“The Fuyu Era”

Bicycling Magazine, July 2007

First-year Discovery pro Li Fuyu from China has something no other Pro Tour racer has: 1.3 billion potential fans.

As with everything in road racing, media day at the Discovery team’s January training camp, in Solvang, California, is an exercise in hierarchy. News crews and reporters hover by the team bus, waiting for the black-and-blue-clad cyclists to emerge from their hotel rooms. First come the lesser riders, weaving unbothered through the milling bystanders to fetch their bikes and PowerBars. Then George Hincapie, winner of a stage in the Tour de France in 2005 and a perennial Classics star, walks out. The flock of cameramen, reporters and autograph-seekers surrounds him. Levi Leipheimer, winner of the Tour of California, surfaces next. The throng gravitates to him, then moves on to Giro d’Italia winner and 2007 Tour de France favorite Ivan Basso. Finally, there comes retired superstar Lance Armstrong, who occasionally rides with the team he now co-owns. The horde closes in with idolatrous ferocity.

Usually, Li Fuyu is one of those who breezes through the crowds–no one seems to know, or care, who he is; at an earlier camp, for new team riders, in Austin, Texas, Li was training in the gym at a weight machine next to Basso, and camera crews following the riders nearly tripped over Li while scrutinizing the new team leader’s every muscle twitch. But in Solvang, on this rainy Tuesday in late January, Li has an entourage–a tiny one, but one nonetheless dedicated to following him. Two news reporters from Beijing TV’s top sports channel have made their first trip to America.

Before Wang Zheng, a producer, and Li Xue, the on-air reporter, arrived in California, they had never attended a cycling event–even in their home country. The two are, in fact, the first Chinese news crew to ever cover professional cycling, says Wang. They have made this historic journey to try to make sense of an even more unlikely event: Li Fuyu is the first Chinese cyclist to ever ride on a ProTour team, the highest level of the sport.

Li is the closest thing China has to a national road- cycling champion. The 29-year-old is rakishly handsome, with a crooked smile and thick, tousled black hair that is just a little too long in the back–fashionable, perhaps, among young Chinese, but somewhat out of place amid the quasi-military grooming that is de rigueur among Western cyclists. At 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, he is large for a cyclist, and confident and dignified, if somewhat cowed by the illustrious cycling company in which he suddenly finds himself.

He’s had a good run of it lately. In October 2005, he won the road race in the China Games, the country’s quadrennial showdown that rivals the Olympics for national prestige. In November of that year, Li, who was also until recently a member of the Chinese national mountain bike team, achieved international renown when he joined President Bush on a ride through the Laoshan Mountain Bike Course outside Beijing. (“Bush rode pretty fast,” Li says, sometimes speaking through a translator and sometimes in his own rapidly improving English. He notes that the president sprinted at the end, then grabbed his hand for a victory clutch as the finish line neared. “He knew that in a real sprint I would beat him.”)

In early 2006, Li became the first Chinese rider to win an international race, the Tour of Thailand. Last summer, he won a small race, in Germany. In October, he signed with Discovery. The hope was that Li would become a cross-cultural icon who, by popularizing a Western sport and its U.S. products throughout China, might tip the trade imbalance back toward the United States–at least in terms of bike-racing gear.

Sports are a nationalistic endeavor in China; tremendous meaning is attached to the idea of winning for the collective good. Li is new to the European peloton at this level, and he has no expectations that he will be spending much time on the podium in big races his first year. But, like pioneering NBA player Yao Ming, he is under tremendous pressure to bring glory to his country–pressure that is all the more intense because of the looming 2008 Beijing Olympics. China, which pours most of its meager cycling support into women’s track, has never qualified to compete in the men’s road race. If Li finishes near the top of a ProTour race, the team is almost assuredly in.

And, as Wang, the Beijing TV producer, explained to me: “Chinese people don’t care about cycling. But they do pay attention to Olympic gold.”

Chinese people may not care about bike racing, but they do have a long-standing relationship with bikes. The country makes, buys and sells more of them than the rest of the world combined–around 25 million per year. In China, though, cyclists in spandex are even more rare than bike commuters are in the United States. When the Chinese get on bikes, they ride one-speed Phoenixes, Forevers and Flying Pigeons, in their work clothes, and the more fenders, chain guards, rod brakes, kickstands, bike bells and passengers, the better.

As with almost everything in boom-time China, however, this utilitarian relationship with the bicycle is changing. The world’s most populous country is growing from a developing nation into an industrialized, highway-striped, car-addicted economic power-house. Within the next decade, China is expected to become the world’s largest car market. Some believe that as transportation becomes motorized, bikes will transition into recreation.

Trek China’s Todd McKean is one of those people. A former collegiate road racer, McKean has lived and worked in China off and on since 1981, previously for Nike. In 2004, Trek hired him as general manager of its brand-new China operation, and in 2005, he opened the first two Trek stores in Beijing. He has since opened a dozen Trek-specific stores across the country, and close to 100 other stores are now selling Trek products.

