Race Design Thread

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I’ve jumped around the world a fair bit over the last 12-18 months in this thread, lockdowns and the inability to travel for large parts of that time has meant that in the escape that this thread provides, I’ve been going further afield and having a go at designing races in parts of the world that had previously been off my radar. The HTV Cup, of course, being the most obvious example. There are also a lot of races I’ve put together but not got round to posting in various parts of the world that I hadn’t already investigated for race designs, some of which will see the light of day one day, some of which will be cannibalised for other ideas, some of which will sit on the scrapheap until eventually the thread dies.

Back in June last year, I had a go at the Tour de Taiwan. I commented on how for several years the UCI had been trying to make cycling ‘a thing’ in Asia, and the way Chinese stage races had been crowbarred into the World Tour calendar, first with the Tour of Beijing from 2011 to 2014, and then the Tour of Guangxi since 2017 (with a break in 2020 for obvious reasons) after an abortive attempt at the Tour of Hangzhou in the interim. While the late-season spot is disadvantageous in getting major World Tour pros to take the races seriously, a fairly strong Chinese mini-season of 2.1 races has been constructed around the late season to connect the Tour of Qinghai Lake, the long-standing largest - and longest - race in China, with the run of late season races; the Tour of Hainan ran from 2006 to 2018, the Tour of Taihu Lake (essentially a week of sprints, really not a particularly enticing proposition in November) has been running since 2010, the Tour of Quanzhou Bay has been running since 2017 in November, the Tour of Pohang Lake ran in 2010 then from 2013-2019 in September; the most topographically interesting of the Chinese late-season events, the Tour of Fuzhou, has run since 2012 in October/November, and the most mad of the races, the Tour of China, has run since 2005 but in its current format, as two separate stage races, the Tour of China I and the Tour of China II, since 2012.

However, these late season races have by and large not been successful in achieving major take-up, coming at the end of a long season, for the world’s best, and have become largely used as a repository of UCI continental circuit points for teams short of them, with some ProContinental teams taking top tier sprinters like Andrea Guardini and Jakub Mareczko to fill their boots, or for mercenaries to take short term contracts with the Chinese teams to challenge for the win, at least now that the Asia Tour isn’t simply a plaything for Tabriz Petrochemical and Pishgaman Yazd and their extraterrestrial Iranian climbers anymore. These mercenaries can be Eastern European veterans like Oleksandr Polivoda, Georgios Bouglas and Mykhaylo Kononenko, who’ve spent several years here, South Americans no longer wanted in Europe but in search of strong payouts, such as Yonathan Monsalve, and Asia Tour types unable to break out further, such as the Kazakh duo of Ilya Davidenok and Artur Fedosseyev, unwanted at the top level due to doping history, who beat up on the domestic péloton in the more mountainous races. At least until recently, when the Chinese have started fighting back in these, thanks to the stylish prospect Lyu Xianjing (alternatively pinyinized as Lü), a young former mountain biker who looks like a legitimate top quality prospect.

Despite how much the UCI has been trying to force races in this part of the world, and the huge expanses of land and varied terrain provided by the world’s most populous nation offering ample opportunities for route designers, course design in China has been very limited in this thread. Back in 2012 Progsprach attempted a Grand Tour in China which began in Hong Kong and ended in Macau, but included thousands upon thousands of kilometres of transfer and also stages where a single-track mountain pass would be climbed and descended with cones down the middle of the road, perhaps a bit much for UCI safety protocols. Steven Roots included several stages in China in one of the most ambitious projects in the thread, the four-week Silk Road race from İstanbul to Xi’an, and that is actually it, as far as I can recall, for Chinese entries in this thread, save for Craig1985’s mooted replacement for/improvement on the Tour of Beijing, which he never managed to complete and post before his death.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is something that Progsprach bewailed when posting their race - mapping data is very messed up in China. The WGS-84 geodetic system used in calculating coordinates throughout the world is not used as standard in China, which instead uses a system called GCJ-02 which is slightly different, in effect meaning that when data is put into the same mapping software as used in the rest of the world, the differences generate an unpredictable offsetting of GPS locations from their real-life counterparts. As GCJ-02 does not apply in Hong Kong and Macau due to their special administrative statuses, these appear in normal form in mapping software, which causes their borders with the mainland to generate confusion. Mapping races from a Google Maps-related client therefore generated erroneous data unless you spent hours manually mapping the roads individually yourself. Here, Yahoo! Maps and OSM do not have this problem, however, and so the switch of Cronoescalada away from using Google Maps as a base following the compulsory implementation of New Maps has made parcours design in China slightly less onerous - using satellite imagery or a standard terrain view is still unhelpful in ascertaining where the road actually is but when you are able to place the points, the route will at least follow the actual roads.

