How one

Panda

inspired Chinese Cycling

Serk Cycling Beijing

The race has entered its final stretch. Dan Martin bursts from the chasing pack near the top of the last climb of 2013’s Liege-Bastion-Liege, launching across the gap to lone leader Joaquin Rodriguez with the finish line in sight. From the crowd springs the most unlikely of inspiration. A panda jumps the barriers and starts running furiously behind the two riders, arms flailing as he struggles to keep up on the steep climb. Martin looks over his shoulder at the curious new breakaway companion. The two make eye contact, holding each other’s’ gaze for seemingly an eternity. At last, Martin looks back up the road and as if possessed by some new found energy he attacks, leaving Rodriguez in his wake as he charges to the line and the biggest victory of his career.

A Panda in Belgium - eh ? 

It was at that moment in Belgium — road cycling’s heartland —an unlikely connection was made in a country with a very different cycling tradition. China has a rich history with the bicycle, and as the song conservatively puts it, ‘there’s nine-million bicycles in Beijing’. Yet the bike has always served a very utilitarian role in this country and the idea of racing bicycles, in the European sense, was considered a strange one. The idea of sitting on the side of the road to watch one flash past was stranger still. Despite this, the sight of a panda making such a unique mark on one of the world’s biggest bike races made an impact in China, and the image was splashed across the internet and news.

Around the same time, Serk was working with Global Cycling Promotions’ Alain Rumpf and Jump Media’s David Culbert on developing the Tour of Beijing. GCP was set up by the UCI under Pat McQuaid with the goal of internationalising cycling and the Tour of Beijing was its first project. But despite the economic potential for cycling of holding a high profile race in China’s capital, the Tour of Beijing was beset by problems from the start. Some of these problems stemmed from China — air quality and over-the-top security being obvious ones — but much of the negative publicity arose from the sport’s internal politics.

A Panda in his natural habitat

It was at that moment in Belgium — road cycling’s heartland —an unlikely connection was made in a country with a very different cycling tradition. China has a rich history with the bicycle, and as the song conservatively puts it, ‘there’s nine-million bicycles in Beijing’. Yet the bike has always served a very utilitarian role in this country and the idea of racing bicycles, in the European sense, was considered a strange one. The idea of sitting on the side of the road to watch one flash past was stranger still. Despite this, the sight of a panda making such a unique mark on one of the world’s biggest bike races made an impact in China, and the image was splashed across the internet and news.

While the GCP was in charge of running the race, it had its true conception at the hands of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. The Dutchmen had been the IOC’s key representative in Beijing in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics and the games’ success deeply endeared him to the Chinese government — he was even given the key to the city by the mayor of Beijing. It was this connection that opened the city to professional cycling. At the Beijing mayor’s personal invitation, Verbruggen and GCP launched China’s first UCI World Tour stage race in October 2011.

However, Verbruggen’s role in cycling was facing strong headwinds in the wake of the disgraced Lance Armstrong’s ejection from the sport. Revelations that Verbruggen colluded to protect Armstrong during his time as UCI president had sparked vocal criticism from all corners or the media. The controversy cast a dark cloud over the Tour of Beijing from the very beginning. In the lead up to the inaugural race Serk had the role of liaising with international media to spruik the rich and varied delights of Beijing. Despite our best efforts it seemed much of the media continent was set on denigrating the race as means of destroying Verbruggen. Disinterested in positive stories as the race trail-blazed its way around Beijing, the journalists panned it. Polluted. No fans. Unhappy riders. What should have been about introducing the magic of cycling to a dynamic and potentially hugely lucrative new market became a vehicle for the sport’s ugly internal politics.

The initial Tour of Beijing received a lot of negative press. The hardcore security and lack of fan access didn't help.

So it was with this background that Rumpf, Culbert and Serk’s co-founder Shannon Bufton sat on a mini bus in the spring of 2013 as it wound its way up and down the twisting roads in mountains outside Beijing. They were on a reconnaissance trip in search of new roads for that year’s race that could help light up the competition and go some way to addressing the criticism still being flung at the race — that it was dull, that it lacked soul. Joining them in the mini bus were a number of Chinese riders, one of whom was reading the latest edition of a cycling magazine, and right there on the page was the image of Martin looking back at the Panda as he stormed into Liege. There it was — exactly what the Tour of Beijing needed — a truly Chinese link to professional road cycling.

