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OPENING THE BAMBOO CURTAIN

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DAILY REFLECTIONS FROM THE 1996 TOUR OF CHINA. There are huge challenges for organizers of major bike races in the People’s Republic of China, where already difficult logistical and sponsorship problems for what is still an obscure sport are compounded by widespread pollution and traffic-clogged streets. Those challenges contributed to the demise of the Tour of Beijing, the five-day UCI WorldTour race held in and around the Chinese capital that won’t be held again after this year’s fourth edition. Similar problems ended the first attempt at creating a major professional bike race behind the Bamboo Curtain in the mid-1990s. Promoted by U.S.-based Medalist Sports and sponsored, incongruously, by Kent cigarettes, that pioneering stage race was even more ambitious than the now moribund Tour of Beijing. The second (and final) edition of the Tour of China in November 1996 began in Hong Kong with a prologue time trial and a circuit race, continued with three road stages through the rural countryside of Guangdong province, including a summit finish, and, after a transfer by plane to Shanghai, ended with an individual time trial, a road stage and a circuit race in China’s most populous city. The Kent Tour of China took place before its time, but it did insert a modern western sport into an ancient eastern land and created a kaleidoscope of unforgettable moments—which I wrote about in my notebook every day.

Words: John Wilcockson
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

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DAY 1: Landing at Hong Kong’s venerable Kai Tak Airport tonight was spectacular. The pilot threaded the jumbo jet between steep mountainsides and high-rise apartment blocks to a runway jutting 2 miles out into Kowloon Bay. It was a thrilling ending to a 14-hour flight through eight time zones, three meals and two feature-length movies. Earlier in the day, while waiting for the connecting flight in San Francisco, I bumped into Jim Birrell, who routed recent editions of the Tour DuPont and the inaugural Tour of China. “I spent seven weeks in China before the ’95 race,” said Birrell, who moved to Turner Sports to help his former boss at Medalist, Mike Plant, organize the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York City. This week, he’s working for the crew producing a nightly show on the race for Chinese television.

Hong Kong customs control was less traumatic than I’d expected. On being confronted with three people, four huge boxes of drug-control equipment, a massive trunk of TV gear and several suitcases, the weary-looking official asked: “What’s in the box?” “Stuff for a bike race.” “And this?” “Same stuff.” “You all together?” “Yeah.” “Okay,” he said, motioning us through. Following a short wait at the longest (and fastest-moving!) taxi line in the world we pulled away into an 82-degree Asian night.

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The Englishness of Hong Kong is a surprise. Traffic drives on the left, buses are double-deckers, and road signs are written in English first, then Chinese. But things are changing. After 150 years of British rule, the colony is due to be handed back to China at midnight on June 30, 1997, with a formal ceremony on a ship in Hong Kong Harbor followed by a big party. It’s as if the Native Americans are getting ready to re-inherit Manhattan!

DAY 2: On the bus to the prologue time trial, the Kent China team coach and advisor Phil Anderson told me about his involvement with the Chinese amateur riders. Prior to their single preparation event, the China national championships, they attended a three-week training camp near the former Tour de France pro’s home in Australia. While there, Anderson said, one of the riders fell and bent his frame. “I found them trying to straighten the bike—an old Colnago with chipped paint—by stretching it with ropes strung between two trees! I told them they were wasting their time. And the next day, when the others went for a three-hour training ride, the coaches sent the guy without a bike for a two-and-a-half-hour run! I couldn’t believe it.”

As it happens, running proved to be an option for some over-geared riders on a fierce 20-percent uphill turn near the end of the 2.1-kilometer prologue course. “A stupid Belgian tried to go up it in the big ring and fell off!” U.S. Postal Service team rider Nate Reiss shouted out as he raced by. The course was discovered by Medalist’s John Gatch, who stopped during a pre-race motorcycle reconnoiter to tell me, “They use it for the 555 car rally, but in the opposite direction.” Like Tour of China title sponsor, Kent, 555 is a local brand of British American Tobacco that sponsors the annual Hong Kong to Beijing motor rally.