So, I decided to try out these new-found capabilities. to create a focal point for this Chinese mini-season. The Tour of China I and Tour of China II often use a similar area, and so knowing this area was supportive of cycling was a boon. Knowing the geographical diversity of the area was little explored too gave me opportunities to create something. So I essentially smooshed the two Tour of China races back down into one and tied it down to a geographical area more akin to a European country in size than the colossal nation that the People’s Republic in fact is; the race I have created is based out of one of the most well known disparate regions of the country, a historic and traditional area all its own, with its own cuisine and culture known throughout the world.

This is the Tour of Sichuan.

Much like in America, where the “midwestern states” are actually largely to the east of the geographical centre of the country, the combination of low population density and the nature of the terrain means that Sichuan is known as the main centre of “Southwest China” despite it geographically being relatively central, at least from an east-west axis point of view, largely because the majority of the terrain directly to its west is the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Home of the Shu state, the Chengdu plain and the Sichuan basin are one of the great cradles of Chinese civilisation, with fertile soil and abundant natural resources, as a result of the region’s confluence of mighty sources of water - Sichuan indeed translates as “four rivers”. As the fourth most populous Chinese state and the fifth largest by area, it is perhaps the best suited Chinese province to a major stage race; Qinghai, present host of the biggest stage race within the Chinese season (the Tour of Guangxi is not available to the Chinese teams and riders, save for a national entry if they so wish, which to date they have not entered) is the fourth largest state by area but only 30th largest by population, and comparatively isolated. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is one of the biggest metropolises of China and a key economic centre, so a major Tour of Sichuan would have both the geographic opportunity to produce a difficult and varied race, be accessible for teams from around the world to contest should they so wish, and be well placed to attract support and sponsors as well as for the Chinese government to show off some spectacular attractions, lest we forget promoting tourism and selling media (whether it be newspapers à la the Tour, Giro, El Correo-El Pueblo Vasco era Vuelta, Dauphiné or Midi Libéré, or to attract an audience to radio or television stations like the Vuelta a Colombia or the HTV Cup) is a large part of the reason for the creation of major bike races throughout the years. The Tour of China, I and II, have had a large number of stages in the Sichuan area in recent years, so it’s clearly a region which either has some cycling interest in and of itself, or that the Chinese government wishes to promote via the medium of hosting bike racing, or indeed both. So I figured this would be a good idea for a race that would be creative and different, but simultaneously achievable and moderately realistic as a creation, at least once the period of pandemic hysteria has died down sufficiently for major racing in China to recommence with an international field.

Obviously I’d expect to see the Chinese péloton here, with the main protagonists likely to be imports of the kind already mentioned, plus a few locals who show promise, such as Lyu Xianjing, Liu Jiankun and Ma Guangtong. Hopefully the mainland/Hong Kong relationship is warm enough at that point that the HKSI team can enter without any issues, as the likes of Fung Ka Hoo, Cheung King Lok and Choy Hiu Fung would make good additions to the field. We might get an Iranian team or two, and probably Vino-Astana Motors. Eastern European teams like Minsk Cycling Club and Salcano-Sakarya have shown up in the past, plus a Russian team which could include the likes of Igor Frolov, and the South East Asian teams which already have some European and South American mercenaries for the Tour de Langkawi and the Banyuwangi Tour de Ijen. Plus, the late season race for points could get us some lower level ProConti teams, especially some of the Italian ones and maybe Burgos-BH, who’ve shown up to these races and Qinghai Lake in the past.

