July 2014, Sunday in Paris, Tour de France winner: Vincenzo Nibali. Bringing up the rear of the pack: the “lanterne rouge” 红灯 Hóng dēng. Cheng Ji, first rider from Mainland China to ride the tour, 6 hrs. behind the winner.
PARIS (AFP) — Chinese rider Ji Cheng said he wants to get away from cycling for a while after completing the Tour de France on Sunday. Ji was a visible member of the peloton over the last three weeks, relishing his role as the “breakaway killer” for his Giant-Shimano team. And although the 27-year-old did not set the world alight with his performances, he did gain cult status over 3,659 kilometers of racing around France.
But he’s had enough for this year.
Asked what he would do now, he said: “I have no idea. I will try to relax because I got married but 20 days later I came back to Europe for a training camp and then racing and it’s been eight months now since I’ve been home. “That’s really long, I will try to relax and not think any more about cycling.”
It’s not been easy for Ji, who was expected to ride at the front of the peloton day after day to control breakaway groups and ensure his Giant team would be able to reel them in later so sprinter Marcel Kittel could finish off his work.
Kittel won four stages in total while another German sprinter, John Degenkolb, finished second in two others in which the lumpy run-ins weren’t suited to Kittel’s raw straight-line power. But Ji’s also had his own challenges to overcome, having suffered from a knee problem.
“The hardest moments were just the first week and the last week,” he said. “The first week had more sprint stages and we had more chances for victories so I was working hard to control the group and working hard on the front. That was a hard week.” “And the last week because I was injured in the left knee. Already I wasn’t looking forward to the mountains because of my injury which was so painful. “But the second week was nice for me, I had more time to enjoy the race.”
Enjoyment would be a curious word for a race that lasted more than 90 hours. And in Ji’s case, he rode for more than six hours longer than winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), in so doing managing the biggest gap between first and last since 1954.
Ji, who was 164th, also finished more than 50 minutes behind the second-to-last finisher and crashed on the final stage on the Champs Elysees, even suffering the ignominy of being lapped by the peloton as it completed eight circuits of the famous avenue. But every day, Ji managed to get inside the time limit. And it’s not the first time he’s completed a grand tour.
He finished 175th (last place) at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, although sickness prevented him from completing last year’s Giro d’Italia.
While the native of Harbin in the northeast of China may be the Tour’s “lanterne rouge,” the rider who finishes last, he at least finished, which is more than what 34 other starters managed, among them defending champion Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and Mark Cavendish.
All three crashed out and Ji says that’s one of the risks in cycling. “In cycling sometimes dangerous things can happen like a crash, or you can get sick or have a fever,” he said. “It’s normal, last year at the Giro the same thing happened to me. I got very sick before stage five and couldn’t start it.
“It’s really sad but it’s like this. Maybe next year I’ll have this situation. I was pretty lucky really, I didn’t crash or get sick or anything.” Having made history as the first Chinese rider to compete in the Tour, Ji said he hopes to be a pioneer for his countrymen, but said it will take more than just him to change things.
“I hope so but a cycling project in the country cannot be one man like me,” he said. “Maybe I can show them something but I cannot change anything.
“I hope they can see it’s possible to build a team or train riders to be top professionals. That’s what I hope.”