The prologue course was on Stonecutters Island, a British military base that was once a mile offshore. But it’s no longer an island. A huge land reclamation project in recent years has replaced water with the world’s second largest container port. And yesterday supporters of the Save Our Harbour campaign were protesting the Hong Kong government’s plans to fill in another chunk of the bay next to Kai Tak when a new, out-of-town airport is opened in 1998.

The bus ride back to our hotel, the 25-story Regal Riverside in the New Territories town of Sha Tin, went through an older section of Kowloon, where a traffic jam stopped us outside a street market. Live chickens packed into small wooden crates were being delivered, the crates sliding down a steeply inclined plank to the street. No oven-ready birds here….

DAY 3: After today’s circuit race in the industrial town of Yuen Long, the buses arrived back in Sha Tin just as thousands of Chinese were arriving for an afternoon horse race meet at the Hong Kong Jockey Club: The VIPs arrived in chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benzes, while the main crowds marched from bus stops or the nearest metro station. Across town, Christmas shopping was on the day’s agenda for Kathy and Greg LeMond—who’s here as a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, which just launched a new cycling-theme postage stamp at a Hong Kong press conference. The LeMonds were staying at the historic Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, where I joined them for tea. “Friends in Minneapolis told us we just had to stay at The Peninsula,” said Kathy, as she sipped a cup of Darjeeling tea in the hotel’s crowded, cathedral-like lobby. Clearly, high tea at The Pen—with buttered crumpets, scones, strawberry jam, clotted cream and tea biscuits—was the thing to do in Hong Kong on a Saturday afternoon.

“JUST AS UNREAL WAS THE STAGE START IN THE MISSIONS HILLS GOLF CENTER, WHERE MEMBERSHIP FEES ARE $50,000 AND INTERNATIONAL GOLF STARS SUCH AS NICK FALDO ARE THE COURSE DESIGNERS.”

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DAY 4: When a stage doesn’t start until 3 p.m., it seems strange to get a wake-up call at 6 in the morning! But this is the Tour of China, and before starting today’s race at Mission Hills, there was a three-hour bus trip that included crossing the border from Hong Kong into China itself. It was quite a relief to see our passports returned about an hour after a green-uniformed immigration official collected them in a white plastic shopping bag!

Our first sight of the People’s Republic was not what we expected: wide, empty streets in Shenzen, an industrial city of modern high-rises. Just as unreal was the stage start in the Missions Hills Golf Center, where membership fees are $50,000 and international golf stars such as Nick Faldo are the course designers. With center residents and staff the only spectators, and surrounded by white, immaculately clean buildings in manicured gardens, I half expected to see actor Patrick McGoohan stepping out from behind a palm tree or a big balloon come bouncing down the road—as they did in the “The Prisoner,” the 1960s cult sci-fi TV series. Instead, all the paraphernalia and entourage of a modern bike race were gathered in the gated community, whose guards saluted us when the race caravan departed.

Beyond the walls, the traditional China finally surfaced: women cutting rice by hand, their babies sitting in the corner of the field…a black water buffalo laboriously pulling a wooden plow, the workers struggling to keep it straight… men shaping clay tiles with their feet, before placing them in a hand-built brick kiln…and construction workers carrying rocks up a wooden ladder, the loads sitting in buckets balanced at either end of a wooden shoulder yoke.

Forewarned of the race, thousands of villagers were on the roadsides, some applauding and waving, other s silent, depending on the presence of the peak-capped police. In one village, riders reported rocks being thrown on the road in front of them. “I think they wanted to see us crash,” said the Nutra-Fig team’s John Peters.

The stage ended in another field sprint back at the golf center, where we trooped back to the clubhouse. The media room was set up in a high-ceilinged conference room with solid, carved-wood doors. The air conditioning was freezing, but it did sift out the cigarette smoke swirling from the couple-dozen reporters who suddenly joined this Western journalist tapping on a laptop. The locals wrote by hand, their ornately neat Chinese characters rapidly decorating paper sheets for later faxing. Their stories will be published tomorrow in the Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong newspapers.

