By Scott Mercier,
CTS Contributing Editor, US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist
I was watching Nordic skiing on the Olympics and they showed a section of the Great Wall of China. The section was at the top of a mountain and had an enormous arched gate. I immediately flashed back to the 1995 Tour of China.
The race was six stages plus a prologue. We started with a prologue in Hong Kong, raced two days in Guangzhou, transferred up to Shanghai for two more stages, and finished with two stages in Beijing. The Chinese were considering a bid to host the Olympic Games and they promoted the Tour of China as a way to test the logistics of putting on a large-scale international sporting event. Kent cigarettes was the primary sponsor. It seemed strange to have a bike race, for which lungs are so important, sponsored by a cigarette company.
The logistics of the race must have been daunting. To transport 300+ people, bikes, equipment and supplies across thousands of miles, the organizers of the Tour of China chartered a fleet of vehicles, trucks, busses, and even a Boeing 747. Steve Brunner wrote a great column for VeloNews a few years ago describing many of the challenges.
The racing was pedestrian, for the most part. The prologue was a flat, short race along the Hong Kong’s waterfront, won by Steve Hegg. In 1995 Hong Kong was still a British territory, so we had to clear customs as we drove into Southern China for Stage 1. We waited at the border for hours and hours until we finally permitted to enter the country.
Stages 1 and 2 were short and relatively flat circuit races in Guangzhou. I don’t remember who won the races, but I do remember my teammate, Robbie Ventura (aka the K-town motor), hitting the deck. He crashed with about 150 meters to go as he was sprinting for the win. He was pretty banged up and had serious road rash, but luckily nothing was broken.
Then we loaded up into the 747 and flew north to Shanghai for Stages 3 and 4 of the Tour of China. I don’t remember much about these two stages, except that our arms and faces were covered in soot from the pollution. Many of us were coughing as if we’d been smoking heavily for decades. After Stage 4 we boarded the 747 again to head to Beijing, the host city of the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics.
Beijing really stood out, for the racing, the history, and the surrounding environment. The Tiananmen Square massacre had occurred just six years earlier. I remember standing in the square and imaging the courage of the Tank Man. The courage of that young man as he stood in front of, and halted, a column of tanks on their way to suppress the demonstrations for democracy was almost beyond comprehension.
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Stage 5 was a hilltop finish just below a huge gate in the Great Wall. Six of us were selected for a photo shoot where we rode our bikes below, under and on top of the towering Wall. (My personal photos weren’t that great, and I never saw the official photos.) It may even have been the section of wall they kept showing during the Olympics. Finishing a race below one of the Wonders of the World was an experience I’ll never forget. The climb was about 10 miles long and harder and steeper than any of us expected. I made the front group but was eventually dropped by stage winner Danielle Nardello and others near the top.
The final stage was a time trial that was about 15 miles long in the outskirts of Beijing. Viatcheslav Ekimov won both the stage and the overall classification. I finished third on the stage, which moved me up to fourth overall behind Nardello and Hegg.
The Tour of China only existed for two editions. I raced both of them, and they were as much an adventure as a professional cycling race.
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