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First Chinese at the Tour de France is a «breakaway killer»


After completing the 2012 Vuelta a España, Ji Cheng is the first Chinese cyclist to line up at the Tour de France. He's set to prepare the sprints for Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb at Giant-Shimano. He'll celebrate his 27th birthday during the first rest day on July 15 in Besançon.

Ji hails from Harbin, a “small” city of 3.3 million people in the province of Hei Long Jiang in the far north east of China near the Russian border. “Our normal climate in the winter is -36°C”, he described. “The record is -55°C but I've not experienced it personally.” A son of a housewife and an interior designer, he comes from a family that contravened the one-child policy that once was enforced in the People's Republic of China. He has a sister and remembers that his parents got fined 3000 yuans (around 370 euros) for the birth of a second child.
“At school, I was a runner and I always won, so I got a chance to enter a sport's school”, the 26 year-old explained. “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 MTB. It's been the hardest race in my life. I didn't even have cycling shoes.” He was then assigned to track cycling for the 2005 China Games in Nanjing.
“In 2006, I heard that Shimano wanted Chinese riders for their team in Europe”, he recalls. “They interviewed me and asked if I could cook by myself and speak English. I answered that cooking is my passion and I can learn English, so I joined Skil-Shimano in 2007 and I made Hengelo my home in the Netherlands. You can ask my team-mates: I'm the best chef in the team! My speciality is to cook coca-cola chicken wings.”
“When we started working with this young talent”, explained Giant-Shimano's directeur sportif Rudi Kemna, “we had a long term plan to make him reach the highest level of cycling and that's what he has achieved in playing an important role in the preparation of the sprints”.
Ji's usual contribution to the team work consists in pulling the bunch for lengthy hours. A worthy domestique, he's identified and sometimes nicknamed as “the breakaway killer” since he brought the bunch across to escapees on many occasions during the 2012 Vuelta a España at the service of John Degenkolb who won five stages. He also took part in 2013 Giro d'Italia but was forced to pull out with fever after five stages.
“At Giant-Shimano, we know how to control the flat stages”, he said. “Even the riders from other teams like Lotto-Belisol come up to me sometimes and ask: ‘hey Cheng, you're gonna pull?' It seems like everyone likes to follow me. I always ride at 75% of my possibilities, so on hard days, I can push more. I've learnt cycling in Europe. When I first arrived, I was shocked to see people sprinting to corners instead of braking. Chinese riders have a lot to learn here, technically and tactically.”
Regularly followed by TV crews who produced documentaries on his participations to the Vuelta, the Giro and Paris-Roubaix, Ji feels like he's on a mission. “I might not be the most talented cyclist from the country but I want to show everyone that a Chinese can also do the job providing that he acts as a professional”, he continued. “I'm doing these Grand Tours to give inspiration to my compatriots. What I've achieved so far has had some impact back home among the cycling fans but my participation to the Tour de France is gonna be massive for China.”

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