Serk Cycling Beijing
It’s 5pm, and all eyes in the cycling world are turned towards Peyragudes, a quiet mountain resort in the French Pyrenees. After a second-placed finish here in Stage 12 of the 2017 Tour de France, Italian rider Fabio Aru has just climbed to the top of the overall classification for the first time, claiming the yellow jersey and firmly announcing himself as one of the favourites for the title on the road ahead.
On the other side of the globe, however, a spectacle that will prove far more momentous for the future of cycling is about to begin. In front of a darkened Tiananmen Square, five teams of maverick riders will soon race under the cover of night, and under the watchful gaze of Mao Zedong’s iconic portrait, in search of fame, glory and a coveted golden bust of the Chairman himself. All of this upon the saddles of some of the most technologically advanced and innovative bicycles on the road today: Chinese share bikes.
'Right now in world cycling, this is the biggest event currently being raced,' says Australian rider Luke Pegrum, nominated sprinter for Team Bluegogo Pro – or Team BlueSteel, as they prefer to be known. In the build-up to the race, he and his teammates have been widely touted as favourites to top the podium, though not without controversy, with many opponents crying foul on the potential illegality of their bikes’ multi-speed gearing system.
'To be the best, you’ve got to choose the best, and with Bluegogo Pro, you’re already getting that pro setup,’ Pegrum’s partner Richard Ammerman emphasises. They’re at an undeniable advantage, but after thorough inspection, event organiser Shannon Bufton, co-founder of Serk Cycling, finds nothing in contravention of UCI regulations. The race is ready to begin, and BlueSteel will be first to set off.
Rather than a wheel-to-wheel battle, the Chairman Mao Sprint sees riders take on a small portion of the famous Chang’an Avenue team-by-team, first passing Mao’s portrait from east to west, before returning along the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The objective couldn’t be simpler: clock the fastest time over either of the 200-metre segments, and your team will go down in history as the winners of Beijing’s inaugural share bike championship.
Chang’an has long been revered by cyclists for its scenery, historical significance and agreeable terrain – as far as gradient goes, the course couldn’t be more favourable, with a 0 percent net elevation change over its 200-metre length. There’s quiet optimism among the competitors, believing that we’ll see a new share bike top-speed record set here tonight.
Certainly unfavourable, however, is the course’s susceptibility to overcrowding. It’s nearing 10pm, and while the forecast thunderstorms have relented, event attendance has gone far beyond any of the organisers’ expectations – hundreds of avid cycling enthusiasts are lining the Chang’an strip, snapping selfies before the Forbidden City’s grand entrance to commemorate the occasion. It’s possible that just a handful are actually here for tourism but, in any case, many are spilling over into the bike lane and stewards are expressing concerns over rider safety.
After BlueSteel and Team Ofo make their attempts, it becomes clear that the Tiananmen Square side offers the best shot at hitting top speed. Indeed, they’ve both set the bar high, clocking competitive times around the 20 second mark, but there’s still plenty of racing ahead, and a chance for Team Mobike – the people’s choice – to edge into contention.
Back in the riders and VIP area – a convenience store to the east of the Forbidden City – conversation has shifted to the choices of bikes, their advantages and their disadvantages as a racing steed. Ofo – active since 2015 on the Peking University campus – may be the elder statesman among its rivals, but it is Mobike who has been the driving force behind China’s recent cycling revolution; the company now sees around 20 million rides a day in over 50 Chinese cities, a mere 16 months after they first arrived on the streets of Shanghai.
The silver-orange cycles are arguably pulling away from the peloton market-wise, but tonight, the Serk riders have opted overwhelmingly in favour of Ofo, with three teams out of five saddled upon yellow vélos.
Though undoubtedly more stylish, Mobike’s weighty chassis and rigidity have proven unpopular, up against Ofo’s universally adjustable saddles and more traditional, lighter frames: 'They’re the closest you’ll get to carbon fibre for under a kuai an hour,' one rider jokes. As for the third wheel, many have championed the virtues of Bluegogo, both the classic and Pro models, but have bemoaned their relative scarcity – most riders simply didn’t have time to handle pre-race imports from Chaoyang district.
It’s a sticky, 34-degree night, and it’s hotting up back on the track, too. Four teams have finished up: the time has come for Team Mobike to defy the odds, defy the critics and potentially defy physics. All this responsibility on one man’s shoulders – Australia’s Patrick D’Arcy, racing solo after the last-minute withdrawal of his co-riders.
He’s riding the highest spec Mobike available (the recently launched second generation), and with many spectators heading for the exits believing the result a foregone conclusion, the course has cleared slightly. Can D’Arcy pull off a shock victory?
The answer is no. He doesn’t even make the top 5, and returning to camp, BlueSteel has kicked off the celebrations, having risen to its billing as favourites: Luke Pegrum’s time of 20 seconds earns him the jersey and the title of Fastest Man on Shared Wheels. Rumour spreads that he was earlier spotted downing a can of Yanjing, and he’s almost certain to test positive for banned beverages; doping allegations are rife but, much like Lance Armstrong and the 2000s professional circuit, everyone’s been doing it – Pegrum’s just done it better, and he cracks open another tin to celebrate.
He and his team may revel in personal glory, but perhaps the true winner of the night – and the past year, in fact – is cycling. In recent decades, as Chinese consumers’ personal spending power has increased and cars become more affordable, the bicycle has faced increasing neglect, being buffaloed off the road by millions of motors. But the convenience, style and affordability of the stationless share bike have finally brought about a change in fortunes for the humble two-wheeler – a revival and a revolution.
Watching the race unfold before the Tiananmen gate, there’s a certain poignancy to it all: 'Chairman Mao was the hero behind China’s original cycling boom when he championed the bicycle as the nation’s vehicle of choice,' Serk boss Shannon Bufton says. 'Surely he’d be proud of these colourful two-wheelers swarming the streets once again.’
Share bikes have changed the way we ride around our cities, but have these lycra-clad pioneers changed the way we ride share bikes? It’s hard to say confidently – it seems the Serk riders won’t be trading in the road bikes any time soon, but after a successful first run of this celebration of cycling, Bufton tells us they’ll be looking to expand the event in the future. Time to unlock your nearest ride and get training then.
1 Luke Pegrum
Team BlueSteel (Bluegogo Pro)
Time 0’ 20”
2 Torsten Dietze
Team Complete Load of Ofo
Time 0’ 22”
3 Yiqun Fu
Time 0’ 23”
4 Richard Ammerman
Team BlueSteel (Bluegogo Pro)
Time 0’ 23”
5 Fedor Zhirov
Team Beijing Cyclists (Ofo)
Time 0’ 25”