The 'breakaway killer' is first Chinese man to cycle Tour de France

Ji Cheng wants to be a role model for Chinese cycling, but so far he's relatively unknown at home, where cycling is not a popular sport.

Laurent Cipriani/AP
China's Cheng Ji, center, the first Chinese rider ever to compete in the Tour de France, sets the pace with his teammates as they lead the pack's chase on the breakaway group during the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France, Thursday, July 10, 2014.

Chalk up another frontier the Chinese have crossed: Ji Cheng is the first man from China to take part in cycling’s premier race, the Tour de France, and already he is making a name for himself.

During the third stage of the race on July 7, Mr. Ji played a key role, doing the lion’s share of the work in leading the pack for long and punishing stretches, pulling it level with a breakaway group and setting up his team’s top sprinter for a stage win in London.

That’s the job he does best. He earned his nickname “the breakaway killer” two years ago during the Vuelta a España and said before this year’s Tour de France began that “I will play the same role” in the race that began last weekend.

It is hard work that offers little glory. Ji is currently 192 in the standings out of 194 riders still in the race, more than half an hour off the pace, and nobody expects him to finish anywhere near the front. In fact Ji says in a video interview posted on the website of his team, the Holland-based Giant-Shimano, that his top priority is just to finish all 21 stages of the race.

His task is different. “I will control the speed of the peloton [the main group of riders in a bicycle race], then in the second half of the race catch up with any breakaways and get them back,” he explains in the interview.

He and his teammates have done that to perfection on the flat stages that opened this year’s tour; they have laid the groundwork for Giant-Shimano sprinter Marcel Kittel to win three of the first four stages, an achievement unmatched since 1909.

Not that Ji’s success has met with much applause back home. Road cycling is not a popular sport in China, where riding a bicycle suggests mainly that you are not rich enough to drive a car, and the Chinese sports pages are full of the soccer World Cup, not the Tour de France.

Indeed, Ji is almost unknown here. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, he has only 14,256 followers, while female tennis star Li Na has more than 23 million.

But Ji, who has lived and trained in Holland for the past six years, has ambitions to change that. “I’d like to be a role model for Chinese cycling,” he said before the race began. “I can tell people from my personal experience that you can fulfill your dream…of participating in the Tour de France so long as you…make unremitting efforts.” 

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