As China’s bicycle market has exploded in recent years, so too have the number of races held on the mainland. But to most outsiders, including cyclists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the model of grassroots road cycling development remains a mystery. Cycling iQ* offers an explanation of the framework.
Note: prior to delving into China’s complex “system”, please note two terms will be used frequently in the following article to define two categories of cyclist – “professional” and “amateur”. Professional riders are licensed and registered with the national federation, whereas amateur riders are not.
Now that’s clear, let’s start with an overview of how professional riders materialize. Coaches in city teams will go to junior sports schools to select promising cyclists; but due to cycling’s relative unpopularity in China and a lack of systematic training, coaches can only get limited riders in this way. So, many runners are recruited and channeled into cycling.
After years of hard work, young riders will attend provincial races. If a rider can win at this level, the opportunity to join a provincial team may materialize; at this level, coaches from provincial teams give much greater scrutiny to specific physiology, picking only a few top riders to attend a three-month intensive training camp. Should the cyclist reach the coach’s expectation, he can officially join the provincial team.
Until now, this “system” – aside from being inherently factory-like – may seem familiar to those in the West. However, the rider’s coach, from the city team, will receive a ‘transfer fee’. At the same time, this transfer will be entered on the city team coach’s official performance record; this performance record is highly regarded and nearly the only thing related to the coach’s future salary and career opportunities. So, in the coach’s eyes, the athletes become tools, or stepping-stones, with which to generate personal rewards.
Cyclists selected for provincial teams will face another 3-4 years of training before they can get a chance to participate in national races. At this time, China’s National Team will be established based on the best provincial team; the coach of the provincial team will logically be the coach for the national team.
Usually, this is the highest-attainable level a Chinese rider can reach; if he wants to go further then luck, relationships and background becomes essential. If the rider’s province has sufficient budget – already a big challenge – training overseas can be possible; he could be the lucky guy like Cheng Ji. If not, this could be his end as, until now, there has been little emphasis on a contingency education.
Races sanctioned by China’s Cycling Association (CCA) – the national cycling federation affiliated to the Asian Cycling Confederation and the UCI – serve the officers in the Chinese sports system. There are a lot of professional races here in China held without even a single fan, but the coaches are still excited about letting their riders fight it out on the course. Why? To embellish the Coach’s performance record and achieve higher status. Chinese professional cycling races therefore remain largely hidden from public view, due to the emphasis on administration of the system, as opposed to development and providing service to licensed riders.
So, what are the opportunities for amateur cyclists? Many of China’s amateur (not licensed with CCA) cyclists have developed to a high level through individual effort and application, whilst others are retirees from the professional system. Some professional riders try everything they can to officially retire; even paying officers to erase their professional records. This is because there is usually a clause in amateur races, stating a professional rider who has not been retired for 2-3 years (dependent on race) are not allowed to take part in amateur races.
An average rider in a provincial team will earn CNY2000-3000 (USD330-500) per month. There are some bonuses (usually counted in hundreds, not thousands) in national-level races, but pervasive misappropriation by coaches often shuts off this important stream of potential added income.
By comparison, races are often the main source of income for top amateur riders so, naturally, they train systematically. Heart-rate monitor use is prolific, while power meters are used by about 30% of top riders; the knowledge spectrum related to appropriate nutrition is not so widespread, though. Finding a coach focused on training amateurs is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, so training programs and techniques are acquired through trial and error.
Sponsored (amateur) riders can usually expect a basic monthly salary of CNY5000 (USD800); additionally, race bonuses of amateur events – such as the Trek-sponsored series in Shanghai – are much higher than a professional race (usually in the thousands of CNY). As in western teams, race winners might need to share race bonuses with teammates, but the ratio depends on ability and team culture. An amateur racer could also own a bicycle shop or work for the team’s sponsor, thus further increasing his overall annual income to comfortable levels.
Of course, income potential is only one consideration; when focusing purely on performance, a gap still exists between the majority of amateur riders and their professional counterparts. Elite-level amateur riders have the ability to take part in a national race, but they will rarely feature on the podium. In any case, the lower income and restricted lifestyle means professional status holds little attraction to them anyway. However, in the future, when amateur riders have the ability to podium at a national level professional race, there may be some provincial sports bureaus willing to pay higher amounts for them to attend CCA-sanctioned races. If and when that happens, this could significantly endow the talent pool.
Professional teams are awash with specialists; coaches, mechanics, doctors and nutritionists; the only facet a professional rider need concern himself with is the physical work itself. As alluded to earlier, most professional riders have very limited knowledge about equipment and training; this severely limits their options following retirement. Some professional riders have confided to trusted specialty media in China that coaches often force them to ingest pills and liquids of which the contents are never known; increased fetal malformation amongst famous professional riders’ children is one alleged, but not verifiable without scientific evidence, outcome.
In summary, amateur riders have better income, more opportunities to race, greater liberties and by extension, brighter futures. The by-product is a growing retirement trend among professionals.
