China discovers long-distance cycling.
Five minutes before the ultra-long-distance cycling event starts, most of the 140 spandex-clad participants are swigging water and Red Bull, stretching their calf muscles, and donning reflective yellow safety vests. Thirty-two-year-old ride organizer Wu “Hans” Shiling is on his iPhone, straddling his bike. A biker was injured at another event in Shanghai. As the digital clock above the starting line ticks down, Wu shouts into the cell, giving instructions on what to do. With less than 30 seconds to go, he ends the call, adjusts the chin strap of his helmet, slips one foot into a bicycle stirrup, and begins to focus on his next task: cycling 400 kilometers from the southwestern city of Chengdu to the base of the sacred Buddhist mountain Emei Shan and back in less than 27 hours.
In the early 1980s, when Wu was born, Chinese families aspired to own four “modern” appliances: a bicycle, a sewing machine, a wristwatch, and a radio. However, to many in China, bicycles are now a symbol of the rusted past. Famously, in 2010, a female contestant on a popular dating show summed up what she expected of Mr. Right: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.” To Wu, though, the bicycle is a symbol of freedom and adventure, and distance cycling a way to test himself. “Don’t you want to know what you are capable of?” he likes to ask.
Wu has a round face, wire-frame glasses, and a scraggly goatee. Except for the spandex outfit, he resembles a storybook illustration of Confucius. But he proudly describes himself as “anti-Confucian” — someone opposed to the authoritarian and obedient streak in Chinese culture. He worries that in the headlong rush toward material modernity, Chinese people are losing their souls. He’s promoting distance cycling as one antidote. “Some think we’re crazy, wondering, ‘Why do you torture yourself?’” he says. “Some cheer us on.”
When the countdown clock hits zero, Wu pushes off from Chengdu’s downtown shopping square and turns left at the New Century Global Center, a hulking glass-enclosed shopping and office complex. The structure, touted as the world’s largest building, is the handiwork of mega-developer Deng Hong, now under investigation in a corruption scandal. Riding toward the city outskirts, the bikers pass newly erected office skyscrapers and high-rise apartments with fanciful black turrets — someone’s notion of European glamour — then glide by highway overpasses under construction, where the green scaffolding matches the grass median strips and the sound of jackhammers rattles the street. Expressways under construction, blue sky and low white clouds: This is the Tomorrowland version of China, immense and shiny, where towering cranes dominate the landscape.
Soon a humbler and more commonly held vision of modern China appears. When the road leaves the plains and enters the mountains, it narrows, and instead of endless vistas, riders can see only what’s around the next curve. Wu grimaces and rises from his saddle as he climbs uphill. The villages he passes aren’t full of thatched huts but rows of low concrete storefronts and garages, many thrown up in the 1990s. Painted advertising slogans for China Mobile adorn stone fences, and old men sit outside around wooden tables intently playing mah-jongg or cards. Cyclists occasionally swerve around farmers who’ve spread fruits or vegetables to dry on mats in the middle of the road. Several times, a baby goat walks by. Wu rides through wafts of pig manure. Soon the sweat and strain of ascent is replaced by the ease of coasting down the other side of the mountain, past small orchards, roadside stands selling watermelons and peaches under red umbrellas, and laundry drying outside houses.
The reason a distance-cycling circuit exists at all in China — the world’s largest market for cars — is Wu’s missionary zeal. While in his 20s, he took a job in Chengdu as a tour guide; when European and American tourists wanted to explore the surrounding mountains by bicycle, he obliged. One of his American acquaintances mentioned a 125-year-old cycling event in France, held every four years, with riders pedaling 1,200 kilometers from Paris to the medieval seaside town of Brest and back in under 90 hours. In 2009, he contacted the French organizers, who said the only way to qualify in China was to start an officially sanctioned Chinese randonneuring (long-distance cycling) circuit and submit qualifying times. So he did.
When the project started to take off and the membership dues and sponsorship fees became sufficient to support a salary, he left his job as a marketing director for Porsche in Chengdu to devote himself to creating the circuit. This year, his organization, Randonneurs of China, will oversee more than 40 qualifying events in at least ten Chinese cities, leading up to the race in France in late summer; Wu has already bought his plane tickets to Paris. Each month, he joins at least two challenge rides — Wu is always quick to interject that “it’s not a race” — to make sure they are meeting the standards established by the French.
Back in the mountains outside Chengdu, Wu sometimes bikes alone, sometimes with three or four other riders. Periodically he stops at village convenience stores to resupply with Snickers, soda, and packaged bread. By 8 p.m., the light begins to fade. Only the thin beam from his bike lamp and the occasional headlight glare of passing trucks illuminate the road. Wu’s plan had been to ride until after midnight, then find a cheap hotel to sleep for a few hours. Instead, he doesn’t stop.
The first two finishers arrive back in Chengdu at 5:44 a.m., just before dawn. Wu is the 14th biker to complete the course, at 8:33 a.m., after 18 hours and 33 minutes. He had planned to stay to cheer on other riders, but when he calls his wife — the first thing he does after dismounting — she tells him he needs to come home and check on their baby, a girl just 12 days old.