Cookie consent

We use cookies to improve your experience on this website. By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies. Tell me more | Cookie preferences

Ji Cheng to ride into history as the first Chinese cyclist in the Tour de France

Ji Cheng prepares for the 96th Giro d'Italia on May 4, 2013 in Naples.

Story highlights

  • 26-year-old Ji Cheng will become the first rider from China to compete in cycling's most prestigious race
  • Ji, who is part of the Giant-Shimano team, has also competed in two of the sport's other two highest profile races
  • International road cycling hasn't gained much traction in China, and some bicycles have been replaced by vehicles
  • As a growing middle class starts cycling for recreation, some think China could be the next frontier for competitive cycling

Chinese fans will have a new reason to cheer when the 101st Tour de France kicks off on Saturday: 26-year-old Ji Cheng will become the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.

Ji, who will be riding with the Netherlands-based Giant-Shimano team, has competed in professional European cycling since 2007 and has already completed other top races.

"I am just really happy to race for my country in the Tour de France, I'm really excited," Ji, who comes from the northern Chinese city of Harbin, told CNN.

He's dreamed of competing in the Tour since he began racing.

"When I started cycling in China, the Tour de France was the only race they showed on the TV," Ji said from Leeds, England, where the tour will begin. He's happy that his friends and family will get to watch him compete.

    Just Watched

    Bike of glory produces winners

Bike of glory produces winners 05:27
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Chris Froome: 2013 Tour de France winner

Chris Froome: 2013 Tour de France winner 02:28
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Can cycling transform lives?

Can cycling transform lives? 07:49
PLAY VIDEO

As Ji qualifies for one of the most famous races in the world, his example could help kickstart China's nascent competitive cycling scene.

    'Breakaway killer'

    Ji started his athletic career as a runner in school, but shifted to cycling soon after in part because of the cold weather in Harbin, where winter temperatures get below -4°F (-20°C) and cycling gave him the opportunity to train indoors.

    He started with track cycling -- in which racers do laps around a velodrome track on specialized bikes -- and then moved to longer distance road cycling. After training with a Hong Kong team for a year, he was signed by Shimano and moved to Europe in 2007.

    The Tour de France won't be the first milestone Ji has passed. He's also competed in the other two highest profile races in competitive cycling: the Vuelta a Espana, in which he raced in 2012 and the Giro d'Italia the following year. The three races collectively are known as Grand Tours, and he is the first Chinese cyclist to participate in each of them.

    Ji is known as a "breakaway killer," which means he catches up with cyclists who try to get away from the pack of riders. It's not the flashiest role, but it helps position his teammates on the nine-man squad to win races.

    He says he doesn't have a strategy going into the Tour.

    Ji Cheng races during Stage Five of the Vuelta a España in March 2014 in Camprodon, Spain.

    "My goal is to try my hardest for my team, and I hope I finish the whole three weeks."

    Giant-Shimano coach Rudi Kemna said in a statement that Ji played an important factor in the team's formations.

    His participation in the Tour "will be huge for him and his country and we look forward to seeing the impact this has on the globalization of the sport," Kemna said.

    Kingdom of Bicycles?

    Advocates hope that Ji's participation in the Tour could help competitive cycling gain attention in China.

    "The fact that there is a Chinese racer in the race means the media and the public will focus on it much more," said Alain Rumpf, the director of Global Cycling Promotions, an organization affiliated with cycling's governing body, that promotes the sport around the world.

    "Ji Cheng is a pioneer."

    International teams currently compete in events like the Tour of Beijing, a top-level annual race that will have its fourth edition in October. Ji and several of his Shimano teammates competed in the race in 2013.

    Ji Cheng leads the pack during the first stage of the Giro d'Italia on May 4, 2013 in Naples.

    But overall, international road cycling hasn't gained much traction in the country. China won three medals in women's track cycling at the 2012 London Olympics -- two silvers and a bronze -- but has lagged behind in road cycling. Some cyclists aim instead for China's National Games, where athletes represent their regions or cities.

    Cycling in general is also not as prevalent as it once was. China was known as the "Kingdom of Bicycles" in the 70's and 80's, when a bike was the main form of transportation for many. Now, as more people have moved into the middle class, mopeds and automobiles have started to replace bikes on the streets of Beijing and other cities, although there are still more than 8 million bikes in the capital city.

    Poor air quality is also an obstacle for cyclists, who can face health problems from riding in smoggy urban centers.

    READ MORE: Nine things that make air pollution bearable

    Cycling renaissance

    Recently, however, members of a growing middle class are picking up their bikes again. For these people, cycling is recreation, not a way to get to work.

    "There's now more and more people who will strap an expensive road bike to the top of their BMW and head to the hills around Beijing," said David Culbert, a spokesperson for the Tour of Beijing.

    In the suburbs, the roads are smooth and the air is clean.

    "You will see literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there on the weekends riding their bikes," said Shannon Bufton, the co-founder of Serk Cycling, a Beijing NGO promoting cycling culture.

    This cycling renaissance has even gotten support from the headline-grabbing billionaire Chen Guangbiao, who celebrated China's "National Urban Car-Free Day" in 2011 by smashing a Mercedes-Benz and giving his employees free bicycles.

    It's also attracting the attention of professional cycling teams eager to find untapped talent, and cycling sponsors eying China's potential as a lucrative market. And Beijing is looking to build a more competitive road cycling program for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

    Ji's example could give more people a reason to get back in the saddle.

    "What Chinese cycling needs is a national hero who performs well at an international level," Bufton said -- and that could be Ji.

    For now, Ji is focused on the Tour, in which 198 cyclists, divided among 22 teams, will ride a total of 2,272 miles before the July 27 finish line. But he's already thinking ahead.

    "I hope for the future we will send more and more riders to European pro races," Ji said. "I hope they can use my experience to see that European cycling is possible."

        Sports spotlight

      • AG2R pair Peraud and Romain Bardet (right) thrilled the French fans with their performances on the 2014 Tour de France.

        Whisper it quietly, but after years of foreign domination the prospect of a French winner of the Tour de France is more than just a mere pipe dream.
      • Steve Way leads the in the Commonwealth Games marathon with the favorites massing behind him.

        Seven years ago Steve Way was a 20 per day smoker and weighed a hefty 104 kg, but he led the marathon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
      • After just one day of competition, a new sport has emerged at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow: snapping selfies with the Queen.
      • Joanna Rowsell is flanked by Australian duo Annette Edmonson and Amy Cure (right) after the medal presentation for the women's individual pursuit.

        Inspirational cyclist Joanna Rowsell added another gold to her growing collection in the individual pursuit at the Commonwealth Games.
      • GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 23: John Barrowman performs during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

        At the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, an actor upstaged the Queen by kissing a male dancer.
      • Daniel Carter of the All Blacks in action during the Third Test Match between the New Zealand All Blacks and France at Yarrow Stadium on June 22, 2013 in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

        The All Blacks and their fans are focused on one thing, says Dan Carter: becoming the first rugby nation to win back-to-back World Cups.
      • FOR USE ON CNN PHOTO BLOG ONLY

        Photographer Danny Lyon spent three days with Muhammad Ali in 1972 and shares his best photos and memories of the champ.
      • SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 23:  Sidney Crosby #87 of Canada celebrates after scoring his team's second goal in the second period during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match against Sweden on Day 16 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

        With a growing audience boosted by the drama of ice hockey on show in Sochi at the Winter Olympics, can the sport capitalize on its popularity?
      • The first cover star of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, Babette March

        Her paintings may sell for thousands of dollars, but she is best known for a modeling shot 50 years ago that helped launch a business empire.