DAY 5: Guangdong is one of the richest provinces in China, but as part of a country that has more than a billion mouths to feed, “rich” is a relative term. Average income in the big cities of Shenzen and Guangzhou is about $800 a year—but that’s 10 times the average in the country as a whole. Which explains the presence of so many women in the rice paddies: their farmer husbands have second jobs in the city.

Today’s stage was the longest and toughest, and went right across the province to a mountaintop finish in Guangzhou (once known as Canton). Punctures were frequent on the potholed back roads; even the Mavic neutral support vehicle—a well-used Peugeot wagon—was in trouble. “We suddenly stopped,” said Mavic’s Greg Miller. “The left wheel came off completely and was rolling past us! They replaced it with a much bigger wheel—and it worked!”

Along the road, we saw older women wearing black scarves over their pointed straw hats, to protect them from the hot sun. Some of those ladies were knitting clothes for their grandchildren while, alongside, younger men played billiards on full-size pool tables.

Schools were informed of the race’s presence, and hundreds of students—the girls dressed in green skirts, white blouses and red bandanas, the boys in pale-green pants and white shirts—awaited behind hand-held ropes. Some schools lined up their marching bands, neatly uniformed, ready to greet the racers. And overhead, long red banners proclaimed: “Wellcome (sic) the Cyclists and Friends All Over the World.” And nearing Guangzhou we saw massive rock quarries scarring the hillsides—evidence of the building boom that’s overtaking the province.

After the uphill finish on the thickly wooded slopes of Baiyun (“White Cloud”) Mountain was taken, along with the yellow jersey, by Sweden’s Michael Andersson, the race convoy reassembled to make a hair-raising trip across this city of more than eight million. With police trucks acting as sheepdogs, and our bus drivers maneuvering their vehicles like bumper cars, we raced Keystone Copsstyle through streets jammed with honking cars, buses, scooters, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians, ignoring red lights, cutting through intersections the wrong way, and making record time from White Cloud Mountain to the stately White Swan Hotel—which sits on the left bank of the wide, slow-flowing brown waters of the Pearl River.

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DAY 6: The dawn was gray, a thick smog hanging over the dun-colored buildings of Guangzhou. The cross-river ferry’s first customers were waiting in line. Barges, their nightlights shining through the mist, moved noiselessly downstream. In the hotel, some early-departing guests were having a group photo taken in front of an artificial waterfall in the cavernous lobby. Race personnel shuffled into the ballroom for a buffet breakfast. Buses waited outside for our departure to the stage start in Dali—an hour out of the city. The convoy began rolling at 8:10 a.m. as a wan sun made a vain attempt to break through the soupy haze. By 8:15 all the buses and team cars had left….

Imagine the embarrassment of the late-arriving Malcolm Elliott on walking out to an empty parking lot. Luckily, two Chinese journalists also missed the bus. They grabbed a taxi and headed for little-known Dali—a destination that the English cyclist would surely not have found on his own. There was no town sign for this tiny village, which is bypassed by the main road heading west toward Zhaoqing—where the advance crew was putting finishing touches to its stage-arrival setup.

Dali is a place where the artist of the same name would have had countless subjects for his bizarre brush. A small brickworks here had eaten up most of the available clay, leaving bushes and power poles sitting 20 feet in the air, atop thin towers of reddish rock. Water buffalo wallowed in a pond of mud. White ducks sat crowded in a watery pen, awaiting their trip to market. A T-shirted teenager pulled out a cell phone. And curious villagers listened as American race announcer Jeff Roake barked race information (translated by his Chinese assistant) through a small red megaphone: no power hook-up here. On the course’s last corner out of town, a road crew shoveled rocks into a wheelbarrow, to somewhat smooth the riders’ exit. By 10 a.m., the race was on.

Rolling out, we passed through a landscape of increasing beauty that had been ravaged by the crude industrial accouterments that serve and despoil any Chinese city the size of Guangzhou. Just after crossing a long, bumpy bridge over the Swan River, where smoke belched from a cement works, the dusty highway was lined by women at roadside stands—dozens of them, all hoping to sell identical-looking pyramids of mandarin oranges. When we returned, several hours later, they (and the oranges) were still there. Who would buy them? Farther into the countryside, bamboo plantations and rice paddies filled the green valley floor. A splendid, black steam locomotive puffed east, leaving a trail of black smoke and blurring the images of gray mountains emerging through the mist.