Taking the retirement trend to its extreme, could the structure of Chinese professional cycling as it stands today collapse? The possibility does exist. This is part of the reason why CCA covets amateur races. However, the commercial (sponsored) make-up of amateur races severely restricts available profit compared to the professional racing system. What’s more, amateur race sponsors oppose CCA’s involvement, due to high cost, low efficiency and onerous bureaucracy. CCA’s challenge is to turn its bureaucratic mindset into a service mindset to avoid being replaced.
Another future hurdle may be UCI Cycling regulation 2.17.013 (last modified 01.07.2012): “Each national federation may register a maximum of 15 UCI continental teams each year. Each national federation must be clearly independent of the team(s) that it registers.”
This registration ceiling is currently not an issue for China – 9 Continental teams are registered for the 2013 season – but, given the pipeline potential inherent to such a massive population, together with a framework that does not facilitate athletic development to a European standard, “regulation creep” would be necessary to prevent the ceiling from being reached prematurely.
If there is one objective that CCA shares with every other national cycling federation, it’s Olympic Gold; nothing is more important in a sporting context. In this sense, one would expect development pathways that elevate promising cyclists towards this most sacred of sporting achievements; however, the pathways that lie before CCA’s cyclists stretch meagrely across provincial borders and, ultimately for all but a lucky few, a dead-end.
A SPECULATIVE FOOTNOTE
De Telegraaf, The Netherlands’ most-read daily broadsheet, recently stoked rumours of an impending move by Giant Bicycles from Team Belkin (formerly Rabobank, then Team Blanco) to Argos-Shimano. Right, but what does this have to do with the above? Well, it’s a chance to offer a fascinating insight into the network which could make it possible.
Firstly, note the now-familiar story of aforementioned Chinese rider Cheng Ji; now a professional cyclist with Dutch ProTeam Argos-Shimano (formerly Skil-Shimano, for whom Cheng has raced since 2007):
“At school, I was a runner, and I always won, so I had the chance to enter a sports school. In 2002, because it was still cold for running in April, I moved to cycling and started on a home trainer. Only one month later, I took part in my first competition on the road: 12 laps around Laoshan, the venue of the Beijing Olympics for track, BMX and mountain bike. It was the hardest race of my life. I didn’t even have cycling shoes, but I loved every second of it and since then I knew what I wanted to do – become a professional cyclist. After my first race I started riding on the track for the 2005 China Games in Nanjing.
After a lot of hard work I got the opportunity to race for Shimano in Europe, the cycling hub of the world. To become a professional cyclist and race in Europe was one of my dreams. I learned English and moved to Holland. In 2007 I joined Skil-Shimano and developed into the rider I am today.”
Now meet Yan Dong Xing, another cyclist from China who joined Argos-Shimano in March 2013. Iwan Spekenbrink, Argos-Shimano GM offered the following about his team’s new recruit:
“We’ve been working on an Asian project already for a while, and it is our dream to develop a Chinese rider to the highest level. With Cheng Ji, who has been part of our project since the beginning, we have experience with this, and it has been impressive to see the progress he has made from his arrival on the European pro scene to racing in races like the Vuelta a España and Milan–San Remo, for example.”
Apart from being Chinese and on the same WorldTour team, Chang and/or Yan could find themselves riding a Giant bicycle at next year’s Tour de France thanks to Shen Jinkang. Shanghai-based Shen wears many hats – China National Team head coach (since 2011), Hong Kong Team head coach (and famed mentor of Wong Kam Po), Manager of Chinese Continental squad Max Success Sports and former manager of UCI Women’s team China Chongming – Giant Pro Cycling. Business Development, Media Relations, Governmental Public Relations and Cycling Team Management are all departments within Shen’s company ‘Shanghai Max Success Sports Consulting Co., Ltd.’. [Full profile here, for anyone interested.]
Every one of the six teams – two national, two UCI trade teams and two track squads – that Shen coaches or manages rides Giant Bicycles (and Shimano), including Max Success Sports; with whom Yan Dong Xing was last riding before making the not-inconsiderable leap to ProTeam level.
Giant would love nothing more than to be directly responsible for delivering China its first rider at the Tour de France. What are the major elements required to make that happen? 1) Resources: coming up with the budget required for a co-naming sponsorship with Argos (assuming they have convinced and outspent Shimano, who would transition into a technical partner role). Let’s assume that Giant can withdraw its reported EUR3m investment from Team Belkin and up it to, say, EUR5-7m, to make this happen. 2) Strong relationship: apart from possessing significant industry clout, Giant Manufacturing Co Ltd’s EU headquarters, together with Gaiwin B.V., a wholly owned subsidiary, is based in the Netherlands, as is Argos. Let’s assume each company is at least aware of the other’s existence. Together with the financial investment, Giant’s influence inside the industry could also translate to having influence over the roster come July. 3) Talent: what if Argos could be guaranteed a continuous supply of China’s best cycling talent with which to nurture its “Asian Project”? It would be awfully convenient if there was someone in China who could arrange a feeder team, if one did not already exist, that was also a proxy for China’s national team.
What are the chances this could materialize? We’ll have to wait and see.
*This article has been co-written by Cycling iQ and a trusted contact within mainland China’s bicycle industry who wishes to remain anonymous.