When I first emailed Li Fuyu (李富玉) last week to see if we could have a chat on Friday, the only condition stipulated by the 37-year old Shandong native was that I call after midday, because he was going riding in the morning.
Images: Cycling iQ, Tour of China, Hengxiang Cycling Team
The conversation begins with apologies all round; Li for his English, me for my Chinese. We agree he has the definite linguistic upper hand on balance, so English is the language we proceed with.
“I’m still training and racing in China,” responds the two-time China National Games gold medallist, when I ask whether he still rides a lot after retiring in 2013, “but I have not much time to train. It has become very difficult to compete in international races. But I love cycling and I don’t want to stop.”
To be twice a National Games champion in a country of 1.3Bn people is to be truly exceptional. Li won the road race in 2005 and the ITT in 2009, according him a high level of recognition in mainland cycling circles. Like many cyclists of his generation, he’d started as a state-sponsored runner and also collected a silver medal in mountain biking at the 2001 Games, before fully transitioning to road.
Outside of China, there are two reasons why the name Li Fuyu might be familiar – if at all – to pro cycling observers.
Firstly, there’s Li Fuyu as pioneer. When Discovery Channel plucked him from the Trek-sponsored Marco Polo Continental team in October 2006, his signature was the first by a Chinese rider to dry on a ProTeam contract.
One year later, the team disbanded.
Discovery had decided not to continue as a sponsor in early 2007 and the team, led by Johan Bruyneel, couldn’t secure funding to continue. This ensured that Li returned to the Continental ranks with Discovery Channel – Marco Polo for two more years. He raced his legs off, won the 2009 China National Games ITT gold medal and returned to the ProTour with Bruyneel’s Radioshack team in 2010.
Secondly, there’s Li Fuyu as drug cheat – or victim, depending on the eye of the beholder. His was one of the earliest cases of a ProTeam rider testing positive for traces of Clenbuterol following doping controls at the 2010 Dwars Door Vlaanderen in Belgium.
Li was provisionally suspended by Radioshack in late April and, after a positive B sample was confirmed in early August, handed a two-year suspension. Or, at least that’s what has been reported.
“I stopped international racing and the Chinese Cycling Association (CCA) told me that I just had to wait,” recounts Li, almost exactly six years after his fateful encounter with a UCI-approved beaker. “I never had a ban in writing from CCA.
“I had a long time training. 2010 was a very difficult time. I didn’t want to stop riding for such a big team.”
But stop he did, never to return to ProTeam level. To this day, he maintains dodgy meat was the culprit.
“I don’t know what happened,” says Li. “I think the food in China was the problem, but I cannot attack my country; I’m Chinese. I love China and things are getting better fast.”
Li wasn’t to know that Tinkoff-Saxo rider Michael Rogers would invoke the same defence four years later and be exonerated by the UCI:
“Upon careful analysis of Mr Rogers’ explanations and the accompanying technical reports the UCI found that that there was a significant probability that the presence of clenbuterol may have resulted from the consumption of contaminated meat from China.”
When this is mentioned to Li, he points out the disadvantages of being first. “I was the first case, so nobody knows how it can happen,” he says, before adding somberly “but this is my life.”
He will not be drawn into saying anything bad about his time at Radioshack, and is particularly careful not to show any disrespect towards once-powerful individuals.
Like many others, Li openly praised Lance Armstrong before the Texan admitted his colossal cheating to the world. When asked whether or not he now thinks Lance is a bad person, Li replies, “I read the news. I don’t know too much about him, but he did a lot of good things in the world. I like Lance; I think a lot of Chinese people like Lance, because he won a lot of races after he got sick. Everybody can make mistakes. I don’t want to say too much about him.”
On Radioshack: “I do want to say thank you to everybody in the Radioshack team; good staff, good riders and I learnt a lot from them.”
There comes a time in an interview where you look at your list of remaining questions, consider the current trajectory of the conversation, and realise it’s time to move on.
CHINESE CYCLING TEAM DREAMS
“My dream was to go to the Tour de France, but I knew my dream was gone.”
Rather than dwell on this realisation, Li started thinking about how he could contribute to the next generation of Chinese road cyclists.
Back in his hometown of Jinan, Shandong Province, and not able to race Li turned his attention back to coaching. Three of his charges – Liu Yilin, Xing Fu and Wang Meiyin – were still riding for the Marco Polo Cycling Team which, in 2010, was already beginning to trim its exposure to Asia and pivot towards Africa.
“I had the idea that maybe young Chinese riders in a Chinese team could go to the Tour de France,” says Li of his thinking at the time. “This was my next dream. It might take four to eight years, but this was my plan.”
Li’s Hengxiang Cycling Team was registered as a UCI Continental squad ahead of the 2011 season. Liu, Xing and Wang all left Marco Polo to form part of the eight-man Chinese roster. Li kept a low profile, leaving Wang Qikai to manage the team while he continued as head coach at the Shandong Province Sports School.
Still, there was no doubt about who was ultimately pulling the strings; Hengxiang’s team representative was none other that Li’s wife Wang Yue, who he met in 2002 and married in 2008.
In its first season, Hengxiang managed only one Asia Tour invitation to Tour of Taihu Lake. Wang Meiyin was frequently ‘on loan’ to the Chinese National team, but it meant he was able to compete in the Tour of Hainan, Tour of China and the inaugural Tour of Beijing WorldTour race, where he finished 9’49” down on GC winner Tony Martin.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
A familiar face joined the team in 2012. Li’s ‘suspension’ was in the rear view mirror and he was finally able to race again.
