When Merida announced in August 2016 that Lampre-Merida would be breaking up in order for the Bahrain-Merida team to go ahead, the future of the Lampre-Merida team was foggy. For the un-initiated, Lampre-Merida was a WorldTour team formed in 1991 and has been in the top flight since 2005. Riders like Ulissi, Costa and Meintjes are left searching for a team in 2016 if Lampre couldn’t find a new investor for 2016. Without an investor, the team was rumoured to still run on, but only at a PCT or CT level.
Enter TJ Sport. The Chinese-owned corporation had a keen interest in investing in the team and to ensure a Chinese market for cycling. 1 billion people behind a major team in a region the UCI needs to develop the sport in the future if it wants to be successful. Already gaining popularity in Japan and South-East Asia, the Chinese Cycling market was stagnating, and the retirement of the most recognised Chinese rider in the pro peloton in Ji Cheng would have an even worse impact on the stagnation of the sport. They came by, and started a partnership between Lampre and Champion System kits to save the almost-doomed team. Due to the partnership, the Lampre contracts were still valid and riders could feel more certain about their futures. A huge Chinese investor willing to invest big dollars to get the team off the ground would give some safety to the riders already at Lampre, and attract riders like Ben Swift from Sky to join the team.
It was not since 2014 had the WorldTour seen any major Chinese influence. After the Tour of Beijing being wiped off the WT calendar after only 4 years, it seemed like the UCI’s ability to grab a hold in the wider Asian market was slipping. Not only did riders not appreciate the almost-gimmicky event tacked onto the end of the year, people weren’t turning out to watch it and air pollution was a big turn away factor and would jeopardize the safety of the riders. The TJ Sport-Lampre partnership would give the UCI one more chance to establish itself in the Chinese market, and attempt to build the sport in the region. So how did this partnership go so horribly wrong?
When the ambitions of TJ Sport to buy the licence of Lampre was released, it was very sudden and took everyone by surprise. Giving media only a few days to react, the heads of CGS Sport (the then-owners of the Lampre WT licence) and the TJ Sport corporation met for an “Announcement of the first UCI World Team of China” and “Contract Signing of Acquisition of CGS Sport by TJ Sport”. This ‘meant’ that the big Chinese powerhouse in TJ Sport would be buying out the Swiss CGS Sport and coincidentally, buying out the licence for Lampre – but Lampre said that the acquistion of CGS Sport by TJ would not impact on Lampre’s ownership of the licence, which meant (presumably) that TJ Sport went over Lampre’s head to get their licence.
And while this conference between CGS, TJ, Lampre and other officials – including the Presidents of each business and Sky&Grass, an investment company – was expected to solidfy the plans of the future for Lampre, all it did was raise questions. A bold celebration of the sport in China, the 20 years of history under Lampre and the fact that there was going to be a partnership didn’t answer any questions that weren’t already answered. There was also a lot of talk from TJ and Lampre, both during and after the presentation, about how pro cycling influences the lives of us commoners in trying to promote healthy influences and the beautiful sport of cycling. However, amidst all of this, the partnership neglected how pro cycling actually influences the lives of those directly involved. The riders and all the behind-the-scenes crew were still in the dark about how this partnership was going to go about, they were hyped and hopeful that all would run smoothly.
TJ saw the opportunity of Lampre as a means of jumping on the back of an already established team who is ready to grow immediately instead of starting from the bottom and taking a couple of years to get the ropes. By having a high quality of operation from the get-go, it would allow the sport to become promoted at a much faster rate and make TJ Sport, according to Mauro Gianetti the project co-ordinator, “not only a team that must win races, it is a team with another goal which is most important – win races and bring people to cycling…It’s for the entire country.” But the project stayed a project, a project on paper. No official ‘contracts’ were signed, no handing over of licences and no carrying over of contracts. It wasn’t clear who was also going to sponsor the project aside from TJ and Sky&Grass, and the project at the moment seemed less like trying to organise a pro team and more like starting a movement to improve the environment – everything discussed up to now was all about how cycling improves lives, and no firm stance on the team was made other than there was a partnership.
And then, silence. After that conference in August, not a whimper was heard out of the TJ Sport side. Although from the outside the wheels of the project were still turning – with Colnago signing on as bike sponsor in early October and the riders of Lampre and new riders who signed on – such as Ben Swift of Sky and Darwin Atapuma of BMC – attending a training camp in early November; there wasn’t anything from the investors or Lampre. As the December 15 deadline came closer, the nervousness grew seemingly from inside and outside the camp of the team. Rider agents were saying the more popular riders such as Ulissi, Meijntes, Swift, Atapuma, Costa and others were looking to jump ship to other WorldTour teams as their future under the TJ Sport flag became uncertain. The supposed funding was still yet to materialise, and as the WT licences were handed out in late November, one name was missing: TJ Sport. Excuses started coming out of the project – someone was sick and wasn’t able to finish the documentation, the documentation was incorrectly completed and had to be redone, waiting for funding, the political landscape in China was too volatile for the project to go ahead etc. There were rumours that an Abu Dhabi based investor would save the team (barely), scraping by with a 8-9 million Euro budget (also known, for a cycling team, as sweet FA). And as December 15 came and gone, TJ Sport were still unlicensed and very much facing the prospect of folding or racing at PCT level for 2 years. This so-called project to boost the sport of cycling in China had completely faltered.
December 20 saw the nail laid into the coffin of the ‘glorious’ project. While it was announced on December 13 that Colnago had signed a contract with a company in the UAE about the future of the team, it was on December 20 that the team formerly known as Lampre found it’s future – at UAE Abu Dhabi (name subject to change). Saronni from Lampre had to run around to find a contract for his team as the Chinese investors seemingly vanished as fast as the money did – it was like they didn’t even exist.
So where did TJ Sport and the future of Chinese cycling finish? It finished where it started – absolutely nowhere. Although the journey to nowhere was filled with hope, promise and a great goal, it turned around as quickly as it left when the money didn’t materalise and the investors seemingly scattered to avoid blame. Reflecting on it now, a cynical thought would say the team was doomed from the start – the vagueness of the first press conference, the lack of communication between branches and the disappearance of both sides as the tension grew were all signs pointing to its demise. And while in cycling, we love a good hope story, the story of TJ ended in tragedy like other cycling miracles.
Cycling in China however, is not dead. The UCI have added a new race – the Tour of Guangxi – onto the already-expanded WT Calendar, two years after the Tour of Beijing was removed from the WT calendar. The 6 stage race has been proposed to finish of the WorldTour. Also, there are still the Tour of Qinghai Lake (2.HC), Tour of Hainan (2.HC) and Tour of China (2.1) in the region, and these races have seemingly grown in popularity and the rider quality increased as the years go on.
The UCI seems adamant on trying to grow the sport in China, but if they want to get serious about growing it, they need to provide sustainability and security before chasing the money. And while this can be applied to how the UCI operates itself outside of China too (just look at Doha Worlds), the fact that the UCI has made so many stabs at trying to enter the Chinese market before ultimately failing means that something has gone wrong in how the UCI operates. Maybe bringing back the very popular Tour of Beijing would help, or establishing the Tour of Guangxi on the WT Calendar to bring the big names; but they need to make a bold move and make it stick if they want the market to grow.
Thanks for reading this post! I did a bit of investigation to write it and while in places it might be a bit lacking in detail, I tried to be more transparent than TJ Sport/Lampre did over the whole period the project was on. For now, I’m out.
~ The Cycling Raven
Edit: Thanks to /u/flavioxavier on /r/peloton for fact-checking my Tour of Beijing things, the article has since been amended!