He set a precedent just by starting: Ji Cheng, the first Chinese rider to start the Tour de France. “In the team they gave me a name,” he explained in Leeds, “they call me ‘Control’ – I control the group. I ride at the front, I chase the break…” Thrilled to be at the Grand Départ, he recognised the opportunity that he’d been presented with. But was he daunted of the prospect of what lay ahead? “Yeah! It’s really the biggest race in the world.”
But still he smiled. Does the Tour frighten him? “Yeah!”
He was adamant. But he was happy.
After 3,259km of racing, Ji Cheng is still in the race. Many others have abandoned, no longer able – for one reason or another – to make it to the finish, but Ji has Paris in his sights.
The many classifications of the Tour are effectively decided.
After 18 stages, Vincenzo Nibali has a commanding lead on GC – clad in the yellow jersey for all but two stages of the Tour’s 101st edition, the Sicilian appears destined to win the overall title with a massive advantage of 7:20 over his nearest rival.
The young Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, clad in the white jersey, is now up to second place. He has a lead of 2:17 on his compatriot Romain Bardet in the youth classification.
Peter Sagan will ride to Paris in the green jersey for the third successive year. He took over first place in the points classification on day two and no one else even got close to his haul: the Slovakian leads Bryan Coquard 408 points to 253.
And the double stage winner Rafal Majka has an unassailable advantage in the climbing classification. This was the least certain of all the prize classifications as the 24-year-old race debutant needed to finish in the top six at Hautacam in stage 18 to make sure Nibali didn’t steal is spotted top. He was third. He will become the Tour’s first Polish King of the Mountains: 181 points, 13 more than ‘The Shark’.
What’s left? The classement par equipe: AG2R La Mondiale, take a bow – it seems to be yours for the keeping. They have worn yellow helmets and yellow race numbers for much of the race and hold an advantage of 28:33 over Belkin. Surely we’ll see them on the podium this Sunday.
And the Super Combative? Glad you asked… that’s the only award that seems to be in doubt and it is one based on a judgement call. Alessandro De Marchi, Tony Martin and Blel Kadri have worn red race numbers for two stages each this year but we wait to see what the panel decide. Often it goes to a Frenchman… a ‘consolation’ prize for a local but that’s not a given this year, not in a Tour in which there are three French riders in the top five. We’ll just have to wait to see what name comes out of the envelope in Paris.
Last, but not least… the title with no actual reward: bringing up the rear is the Lanterne Rouge. This one’s going to China. Congratulations Ji Cheng, you’ve fought a good fight. You’ve controlled the classification for much of the Tour. We won’t see you on the podium but we cheer your effort nonetheless.
Winning is one thing, but that’s not all the Tour is about. Showing heart and spirit and determination is what sport is all about.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a facetious review, a flippant rant about the rider in last place. Honestly, it’s far from it. Admit it: if you got to start the Tour, you too would be a happy rider. And if you were on the cusp of reaching the finish? Surely you’d be singing your own praise and reminding everyone of your achievement. I would. But I’m just a bloke who observes the sport. I’ve seen a lot of it over the years; sometimes it makes me cheer, sometimes it makes me cringe.
There are victors and villains; honest men and charlatans. They come and they go. Some make an impression, others fade and fall by the wayside – another athlete in a peloton of anonymous hopefuls.
‘Control’ has left an impression on me even if he is rarely seen on the TV screen. He pedals onward day after day and, even though his deficit grows daily, he doesn’t concede.
China’s first Tour starter is the red lantern of the race and he’s a genuine star in my mind.
A quick calculation tells us that Ji Cheng began the 18th stage effectively 201 kilometres behind Vincenzo Nibali. By the end of the race to Hautacam, when all the prize classifications had essentially been decided, he confirmed his position: last place. It’s his! Surely no one can take it from him now. Five hours, 30 minutes and 36 seconds – that’s the difference between first and last in Le Tour 2014 with three stages to go. A time trial remains and the deficit will likely grow. And still I’ll be cheering. And so too will his team-mates, the crowds lining the roadside, the television spectators who rarely catch a glimpse of him… and, of course, his many compatriots.
There are numerous asterisks in our sport. The denotations make understanding the history of cycling an exercise in confusion. Who is the real winner? Often there is no answer, not even in the official annals of Le Tour. Who finished last? There’s a roll call of 100 already on that list. Another name is about to be added. Ji Cheng, we salute you. Onward we march, to a wider world for cycle sport. Thanks for coming. And, of course, thanks for staying.
– By Rob Arnold