GÉRARDMER, France (VN) — Cheng Ji (Giant-Shimano) may sit second from last in the general classification, but he has already made history by becoming the first rider from China to compete in the Tour de France.
“Like I say, it doesn’t matter in sport where you’re from, what matters is what you want to be and what you believe,” Ji said. “It’s very simple, just try and change your way.”
Ji comes from Harbin, which counts 6.7 million inhabitants and sits in the country’s far northeast, near Russia. Known as Ice City, Harbin grows so cold in the winter that locals cut ice from the river and build small villages, stringing lights throughout and creating a magical environment.
Ji kept warm as a 500- and 800-meter runner until he discovered cycling. He rode first on the track and then moved outdoors during the warmer months.
“I jumped on a bike, but I wasn’t really good. I was too skinny, about 53 or 54kg [117lb], without any muscle,” said Ji. “In the beginning, it was really hard.”
He progressed and made the bridge from China to Europe. He joined Giant-Shimano in 2007, then called Skil-Shimano, remaining with the mostly Asian and Dutch squad as it grew to become a first-division team.
In 2012, he became the first Chinese cyclist to race the Vuelta a España and helped John Degenkolb win five stages. He was so strong in that Vuelta, they started to call him the “Breakaway Killer.”
“The first time I heard the name, it was funny,” Ji said. “I did my job well in the Vuelta and the journalists invented this name. I said, ‘It’s funny, I like it.'”
Last year, Ji became China’s first participant in the 2013 Giro d’Italia. He only stuck around to stage 5, but that was enough to lend Degenkolb a hand for the Matera stage win.
Now, he has gone three for three in the grand tours with a start in the Tour de France.
“He can still become stronger, become more focused,” said sports director Marc Reef. “Like on the first day of the Tour, he eased off one minute at the top of a climb and lost his place. You can’t do that in the Tour.”
Still Ji has helped Marcel Kittel win three stages this year. And he has already had an effect on the race and his country.
“It’s big for Giant, big for Shimano, big for the Tour, and big for everyone else,” said Reef. “His Vuelta and Giro ride made an incredible impact on China. You can just imagine what the Tour is doing. He’s getting a lot of attention while growing into the ambassador role.”
This year, seven Chinese journalists are covering the Tour de France. At home, fans can watch live coverage for two hours every day for the first time. When they’re not watching, they are logging on to Ji’s Weibo account, China’s equivalent to Twitter, and leaving around 300 messages of support daily.
“Cycling’s become more popular in China now. When I go back for holiday, I see more people on their bikes, but that’s not just because of me, it’s just the gradual interest in sport and their desire to have fun in their free time,” Ji said.
“We’ve won three times so far in the Tour. I’m going to help the team win more, that’s my big goal. My personal aim is just to finish the race.”