by Barnaby CHESTERMAN
LEEDS, United Kingdom, July 03, 2014 (AFP) – Ji Cheng said it will be a
“dream” come true on Saturday when he becomes the first Chinese rider to
compete at the Tour de France.
It will also complete a personal ambition for the 26-year-old from Harbin
in the northeast of China as he will achieve the clean sweep of taking part in
all three Grand Tours, following his participations at the 2012 Vuelta a
Espana and last year’s Giro d’Italia.
“For me, personally, finally I did the three Grand Tours, I can say I’m the
first Chinese. I’m really happy for that and also for my dream since I started
cycling, so finally I got there. I’m really, really happy,” he said.
It’s been a long road for Ji, who started out as an athlete before
switching to track cycling in his teens and then moving onto the road.
He came to Europe eight years ago with Dutch team Purapharm before moving a
year later to his current outfit, Giant-Shimano.
But he has been struggling to make his mark ever since.
“Shimano China wanted to support some Chinese racers. They wanted someone
to go to a European professional team to race, to finally have a Chinese rider
start the Tour de France,” Ji explained.
“I’m lucky they called me and said: ‘there’s a chance, you’re young and
good for road biking’.
“I’m really, really happy. The first year I was really sad, it was
completely different. When you come to Europe, it’s the small, funny things.
When you come home from a race on Sunday and on Monday everything is closed in
the city because they have some special holiday. We were looking, ‘where do we
have to be?’. Even the restaurants were closed.”
Things have not necessarily got any easier since then as Ji is now married
but hardly ever sees his wife.
“It’s a hard life, I have a family but they stay in China, my wife also,”
“Sometimes, like last year, I went back for one and a half months to stay
in China, where we also had some races.
“It’s different because there are six hours (difference) between Europe and
China and you’re a rider so sometimes you wake up, eat breakfast and go
“When you come back, my wife is probably already asleep because she’s got a
job, so sometimes we have to find a solution and a way to have more contact.
“We had a plan this year at the beginning but then I was probably going to
start the Tour de France. But she has holiday in July so if she came to Europe
I wouldn’t be able to do anything because I’m following the race.
“It’s hard actually. Personally I’d really like my wife to come to Europe.”
But all the sacrifices will seem worth it for Ji once he sits on the start
line in Leeds on Saturday.
He will be a pioneer and he’s hoping his example will inspire others to
take up cycling as a profession and try to emulate his feats in making it to
the biggest races.
“For my career, I can start the Tour de France, it’s already a victory. I
can say, I’m the first one to start but I hope the people can follow my
experience,” he said.
“If you want to be there and want to change things, you can do it, it’s not
a matter of where you’re from.”
But he admitted it wouldn’t be easy in a country where there are few races,
particularly at a grassroots level, and where cycle lanes in cities are
“If you want to make something, you have to change the whole system,”