In 1891, two American students made their way across the Gobi Desert, through the imposing gates of the Great Wall, and into imperial Beijing. Thomas Allen and William Sachtleben had ridden the entire 24,000 kilometres from Liverpool on the first pair of modern bicycles to be seen in then closed-off China. It marked the beginning of the country’s love affair with the ‘foreign horse’.
It’s been over a hundred years since Allen and Sachtleben were dodging warlords in the Middle Kingdom, but China has finally found its place on the cycling map. Last month saw the first ever Tour of China bike race, in which teams rode a 1,800km course through Shaanxi, Henan, Shandong, Hebei and Tianjin.
Bike riding started to become more widespread in China at the end of the civil war in 1949. To the communist victors the ‘self-propelled vehicle’ (as it translates in Chinese) became a potent symbol of socialist self-reliance, as well as a means of empowering a new generation of women and workers. But despite cycling’s popularity, competitive racing never really took off. Too bourgeois, perhaps…
Today, China remains a nation of 450 million cyclists but hardly any professional riders or races. Cars dominate most roads and heaps of discarded, no-longer fashionable bikes are sometimes seen on city streets. It’s hoped that the Xi’an-Tianjin race will help change that.
“The Tour of China will be a professional tournament different from other races held in China,” promised Pat McQuaid, president of the International Cycling Union when the project was announced three years ago. “We hope to make it an event as important and popular as the Tour de France.”
It’s a grand ambition, but just getting the event off the ground (let alone getting the Chinese to watch) hasn’t been easy.
“Comparing the Tour of China with the Tour de France is a little bit far-fetched,” admitted Yu Liang, president of property developer China Vanke. He’s well placed to know, since his company has rescued the event. Vanke paid Rmb20 million to become the race’s lead sponsor just two weeks before it was due to start.
It won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of Week in China that it took a property angle to finally get things off the ground. Yu is known as a sports enthusiast, but Chinese media have suggested that the real motive for sponsoring the Tour is to improve Vanke’s land acquisition prospects by winning favour in the eyes of local government officials. The reason? To those officials, the race is not only a chance to boost tourism, but inevitably, a public relations tool for attracting investment.
It is Vanke’s first foray into sports marketing, but property companies are – as an industry grouping – no stranger to the field. As WiC reported in issue 75 they have been plunging into football in a major way.
Whether Vanke’s punt on cycling will prove value for money remains to be seen, but it cannot do any harm to the sport’s chances of blossoming in China. As Sohu Sports points out: while the Chinese make 70 million bikes per year, the country has not won a single Olympic gold medal in cycling. That’s an aberration in a country with such a big population of pedallers.
Meanwhile, the Global Times is upset to discover that the only Chinese professional team to enter the Tour of China – the Marco Polo Cycling team – is “struggling for financial survival” and is looking for corporate sponsorship to ensure it can enter 2011’s race.
Is there a property company out there that can help, please?
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