All too soon, the stage was over, following a frenetic few laps around Seven Star Lake—a stretch of water with a timeless serenity surrounded by tall limestone crags said to have fallen from the night sky like the seven stars that make up the Big Dipper. The stage winner, American sprinter Fred Rodriguez, was politely applauded by the townsfolk as he was handed a bouquet by the chairman of the local Communist Party committee. A sign stretched across the street read in English: “The People’s of Zhao Qing want to be escellent travel city in China.” It was, indeed, an “excellent” place to visit.

DAY 7: A petite, uniformed floor maid was cleaning the elevator. It smelled of tobacco smoke. It was 6 a.m. and time to take our luggage down to the trucks. The buses were leaving at 7 for the airport—and a 1,000-mile flight to Shanghai. Kent China coach Anderson said he’d made a new rule, this one for his team officials: “No smoking at meals or in the cars when riders are present.” But, he added, “as soon as the riders are gone, they all light up….”

The talk at breakfast, on the buses, and in the plane was about last night. After a buffet dinner alongside the hotel’s billiard-flat lawns (“Keep off the grass”), some adjourned to the bar before venturing into town, while others visited the nearby street markets. The tales of the market were plentiful: “One guy wanted to scare me by pushing a bucketful of snakes at me….” “Scorpions, chickens, dogs, cats…pickled ants…every sort of animal was on sale.” “We watched a guy selling slabs of meat. He had a fly swatter and when flies landed, he’d smash them on the meat….” “I told him, ‘Don’t look down right now, you’re standing on a dead rat.’”

Several riders were hung over. They ended their evening at Gigi’s nightclub. “There was a wide staircase between the dance floor and small rooms upstairs,” Roake told us. “I saw people running up the stairs…then I was called by the floor manager up to a room. Four of our guys [who had been beaten up] were sitting on the floor. ‘What happened to you?’ I asked. I went and cleaned up Simeon [Hempsall] in the bathroom. He was all right.” Worse for wear this morning was Hempsall’s teammate, Trent Klasna, who had a very sore jaw. Scott Fortner was wearing shades covering two black eyes. And Robbie Ventura said, “I’ll get an x-ray for my ankle. I fell on it.”

The China Southern Airways plane took off before 9 a.m. It was a new Boeing 777, which engendered confidence. Not so the instructions of the flight attendants: “Move to any empty seats in back, as the luggage is all in front.” Appropriately, for the Kent Tour entourage, the featured movie was “Superman.”

“IN A ROOM BELOW, I WAS WRITING UP THE DAY’S STAGE REPORT WHEN MY CHAIR STARTED TO MOVE. THE FLOOR WAS RIPPLING. THE PICTURE WINDOW SHOOK. EXPERIENCING A FIRST EARTHQUAKE IS UNNERVING… THEN A RELIEF. NO BRICKS WERE FALLING. WE’D LIVE TO SEE ANOTHER DAY.”

DAY 8: No racing again today. After watching the Shanghai Acrobatics show last night, everyone was gung-ho for a day of shopping and sightseeing in China’s biggest city. Shanghai has 14 million people, and most of them ride bikes; but there were still enough trucks, taxis and what seemed like thousands of Audis to clog the brand-new elevated expressway that circles the city.

Everywhere we went there was construction. Literally hundreds of skyscrapers jostle for priority in the downtown’s Victorian fabric and in the new business district of Pudong across the wide Huangpu River. It’s said that a quarter of all the overseas investment in China is going into Pudong, a place on fast-forward to the next century.

A 70-year-old man wearing a Mao suit playing chess in the dusty People’s Park reflected on the city’s building boom. He told me, “A house used to take two or three years to build…now they go up very fast!” The old houses were being razed as fast as the new high rises were going up.

A spacious steel-and-glass-structured department store was full of Western goods—at Western prices—and was packed with eager shoppers plying the fast-moving escalators. Outside, a Mister Softee peddled ice cream. Along the Bund, the wide riverside promenade, a street artist drew my portrait on a tiny piece of rice paper. And around the corner, along a dirt street pocked with puddles, an open market was just as busy as the indoor shopping mall. The 21st and 19th centuries were just a block apart.