Stage 1: Chengdu - Chengdu, 126km

Zhenwushan (Pibagou Road Phoenix Temple)(cat.2) 5,4km @ 4,0%
Zhenwushan (Pibagou Road Phoenix Temple)(cat.2) 5,4km @ 4,0%
Zhenwushan (Pibagou Road Phoenix Temple)(cat.2) 5,4km @ 4,0%
Zhenwushan (Pibagou Road Phoenix Temple)(cat.2) 5,4km @ 4,0%

The first stage of the race starts and finishes in the centre of the regional capital of Sichuan, Chengdu. Dating back some four thousand years, it was the capital of a partially Sinified culture which has become known as Shu, until the conquest of this kingdom by the Qin Dynasty in 316 BC. Under the Han the city became famous for its brocade, and after the fall of the Eastern Han it became the centre of a new and wider-reaching Shu empire, the southwestern of the Three Kingdoms during the Three Kingdoms Era. It also held an independent status during the Wang Shu era, during the Ten Kingdoms between the Tang and Song dynasties. The Tang held it from 925 to 965 before it was conquered by the Song, and it was here that the first paper money system in the world was developed, with Chengdu the first city to introduce it. Since then, Chengdu has been part of the western outreach of the Chinese empires, save for a three year period in the seventeenth century when it served as the capital of rebel breakaway Zhang Xianzhong’s western kingdom and became a virtual ghost town under the brutal, bloodthirsty repression of this regime.

Following the restoration of imperial control, Chengdu became an important trading centre with the fertile plains surrounding the city (the Chengdu Plain is known as Tianfu zhi Guo, or Country of Heaven) proving an excellent base for growing tobacco, and as the leaf’s popularity spread through the country, the Sichuan varieties became popular prestige products, and the region became the main manufacturer of cigars and cigarettes throughout China. In recent times it briefly served as the national capital, since the nationalists deposed the imperial dynasties following the Xinhai Revolution, when Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang government retreated from Nanjing to Wuhan and then to Chengdu for a year to defend against encroachment of the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Even after the government relocated again to Chongqing (previously also part of Sichuan), it remained a major military base, until aerial bombardment from Japan’s new and improved fleet of bombers in 1940 overwhelmed the obsolete Chinese air force.

After the resolution of WWII, the Chinese Civil War took centre stage, and Chengdu, having been a heavily defended base for the national government during the war, was aggressively defended by the Kuomintang against the oncoming Communist forces. In the end, it was the last city on the mainland that Chiang’s men could hold, but eventually was taken unopposed on December 27th 1949 after a deal was brokered to allow the KMT leaders and military command safe passage to evacuate to Taiwan in exchange for conceding the city without conflict. The Communists then set to work modernising and developing the city, recognising the value of the fertile and resource-rich land in the Chengdu plain and surrounding mountains; the railways arrived in 1952, and now the city’s station is the sixth biggest in the cuntry. In the 1960s it was designated as a hub for national defence industries, and it is perhaps as a legacy of this that today the machinery, automotive, and more recently information technology industries dominate the economy of Chengdu, which has rapidly expanded, making it one of China’s most important economic, financial and commercial centres. Its population has swollen enormously, and the government are developing a new model city known as “The Great City” on the outskirts of the city based around revolutionary town planning concepts. It is hosting the Summer Universiade for 2021, aimed at being its grand coming-out party as a global city.

Modern Chengdu

Traditional Chengdu

The population of Chengdu is now in excess of 11 million within the city itself, and 18 million in the municipality, although that includes a fair amount of additional territory. Obviously massive metropolises such as this don’t often host racing in a traditional road stage kind of route, especially starting and finishing in the city, and we’re used to city centre circuit type routes, often patterned after the Champs Elysées and Paseo del Prado stages in the Grand Tours. The Asia Tour does see a few such stages, most notably the Taipei City pseudo-crit in the Tour de Taiwan, but holding a completely pan-flat stage such as this on stage 1 is, well, a bit bleh. City centre routes are difficult to make topographically interesting unless you have a cityscape conducive to it. A one-day race can potentially get away with a less challenging route, especially when there are restricted entry lists (such as, say, the Commonwealth Games Road Race in Glasgow or the European Games Road Race in Minsk), but for the most part, for interesting circuit races in major cities, you’re waiting on somewhere with the geography of San Francisco to want to host racing for this to work.

Helpfully, though, we have another option: the lollipop-stage concept brought to us by the 2012 Olympic Road Race in London, where the riders leave the city at the start, and re-enter it at the end, but after a number of laps of a circuit which includes the race’s obstacles for selection. This also means you can leave and enter the start/finish by the same route in opposite directions without any issue. I’ve wondered at times why, say, the Vuelta doesn’t do this, as there could be some options to make a Madrid to Madrid stage interesting. It’s actually a very interesting option as a means by which to create interesting race options in major cities, and I’ve had a few prospective goes at it. This is the first to make it into a stage race, however, as we head out from central Chengdu to the nearby hills in the southeast, in order to challenge the riders to make something of a short stage on day one, or at least make the sprinters work for their opportunity to wear the race leader’s jersey.

