It was predictable that Marcel Kittel, the amiable sprinter who has won three stages in this year’s Tour de France, attracted a large crowd of reporters on the race’s rest day on Monday.
However, while Ji Cheng, the man on the Giant Shimano team who chases down breakaways so that Kittel can do his work, was less of an attraction, he does hold two distinctions. He is the Lanterne Rouge, the rider in last place overall, 4 hours, 13 minutes behind the leader, Vincenzo Nibali. And he is the first Chinese rider ever in the race.
While China is a nation where bicycles, despite a growing influx of cars and scooters, remain an important form of transportation, racing on them is far less common.
Ji started out as a runner, but a dislike of the cold in his northern hometown, Harbin, set him off on a path that led him to the Tour.
Rather than cross-country ski, the preferred method of offseason training for runners in Harbin, Ji sought the warmth of an indoor velodrome.
“The track is not fun,” Ji said on Monday. “The track is always lap after lap, and the trainer is looking at his stopwatch and saying, ‘OK, you were one second slower.’”
In road racing, by comparison, “you can train outside and you can see the people, you can see the view,” said Ji, 27. “It’s amazing for me.”
Ji probably would not be racing in Europe if the Chinese subsidiary of Shimano, a bicycle parts marker, had not set up a small program in 2006 to get Chinese riders there.
Ji’s knowledge of European road racing at that point was not extensive and based entirely on watching television.
“When you watch on the TV, you say: ‘Ah that’s nice, ah that’s cool, ah you saw that climb, ah you saw that attack, cool.’ But you really enjoy the race,” he said. “When you know what’s going on, it’s totally different.”
In China, Ji raced on relatively small circuits made up of closed four-lane highways. Despite the comparative lack of danger, coaches instructed Ji to brake before the corners and take them slowly, a route to failure in European racing. At the time, there were only two road races a year in China. In Europe, Ji now rides in about 45 a year.
Although Ji cannot recall the name of the first race he rode in Europe, a one-day event in France in 2007, he certainly remembers the experience.
“It was many narrow roads, everybody was just nervous and people were fighting for position,” Ji said. “For me it was just unbelievable. Why are people fighting like that?”
Punched several times during the race by rivals trying to move ahead, Ji did not finish.
Ji and the other two Chinese riders were sent to the Netherlands and entered in that country’s numerous amateur criteriums. Held on short, tight circuits, each is a small war. Ji soon learned how to follow the pack through corners at speed without braking and, just as important, how to move up through the group. The inexperienced Chinese riders were always lined up at the back.
“Of course we had a lot of crashes, we had a lot of bad experiences,” Ji said. “But we learned how to fight.”
He gradually moved up to higher levels of racing. In 2012, he raced in the Vuelta a Espana and last year brought him to the Giro d’Italia. Both were Chinese cycling firsts.
He remains the only one of a handful of Chinese riders Shimano sent to Europe who is still racing. It has come at a cost. When the European season winds down and he returns home, Ji said he is expected to then start racing for the Chinese national team.