The lack of fans by the roadside was the focus of much negative attention during the first two instalments of the race. Developing a cycling culture where people are willing to trek to the tops of mountains to catch a glimpse of riders as they flash past takes years. It’s impossible to just transplant the incredible culture of European cycling into a new market. The empty roads at the recent world championships in Qatar are proof of that. But even in Australia — a country with many cultural links to Europe and a strong cycling scene — it took years for big crowds to start supporting the Tour Down Under. It was unfair to expect big crowds to immediately embrace cycling in China, but we knew we needed to do something to get the ball rolling.

Seeing that panda was the epiphany. Suddenly there was a Chinese symbol we could leverage on the roadside to enliven the race. The plan was to create a ‘Panda Corner’ in the vein of the Dutch Corner at the Tour de France. Much like how the Dutch Corner attracts an annual migration of orange clad hooligans to Alp d’Huez each July, it was hoped Panda Corner might inspire the people of Beijing to embrace their race.

It was unfair to expect big crowds to immediately embrace cycling in China,
but we knew we needed to do something to get the ball rolling.

Unfortunately, organising spontaneous gatherings of people hoping to draw attention to themselves on live television is particularly difficult in China. Despite the Beijing mayor’s warm welcome, the same hospitality was not extended to fans hoping to watch the race. Paranoid about being embarrassed on live television by protestors, the government had enforced strict security at the race, closing roads long in advance and restricting access to finish areas. This meant organising a major gathering on the roadside carried very real risks for Serk and would require some serious planning to pull off.

When the 2013 Tour of Beijing rolled around, Serk was ready. Harnessing the power of Taobao we had secured our panda and 50 fluffy panda hats. We studied the route and found the perfect spot for the ‘Panda of the Mountain’, and even sent an official communique out to the teams informing them of the prestigious new award on offer, including the promise of free beer for the winning team at the post-race after party at Serk. We even drove the route out to the mountains the day before to make sure we would beat the road-closures.

The plan was to create a ‘Panda Corner’ in the vein of the Dutch Corner at the Tour de France and with that we piled 50 pandas into a bus.

Of course, the best laid plans quickly fell apart on the day of the race. Our hard-nosed Beijing born bus driver decided to take his own route to the race — much to the frustration of Beijing born Serk co-founder Liman — and led us straight into some major roadworks. With time ticking down before the race rolled through and a fully-fledged war of words in thick Beijing accent underway at the front of the bus, we arrived at a road block at the base of the climb. With panic setting in, we engaged in a desperate discussion with the policeman to let us pass. A call to Rumpf, the race director, got us nowhere and it seemed all was lost. Then our driver, who five minutes earlier had threatened to turn the bus around and drive home, suddenly took the initiative. Sensing the policeman’s fading resolve, he floored it. As the bus shuddered off up the road we looked back to see the policeman shrugging his shoulders. We were in the clear!

The Panda liaising with Police. Panda Corner was organised without approvals from the Chinese authorities. Who could say no to a bunch of pandas ?

When the riders rolled through a couple of hours later, they were greeted by a small army of pandas cheering on the roadside. Shortly after one of the breakaway riders took the ‘POM’, the peloton approached. In what would become one of the enduring images of the Tour of Beijing, the peloton allowed Dan Martin to ride ahead, chased by the panda in a remarkable recreation of that fateful moment in Liege — albeit on a mountainside in China.

Images of Panda Corner went crazy on television and internet in China. Suddenly the race began gaining traction with the Chinese public. The panda become an overnight celebrity and was embraced by the race — instantly displacing whatever was originally the mascot to become the symbol of the event. The panda found its way onto podiums, into the start and finish line areas and into photos across the Chinese media. As one Chinese publication reported, ‘the Tour of Beijing is finally Chinese’.

The 2013 Tour of Beijing would turn out to be the penultimate running of the race, with it being discontinued a year later. Much has been written and debated about the value of the race. Certainly it had its problems, but one thing is for sure — ask any of the ever increasing number of Chinese cyclists what they thought of the race and they’ll tell you they loved it. The positive legacy of the Tour of Beijing, while largely ignored at the time, continues to shine on. Hopefully one day the race will return, and when it does, Panda Corner will be there bigger and prouder than ever before.