One hundred years ago, China sent thousands of its young men to Europe in service of a cause. More than 140,000 formed the Chinese Labour Corps to dig trenches and perform other tasks in the French countryside during four years of bitter fighting on the Western Front.
These laborers sacrificed themselves for the French and British armies – including up to 10,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice – in the course of the Great War. But their efforts were probably the most overlooked aspect in the Allies’ victory, which was finally achieved in November 1918.
A century later, another young Chinese sacrificed himself for the glory of others on French soil. Of course, a bicycle race isn’t anything like war, but Ji Cheng fulfilled his role just the same.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
On Sunday, as the Tour de France rolled to its completion on Paris’ famed Champs Elysees, a solitary figure could be seen pedaling around Place de la Concorde even while all the others were done. Ji finally crossed the finish line some 9 ½ minutes after his teammate Marcel Kittel rocketed to his fourth stage win in this year’s Tour.
Ji didn’t just finish last in the final stage, he finished dead last in this year’s Tour, logging six more hours on the road than champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy. For that, he claimed the booby prize of “Lanterne Rouge,” symbolically given to the last-place finisher in each year’s Tour.
But there was absolutely no shame in that. As the first Chinese rider to compete in the world’s famous bicycle race, he’s also the first to complete it. Ji navigated the three-week, 2,300-mile circuit doing exactly what his team Giant-Shimano sent him to do – setting his team leader up for maximum glory.
Kittel won four stages, matching Nibali for the most in this year’s Tour. But the charismatic German sprinter wouldn’t have gotten his chance for a second straight victory on the Champs Elysees without the yeoman’s work put in by Ji in the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees.
Ji’s main task in his year’s Tour was to chase down breakaways in stages where Kittel had a chance to win and also to pace his leader in the mountains. For all his sprinting power, Kittel is not fond of the uphill roads, often bringing up the rear on major climbs. Ji’s job in the mountain stages was to conserve his own energy while making sure Kittel finished well within the time limits so he wouldn’t be disqualified.
“The hardest moments were the first week and the last week,” Ji told Agence France Presse after the race. “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.”
Neither the knee injury nor the wet cobblestones early in the race was able to stop Ji from completing his second grand tour, after also finishing last in the 2012 VueltaaEspana. Because he’s the first Chinese cyclist to compete in the 101 years of the Tour de France, the 27-year-old from Harbin was hardly anonymous, despite being a lowly domestique (support rider). Every stage of this year’s Tour was broadcast live in China.
Ji hopes his breakthrough this year will help spur road cycling in China, which despite millions of bicycle riders has never produced a sports star on wheels of note. Of course, being on a bike as part of working and living is very different from racing around hairpin turns on Alpine roads.
“A cycling project in (China) cannot be one man like me,” Ji 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.”
Ji will return to China seeking respite and spending some time with his new bride. He’s been training and race nonstop since only three weeks after getting married last November. Chances are, Mrs. Ji won’t mind him bringing home the red lantern.