China's riders waking up from nightmare

2007-12-11 19:06:53  China Daily      

Zheng Lulu of China waits for the start of the women's team sprint final in the Laoshan Velodrome at the Track Cycling World Cup Classic in Beijing on Saturday. Right: China's Guo Shuang competes in the women's sprint final. Zheng and Guo are local hopefuls for the Beijing Olympics next year. [Xinhua]

The last two years have been a nightmare for former Chinese Cycling Association chief Tian Junrong.

When the International Cycling Union (UCI) decided two years ago to drop the women's 500m time trial from the 2008 Games, China's dream of winning an Olympic cycling gold was all but shattered.

But with a new breed of talented youngsters coming up strong, a retired Tian is beginning to wake up from his nightmare.

Led by female track cyclist Guo Shuang, a few Chinese riders are hoping to snag berths, and with Olympic gold in their sights they are prepared to make history.

"My goal with Guo is to win the gold medal in women's sprint at the Beijing Games," said Chinese track cycling coach Daniel Morelon, who is working specifically with Guo this year. "I am sure she is one of the top five riders in the world, so at least she has to win a medal."

As a country with more 200 million bicycle riders, China's best showing in competitive cycling came at the Athens Games in 2004 when Jiang Yonghua won a silver medal in the 500m time trial. But that event has been axed by UCI to make way for Olympic newcomer Bicycle Motorcross (BMX) at the Beijing Games.

China didn't boast another cycling medal contender until Guo rode into the spotlight last year.

The 20-year-old from Inner Mongolia began cycling training at age 13, a relatively early age in China given most Chinese cyclists are picked from track and field teams. She was sent to the World Cycling Training Center in 2002 - a very special honor since only two riders from each country are allowed each year - where she learned from well-known French coach Sebastien Dulcus.

Guo began her sprint to the Olympics last year when she had a podium finish in individual pursuit at the World Championships, and later won two gold medals at the Doha Asian Games.

Chinese authorities then hired coach Morelon, a French legend and four-time Olympic champion who won seven world titles during his reign in the 1960s and 1970s and has also trained five-time world champion Felicia Ballanger.

Morelon has shown instant results as he led Guo to two silvers in the women's sprint and keirin events at the World Championships in March this year.

"I won't stop at where I am, I always need to become stronger," said Guo. "I am very lucky compared with other teammates because I have the chance to go to Europe and feel the environment there.

"Now I am not thinking about a gold medal or any distant target like that. I just want to collect as many Olympic points as possible and make sure I can compete in the Olympic velodrome."

The points she needs will mainly come from the World Cup Classics, which take place in five different cities, and the World Championships next year.

Despite settling for fifth place at last weekend's World Cup Beijing stop, Guo is on pace for a spot in the Games as she is No 7 in the UCI Women's Sprint Rankings.

Her fast-growing achievements have won high praise from former cycling chief Jiang.

"She is definitely the hottest title contender at the Beijing Games," Jiang said. "Her improvements over the past two years have proven she is able to beat anybody in the world. I think she is the one that everybody has to watch out for."

Other contenders

But Guo is not the only medal contender in 2008 as some of her teammates are keeping up with her in the charge to the Games.

Twenty-year-old Zheng Lulu now holds first place in both the women's sprint and keirin rankings, while Li Yan is No 2 in the points race rankings.

"For the position they are in, China is doing well," Morelon said. "China has no national structure below the senior level, which is totally different from that of France where the best riders are selected when they are in their early teens and sent to compete in the World Junior Championships.

"In China there are not many cyclists, which might make it difficult for them to improve at the beginning. But I think that's all going to change in the near future because the cyclists have got great potential, and with the two velodromes in Beijing they can have systematic training and make Olympic preparations."

Guo and her teammates will be competing in all three World Cup Classics remaining this season and the team will be based in France for the last sprint to the Olympics.