Trek’s Chinese marketing strategy is simple: Sell sweet bikes. While others peddle decent rides–Taiwan-based Giant and Merida both sell Chinese-made models a few notches above the traditional steel tanks–Trek aims for a niche of the same high-end bikes it sells in the United States. Basic one-speeds cost about $30 in China, and Giant’s average-priced multigeared Chinese model sells for around $80; Trek’s least-expensive bike starts at about $120, with prices ascending to $6,500 for a carbon-fiber Madone or a top-end mountain bike.

McKean believes that Chinese culture is ready to embrace the bike as a recreational toy–and a status symbol. He cites trends in rising disposable income and leisure time, and a growing brand consciousness. “All the houses in my neighborhood have garages,” he says, “but everyone parks on the street because they want to show off their Mercedes. People leave the labels on their Armani suits. Because we are an international brand, and because of our relationship with Discovery and Lance, we have that cachet.”

So far, it’s mostly theory. Most Chinese aren’t yet conscious of the burning need for a high-end ride. There are no amateur cycling races in China to speak of, no cycling heroes, no coffee-and-bike-shop roadie culture. To nudge the scene along, Trek has sponsored local, provincial and national athletes such as Li, and McKean has started a weekday race series, which grew from 10 riders in 2005 to around 60 last summer. “We’re trying to develop the sport to go with the business,” he says.

The sport has a long way to go. Unlike China’s long history with gunpowder (circa A.D. 700) and moveable type (A.D. 1045), the nation’s professional cycling tradition dates back only to somewhere around A.D. 1995, when the short-lived Tour of China wended its way through the eastern part of the country, bringing with it, for the first time, a number of European and American pros. Michael Carter, who rode for Motorola in the 1990s, participated in that race and remembers that the Shanghai and Beijing crowds gave the riders a reception on the crowded city streets that fell somewhere between dismay and catatonia. “They all just stood there,” he says. “Tens of thousands of people not making a sound, not a peep.”

The scene has expanded since then–somewhat. In 2000, the Chinese Cycling Association sanctioned the Tour de Qinghai Lake, a nine-stage race through the stunning mountain backdrop of the Tibetan Plateau. The event is widely considered one of the toughest UCI-rated races in Asia and is attracting more interest from international teams. Many of the competitors still come from outside the country, but a growing cadre of Chinese riders is able to stay competitive. Most of these hopefuls come from state-funded sports institutes where promising Chinese athletes are recruited in their teens, forgoing further schooling to train full-time in their designated sport.

Li was a product of this system. Like most Chinese, he learned to ride early. Before he was old enough to merit his own bike, he would propel his father’s grown-up-sized one-speed by pedaling with one leg through the triangle, his body leaning against the top tube. Li, who lived in a small town in Shandong Province, on China’s east coast, was recruited into his local sports institute as a runner. In 1994, he asked if he could take up cycling instead. He found he had an aptitude for it, and began splitting his time between the road, mountain bike and track teams.

Although Chinese riders who show promise are generally pushed into track cycling, Li preferred road racing. In 2005, he joined the Marco Polo Cycling Team, China’s first professional squad. The team, the brainchild of retired Dutch pro racers Gudo Kramer and Nathan Dahlberg, included Western riders such as Michael Carter as well as Chinese and Mongolian riders, and was founded with the intent of giving Chinese riders the training and exposure needed to compete in international races.

As with all Chinese sports, which are regulated with a centralized zeal that has changed little since the days of Chairman Mao, national and provincial sports authorities generally measure success by victories inside China and tend to be leery of allowing promising athletes out of the country to compete in foreign lands. Marco Polo got the okay to take riders to foreign races–perhaps, the organizers surmise, because the Olympics are looming, and because, despite the team’s motto, “fight with the strong conviction to win” (which must certainly be catchier in native idiom), Chinese racers need far more than strong conviction to compete in the highly technical sport of road cycling. “They’re very, very green,” says Carter, now a team coach.

Under the current Chinese system of training, innovation is rarely rewarded. It is better to fail doing things the way they have always been done than to risk failing while trying something new. For example, until the Beijing provincial team brought on a new, Armenian coach in 2005, riders spent much of their early season training without bikes, running up and down hills with weights on their shoulders. “They were very good at running up hills, but did not get to be better cyclists in that period,” says Marco Polo team manager Kramer.

Chinese cyclists also tend to follow grueling, unvaried routines for years on end. “Much of it is just riding the same hard ride day in, day out,” Kramer says. This gets them exceedingly fit, adds McKean, but “they don’t have the right kind of fitness. They will ride five to six hours at a steady pace every day, rather than doing hill climbs one day, time trials or intervals the next.”

