The Tour of Beijing failed but globalisation hasn’t

Tom Palmer Columnist

By , Tom Palmer is a Roar Expert

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    We’re about to see the last Tour of Beijing. You’ll know it as the race that materialised out of thin air, or an agreement between the local government and the UCI.

    You may also know it as the only professional race with more security guards than spectators.

    The end of the Tour of Beijing is not a failure of globalisation. It’s a setback for the UCI but in the long run it could be a good thing for the sport’s global cultural and economic growth.

    Endowed with World Tour status and tacked onto the end of the season calendar, the UCI stage-managed the affair and World Tour teams were forced to show up.

    The Chinese end provided the cheque book and some freshly minted highways.

    The result was a race that resembled one of those pro-cycling computer games – where a uniform peloton shuffles along a generic, barricaded road through what looks like a featureless void, all contained in a grey haze. It’s a race transplant.

    We’ll soon witness the final days of this rejected organ of the World Tour. The race will be put to rest, literally coughing and with tainted blood: the air quality has been cited as a health issue and the food was shown to lead to false positive drug tests.

    Your best guess of how enthusiastic the athletes are about racing it is probably close to the mark.

    The widely cited impetus for the venture was ‘the globalisation of cycling’ and many commentators are calling its failure a signal of the failure of cycling’s globalisation project.

    Well, that’s ridiculous. Nothing has failed except a poor attempt at inserting the ‘World Tour’ into a lucrative market.

    The problem isn’t China. In fact in terms of countries that hold professional road cycling races, China is relatively advanced. China had hosted unique and character-filled tours for a long time before the UCI dreamed this one up. The brilliant and other-worldly Qinghai Lake, for example, easily ranks as one of the most memorable and spectacular races I’ve ever seen.

    The cycling world does not lose China with the Tour of Beijing, there are still five other significant international professional races there: Qinghai, Hainan, Taihu, China 1 and China 2. Maybe those will get a boost once the biggest teams, sponsors and media are no longer devoted to Beijing at the end of the year.

    Most of those tours are already attended by numerous World Tour teams – and of their own accord. Belkin and Astana were both well represented in editions of those that I’ve attended. Because of its sponsor, Belkin was internally driven there to achieve a global reach.

    Various top teams who want in on Asian racing – and African, Australasian, and South American for that matter – have been appearing in races all over the globe for decades, chasing UCI points and new markets for commercial links.

    One rich history that has always fascinated me is the decades-old and seemingly random link between Japan and Italy. It is visible in a host of commercial and cultural exchanges between teams, races, riders, sponsors and fans.

    The globalisation of cycling is about more than our governing body chasing one particularly lucrative market. The real globalisation of cycling involves increasing and strengthening the totality of global cycling connections.

    The UCI is infatuated with China for financial reasons, which is probably warranted, but the conversation around the Tour of Beijing shows that as it pertains to cycling, the term ‘globalisation’ has been hijacked and reduced to being the label given to the UCI’s exercise of trying to stick its hands into Chinese pockets.

    Globalisation is not just a UCI project. Globalisation is a reality of the 21st century, and a very positive one for that matter. Losing the Tour of Beijing won’t stop it. In this century, as in the last, new cultures will find cycling and cycling players will find new markets.

    We have a Polish world champ for the first time. That’s pretty cool. Can you imagine what the sport will be like by the time we have our first Chinese one? Fascinating, I think.

    Globalisation gets me excited, less so the UCI. Compared to the untapped opportunities for growth our globe offers, the Tour of Beijing was a misguided foray. It was stale and problematic, and still men-only, still Euro-centric.

    The growth toward a richer global culture of cycling is not necessarily harmed by this one screw-up. I’ll keep a close eye on China’s post-Tour of Beijing era; there’s a fascinating cycling world there already.

    I’ll also be looking elsewhere at the multitude of racing cultures both established and sprouting in every corner of the world. MTN Qhubeka, the world-beating team that is emerging from Africa, is a good example.

    The failure of the Tour of Beijing might indicate a weakness, not in the idea of the globalisation of cycling, but a weakness of the UCI’s World Tour.

    The sport is diverse and diversifying. It has rich cultures that are ever-evolving. The geographical, economic and cultural boundaries of the sport will be redrawn over time.

    Is the UCI’s ‘World Tour’ the best instrument to accommodate that growth?

    Tom Palmer is a former professional road cyclist riding for Drapac Professional Cycling from 2007 to 2014 before hanging up the cleats to pursue a tertiary education and non-sporting career.

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