DAY 9: Pudong was the site of today’s individual time trial—but for the brawl-battered Fortner and Ventura it was the day they went home. Another eight riders were eliminated from the race because they finished outside the stage’s 20-percent time limit. Andersson hung on to his yellow jersey after the USPS team’s Reiss won the time trial—and then dedicated his victory to cancer patient Lance Armstrong, one of Reiss’s former Subaru-Montgomery teammates.

“UP ON THE ANNOUNCERS’ STAGE, AUSTRALIAN RIDER DAMIAN MCDONALD TOOK CHARGE OF THE SOUND SYSTEM AND LED A GROUP OF BELGIAN RACERS IN SINGING THE MACARENA—TO THE ASTONISHMENT OF THOUSANDS OF CHINESE SPECTATORS.”

In the evening, back at the 28-story Tai Ping Yang Sheraton, a Chinese pop group called The Refreshers played American oldies in the bar. Up on the 13th floor, the Nutra-Fig team members were playing cards. In a room below, I was writing up the day’s stage report when my chair started to move. The floor was rippling. The picture window shook. Experiencing a first earthquake is unnerving…then a relief. No bricks were falling. We’d live to see another day.

DAY 10: There was a sense of urgency on this final weekend of the tour. The race was nearly over, and plans were being made for the long journey home. The restless mood gripped some more than others…. On the return leg of the day’s stage out to Dianshan Lake and back, a media car was itching to get past the pack—which was filling the eastbound lanes of a divided highway—just before the finish. The driver tried passing on the right, along a wide bike path, scattering spectators and having no success in getting by. He backed off, and then shot across to the other side of the road, aiming at oncoming traffic. The passengers closed their eyes as cars swerved out of the way…but again the driver was thwarted. A laconic message from a commissaire came over the race radio: “I don’t know why that TV car can’t wait. There’s nothing going on up here. Nothing to see….”

DAY 11: After the final-stage circuit race at Xinzhuang was interrupted by heavy rain, a party atmosphere percolated through the peloton. Up on the announcers’ stage, Australian rider Damian McDonald took charge of the sound system and led a group of Belgian racers in singing the Macarena—to the astonishment of thousands of Chinese spectators. The next to grab the mike was the Collstrop team mechanic, who jokingly introduced his team’s Jean-Pierre Heynderickx as “the stage winner” and then sung a karaoke rendition of The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.”

When the race restarted as a 100-lap exhibition, with rain still falling, the afternoon’s biggest cheers came when it was announced that Evander Holyfield had bludgeoned Mike Tyson to defeat in Las Vegas. And the biggest pop came when Andersson uncorked a magnum of victory champagne. The evening had a déjà-vu feel when many of the entourage gathered at Malone’s American Sports Bar in downtown Shanghai. Drinks were flowing, particularly among the Swedish and Belgian riders. The wildly popular Macarena was playing on the jukebox. The Big Fight occupied the multiple TV screens. And race organizer Mike Plant, his last big cycling event successfully completed, played pool.

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DAY 12: Surprise! It was another early start! Baggage had to be on the trucks to the airport by 7 a.m. It’s November 11 and it seems like the bike-racing season is never going to end. On the bus, Team Saturn’s Brian Walton told me he’s glad to be going home. “I’ve been on the road since September 23,” he said. There was a long wait for the brand new Airbus, flown by Dragon Air to Hong Kong. Once there, I just had time to do the tourist thing: take the bus to Kowloon, ride the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, and buy a ticket for the world’s steepest funicular railway up Victoria Peak. It’s Monday and the sun was just setting over the city’s skyscrapers around the South China Sea as lights far below illuminated the harbor. On what seemed like a day later, even though it’s still Monday, I saw a second sunset from my plane leaving San Francisco on the final leg of the journey home. The whole bay was lit up…lights sparkled from the Golden Gate Bridge and the freeways. Mount Tam was bathed in an orange glow, and the Pacific Ocean looked as if it was red all the way to China. p