The race begins (and thereby ends) at the central square of Chengdu, Tianfu Square. This enormous open square serves as the covering of a mall and the most important metro station on the Chengdu network, and has become kind of the symbol of the city, an icon of the modern metropolis to contrast with some of the more traditional sights and vistas of the city.

Considering my fascination with the Peace Race and love for the pageantry and theatre of the dramatic finishes at monumental socialist architecture in my HTV Cup, it’s probably not a surprise to you to see me pick somewhere like this as a finale, right?

I’ll talk more about the run out of town later, because it turns into the run back into town, seeing as, you know, we’re cloning the format of the London 2012 road race. However, it is essentially around 25km out to our circuit, mostly on the wide open highway which OSM records as the G318 and Google records as the G319, until we reach Shufangcun Sightseeing Park, and turning left just before the town of Longquanyi, centre of an eponymous - and rather hilly - district.

The Longquan mountain range, a low lying ridge of mountains overlooking Chengdu from its southeast and separating the metropolis from Ziyang

With their ease of access from Chengdu, the scenic Longquan mountains are one of the most popular tourist getaways in Sichuan, the mountains are easily traversable and not as inhospitable as the larger ranges to the west, and the area is known for both wild and cultivated fruit, with the peach orchards especially renowned. Grapes and loquats from the hillside are also prestige varieties, although the area is being progressively reclaimed by nature, as a Chinese government initiative has found that the ecological tourism in the area is more profitable than the relatively isolated and poor farming communities, so have relocated many children to boarding schools in Chengdu to try to combat the 42% of the Longquan population in these low-income communities, directing efforts toward growing the more successful farming areas in the region and converting the remaining areas to forestry and natural parks.

Our circuit consists of a rumble into the lower, northwestern side of these hills. The circuit consists, after joining it just after the first intermediate sprint at the left at Shufangcun, a straight highway road to Zhimagou, and then a sharp right onto what is called Pibagou Road, a twisty road with some switchbacks which passes the Zaiwang Mountain Villa. You have no idea how tough some of these pictures are to find, I’ve enabled pinyin on my computer to try to get accurate images of locations off the beaten track, and then to operate a pinyin-Chinese (Simplified) system to search in Chinese characters - no easy task!

The road is really not the most challenging you are going to find, and it gets cat.2 status because of two reasons really. 1) it is of a pretty reasonable length, nearly 5,5km; 2) the Chinese races on the UCI Asia Tour tend to give some pretty generous - and sometimes bonkers - mountains points, so in keeping with that, this climb is tougher than a bunch of climbs that will get cat.3 in this event, so I’m giving it cat.2. It’s 5,4km at 4%, but the first 2km are barely false flat, up at 2-2,5km, after which it jumps up to 6% on average, including a short stretch that goes up to 12% twice and includes a decent stretch at 9%. However, most of the climb is more about attrition than selectivity, so you aren’t liable to see many major attacks from people who are going to contend this race once we’ve got into the rhythm of it.

After the summit we rejoin the trans-range nodal road at the Dengguoyuan Leisure Mountain Villa, and descend at similarly comfortable gradients down into the town of Longquanyi itself, a small town which will host the feed station at the second pass of four on this circuit of 19,8km. This means that the climb crests at 91, 71, 52 and 32km from the finish approximately - close enough for somebody to dare as a baroudeur, but far enough away, especially given the wide open and very straight nature of much of the run-in, to make it so that the bunch is the favourite. After the fourth passage over the summit, we leave the circuit to turn left at Shufangcun for a second intermediate sprint (bonus seconds may be a tempting reason for somebody to give it a go on the last ascent too, as a result), before we head back to Chengdu.

There’s about 22km from the final intermediate sprint to the finish back at Tianfu Square. The first part is largely through suburbs, but then once crossing into the city itself we pass by the scenic Tazishan Park, known for the iconic Jiutianlou Tower and renowned throughout China for its spring lantern festival and the associated lightwork displays.

From here it’s largely a trip towards the, well, known, as we head toward the glass and concrete of the modern skyscrapers at the centre of the redeveloped city, passing sights like the Chengdu Jiayi Technology and Trade Centre, though we do pass by some spots that point both to Sichuanese future - the Tianfu Ancient Drama Garden, a botanical garden designed in the style of the revolutionary green city that is being planned to alleviate the burden of heavy urbanisation; and to Sichuanese past, the historic Daci Temple and Monastery.