And because they lacked exposure to meaningful international competition, their grasp of rules and tactics was tenuous. “Chinese races are often very slow, the ability level is not very good, and it’s very dangerous because everyone is clumped together,” says Li. Just as it took a few years for Yao Ming to appreciate that dunking is not a shameful show of disrespect to one’s opponent in the NBA, Chinese riders have had to learn some cultural lessons. In the 2005 Tour de Qinghai Lake, for example, Li had a difficult time accepting that he should “lose face” and sacrifice his goal of finishing the highest among Chinese riders in the interest of a better Marco Polo team result. “A Western rider would have realized that being the top finisher from his nation, somewhere deep in the ranking, was not very important,” says Kramer. “Being the best Chinese rider was important to Fuyu, and also to the Chinese spectators and the Cycling Association. There is a lot of pride involved.”

But Li is an avid student of both cycling and the ways of the West. He quickly adapted to Marco Polo’s team structure, and learned the benefits of Euro-style teamwork firsthand when he won a stage of the Tour of Thailand and found himself in the leader’s jersey. “The team fought tooth and nail to keep him in the lead,” says McKean. When Li went to Europe later that summer, it took him only a few weeks to get used to the quicker speed of the peloton. “The first couple of races were tough, but then I caught on,” he says.

So when Discovery, prodded by McKean and Trek, decided it was time to sign a Chinese rider, Li’s name kept coming up.

There’s no doubt that the signing of Li is a clever marketing move for Discovery. After all, the team’s major sponsors–Trek, Nike, AMD and, until the end of this year, the Discovery Channel–all do business in China. In addition, the team prides itself on its international roster, with 29 riders from 15 countries, more than any other ProTour team. In fact, Li is not Discovery’s first Asian rider. Japan’s Fumiyuki Beppu joined the team in 2005 and, according to plan, has become extremely popular in his homeland. PJ Rabice, Discovery’s press officer, says that when the team posted a video on its website about Beppu, the feature received 60,000 hits on the first day and crashed the site. “He can’t really go to the mall anymore because people recognize him,” says Rabice.

In China, the standard by which all homegrown athletes are measured is Yao Ming. From the moment the Houston Rockets selected him as the NBA’s top draft pick in 2002, Yao became a global phenomenon, garnering sponsorships that rival those of only a handful of top athletes worldwide. Li can’t reasonably expect that sort of reception. Yao’s sport is deeply revered in China–Mao’s Communist rebels organized basketball tournaments during its campaign against the Nationalists in the 1940s, and today hoops is ubiquitous. Cycling, meanwhile, doesn’t come close to matching basketball, soccer, Ping-Pong, badminton, swimming, diving, gymnastics, or even women’s volleyball in the nation’s esteem.

But, in an interesting way, obscurity provides opportunity for Li and his sponsors. “People played basketball at school, they knew Michael Jordan, they loved the NBA before Yao,” says McKean. “Fuyu may have a bigger impact on the sport of cycling in China than Yao did for his sport.”

On the day the first-ever Chinese news crew came to America to watch the first-ever Chinese ProTour cyclist train with his new team, Li suffered a disappointment. During the off-season, he had damaged his Achilles tendon while running to stay in shape during the forbidding Shandong winter, and the injury was flaring up at the training camp. The team set off for a grueling day in the hills but, as the road began to shoot upward and the pack took off, Li turned around, following the orders he’d been given by Discovery’s doctors.

Given the cultural and commercial pressure, expectations and potential all wrapped up in Li’s every pedal stroke, it’s impressive that Discovery seems determined to carefully develop its new pro. Li needs to lose some weight to be competitive in the long, tough one-day and multistage races. (In a sign of his inexperience in the arena of pro racing, where calorie restriction commonly approaches deprivation, Li says he is trying to cut pounds by “eating fewer sweets and drinking less beer.”)

While the Chinese media dream of seeing Li ride the Tour de France this year, no one on the team expects such miracles of him. Dirk Demol, one of the assistant team directors of Discovery, says that in Li’s first season, they plan to just “give him a taste” of ProTour races. “He’s going to suffer,” Demol says.

As the other riders disappeared behind a wall of dust, Li stopped for a photo session, posing uncomfortably for the cameras with his shiny new Trek. Such an indignity might be difficult to bear for any rider, but seemed especially barbed for someone in Li’s position.

“He’s very aware he’s the first Chinese rider,” says McKean. “He doesn’t want to humiliate his whole country.”

Yet, only a couple of years ago, no one could have imagined that Li would be riding with Lance Armstrong’s team and, whatever the circumstances, posing for publicity shots in the California hills. For now, such small victories must be enough. No one knows if Li will end up being his country’s Lance. We know only this: “He has an engine,” says one of his handlers at Discovery, Laurenzo Lapage. There were days before his injury flared, when Li was allowed to ride the climbs, pedaling up slopes shrouded in mist that wouldn’t look out of place in a classical Chinese painting. He was pleased, he said, to discover that other riders were dropped well before he fell off the back.

Hannah Nordhaus discovered the Chinese road-racing scene when she rode across western China in 1995. She now lives in Boulder, Colorado.