Invitations to Asia Tour races continued to be in thin supply, but creative ways around this were found; at the Tour of China for example, four of Hengxiang’s riders – including Li, Wang and Liu – were entered as the China Hope Star club team.
Li capped off his year with a 4th GC place at the 2.2 Tour of Fuzhou, while Wang achieved the same result in the nine-stage hors categorie Tour of Hainan (again, racing for the National team).
When the team finally received its first race invitation outside of China in 2013, it couldn’t have asked for a better one. After ten days of racing, Li’s outfit had more than justified its place at Le Tour de Langkawi, finishing 12th overall in the team’s classification, mere seconds behind ORICA-GreenEDGE.
In particular, Wang’s performance was spectacular, winning the Cameron Highlands stage, the overall KOM jersey and placing 5th on GC.
Important people were starting to take notice.
“ORICA-GreenEDGE started chasing Wang Meiyin after Langkawi,” revealed Li, while we were discussing the race, “but two former team mates at Discovery Channel said that if any Hengxiang riders go to OGE, then maybe they would only be working for Australia. I wanted a Chinese team, for Chinese riders.
“If there is no good plan, I don’t want my riders to go into a big team. I know, because I was in a ProTeam before.”
“I remember making contact,” said ORICA-GreenEDGE General Manager Shayne Bannan when asked whether Li’s account was accurate. “From memory, it was a case of GreenEDGE not being ready at that particular time.”
Li remained more interested in signing talented Chinese riders than letting them go. Case in point was 18-year old Ma Guangtong, who won the Elite Men’s Road Race at the 2013 National Games in September and was signed to Li’s team the following week.
By all accounts, 2013 was a milestone year for Hengxiang but, more personally, for Li. The 35-year old fittingly drew the curtain on his pro cycling career in October’s Tour of Hainan. “It is still my favourite race in China,” Li tells me.
ENTER A NEW SPONSOR
In February this year, Hong Kong listed sports marketing company Wisdom Sports Group announced it was sponsoring Li’s team. The move was prompted by the Chinese Government’s investment drive into the sports industry which was announced as part of the China Communist Party’s 13th five year plan.
“Wisdom wants to make a Pro Continental team, but I don’t want to go too fast,” says Li, when asked about what Wisdom expects from the partnership. “I think our young riders are not strong enough yet. This year is a start and I hope next year will be better.”
I point out that we’ve heard big ideas before from a Chinese team, and it didn’t go to plan.
“Everybody knows there are a lot of teams in China,” says Li, “but no good riders!
“I’m joking,” he laughs, as if to ensure his intended sarcasm functions cross-culturally. “I want to make Chinese riders stronger. If we want to make a Pro Continental team, we need good coaches – a foreigner is OK; maybe European or American – and another eight or 10 strong riders from Europe.“
Foreigners are not the norm in Chinese Continental teams, though 2016 has seen an unprecedented number of riders from Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Iran infiltrate several of the 12 (an all-time high) UCI teams registered in China.
Still, Li says he remains open to hiring any good rider from Europe, America, Asia or Oceania and will pay a salary. “I know we only need to talk to the team sponsor (to make this happen). It’s a very difficult time for European riders; there are no jobs. I hope good foreign riders join our team so we can study each other.”
BIGGER AND BETTER?
If Wisdom-Hengxiang is to reach new heights and take Chinese cyclists with it, Li seems to understand that foreign coaching, foreign rider recruitment and racing abroad are essentially non-negotiable.
Li admits his team still doesn’t get as many Asia Tour invites as he would like, but also projects there will be more UCI races in China. Most races will have an amateur component, he says [CiQ: Tour of Qinghai Lake will have an amateur race this year], and Wisdom wants to play a large role in creating more mass-participation events.
“The first plan is to do more Asia Tour races. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to get invitations,” he laments. “We are always just racing in China. Maybe this year we have the chance to go to the Tour de Okinawa or Tour de Hokkaido, but I don’t know. I want to go to the Tour of Japan, but maybe next year. I like the racing in Japan; everything is well organised and the racing is very fast.”
Surprisingly, the Tour of Qinghai Lake doesn’t elicit the praise I expected. “It is only good for foreign teams, not for Chinese teams,” he says.
If international Asia Tour invitations fail to transpire, Wisdom-Hengxiang riders can expect to be roped into even more promotional activities at any one of Wisdom’s 75 domestic cycling events.
“We don’t have any European races this year, because our sponsor wants to do more with our team in China, explains Li. “We’ll try to get to Europe next year, but maybe only for two months.
“I raced many times in Europe and I know very well my riders need to go there to learn about racing. My favourite country is Belgium. Belgian riders are really crazy in the races; very fast and always attacking.”
Apart from Wang Meiyin, who will be 28 this year, Li tells me to watch out for 21-year old Zhao Jingbiao. “He’s good for GC, but he’s very young and needs to learn a lot.”
Li also wants to get a team of three U23 riders to the World Road Cycling Championships in Doha this year, but admits “it will be very difficult” if the team fails to get more Asia Tour invitations and UCI points.
On the upside, another China National Games is looming. Next year, the Games will be held in Tianjin – a relatively easy hop, skip and a jump from Jinan.
“My riders have won the China Games a lot of times,” Li says proudly. “I hope next year we can win again but there are a lot of strong riders in China now. Chinese cycling has changed very fast.”
Will he race too? “I still have a chance to go, but I cannot win. I’ll try!”