argos’ grey colors. Farther away, police blocked locals from coming too close to the stage sign-in podium and team cars, nothing like what Cheng saw racing in the Giro or in other European races. Along the roads, the government no longer positions uniformed servicemen as it did in the first year, 2011. Instead, selected volunteers with red armbands mix with a growing number of curious locals.

The UCI started the Tour of Beijing and classed it in its WorldTour calendar with races like Paris-Nice and Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country). Its future is uncertain as its contract runs only through next season, and the UCI’s leadership recently changed. Beyond Beijing, the Qinghai Lake and Hainan tours are China’s only other top-level, 2.HC status races.

“Qinghai Lake and Hainan are growing. They had three days of over 200 kilometers, not only flat stages but hilly ones, up and down, sometimes narrow roads and corners. They are also improving,” Cheng said.

“It’s a better option to have the Tour of Beijing. China is such a big country, as big as Europe, where in one day you can have a race in Belgium and France. Why not here, why not have three big races? We need even more races.”

Cheng benefited from Skil-Shimano, now Argos-Shimano, as the Dutch team took advantage of Shimano’s Japan headquarters to sign Asian cyclists. It grew with Cheng, going from the second to first division for 2013. Argos raced the Tour de France this season, where it won four stages with Marcel Kittel. Cheng wants to be a part of that success and become the first Chinese rider to participate next year.

“I want to go to the Tour to help Kittel, that’s the main goal that’s always in my head,” Cheng said. “I’ve done the Giro and Tour, and I’m working for the Tour.”

Cheng’s participation would certainly bring publicity to Argos-Shimano and go a long way in helping aspiring Chinese cyclists. After the Vuelta and the Giro, the Tour appears the logical step for China’s star.