This Chan Buddhist temple is attested back to the 3rd Century of the Common Era, when the Indian monk Baozhang was recorded as having stayed there. When Tang Emperor Xuanzong was forced by rebellion to relocate to Chengdu in the 8th Century, he was deeply moved by the charity of the monks to the poor of the city and ordered the reconstruction and preservation of the Temple - a fact which spared it in the next century, when Emperor Wuzong implemented a standing policy of religious persecution; with the personal protection in handwriting from Xuanzong, he was compelled to allow the Daci Temple to stand. Fire ravaged the complex in the 15th Century, but it was reconstructed in the earlier style during the Qing Dynasty, before further renovation in 1867. During the early days of the People’s Republic, there was some fear of religious persecution akin to that of the Wuzong reign 11 centuries earlier, but after religious freedom was guaranteed by the 3rd Plenary in 1978, and the preserved monastery was converted to a museum in 1983, before being reopened for its original, religious purposes 20 years later. The nearby urban development, Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li Chengdu, which opened in 2015, is a low rise complex which has been deliberately kept to low level housing and retail developments in traditional Sichuan architectural style. Detractors say that this lends it something of a kitsch factor, modern trendy chainstores being located out of a modern facsimile of traditional architecture, while proponents feel that it enables the modern China to exist within the framework of the traditional city, restoring a level of specifically Chinese character that the glass-and-steel skyline doesn’t offer, and also - and this is key, because it’s actually one of the specific reasons for the regulations imposed on the development - it means that the monastery and temple is not overshadowed and doesn’t look out of place, as the traditional style housing is more in keeping with the aesthetic of the temple than of the rest of central Chengdu, making it look clean and spacious like a modern retail park from the inside, but not looking out of place in a traditional style from the outside. You be the judge.

There are just a couple of curves, before two or three significant corners in the last 1500m. A 90º left at 1200m to go is followed by a smooth slight right hand curve, before two near 90º right handers at 650m and 350m from the line - however both are on roads which are four lanes either side so there is ample space to make these corners safely. Especially if the four times up the climb mean we reduce the péloton slightly, bu this is probably one for the fastmen.

Wonderful stuff Libertine, I've been thinking about a Tour of Sichuan since I saw some of the climbs on Cronoescalada recently.
I guess we'll see a big MTF on a really long climb and high altitude mountain passes...

I'm still working around a bit on my Vuelta a Jujuy y Salta and on my 2 different versions of the Vuelta ciclistica de Chile (there is enough terrain for a whole gt in that country), one taking place in the more traditional, central area of tge country, while the other one takes place in the north with it's big industrial and mining cities and visits both the coast an the Atacama desert.
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I have been rather diligent on cronoescalada with regards to climb logging lately, yes ;)

I have also had a few thoughts about Chile, because most of my South American work thus far has been built around the rioplatense scene, with several races in Argentina, plus one apiece in Uruguay and Brazil, I haven't done nearly enough work on the real high altitude areas and the possibilities there. Places like Colombia I always have the same problem that I have with Italy or Austria, that there's such an embarrassment of riches it's impossible to get everything you want in without multiple routes or an embarrassingly unbalanced parcours.

Stage 2: Mianzhu - Qiqushan Temple, 206km

Beichuan (cat.3) 11,5km @ 1,9%
Qiqushan Temple (cat.2) 4,2km @ 6,5%
Qiqushan Temple (cat.3) 2,8km @ 5,3%

The second stage of the race is the first ‘hilly stage’, a much longer affair with a complex finale designed to open up the first - but still relatively small - time gaps in the general classification. This kind of longer stage is fairly uncommon in the Chinese stage races, other than the Tour of Qinghai Lake (although that’s the one that we’re headed for something most like, providing a veritable Grand Tour for the Asia Tour kind of scenario), with most stages tending to stay around the 100-130km kind of area, with a few longer ones. The Tour of Hainan, attracting a number of European Pro teams, would tend to be more like an average distance that we would recognise as typical in European and North American pro cycling, with even some stages up at the 230-240km mark. So this stage is on the long side, but then again yesterday’s stage was only 125km in length and the stage isn’t especially tricky until the end (and besides, endurance is a thing, you know?) so I think we’ll be fine.

The city of Mianzhu, around 100km north of Chengdu, is home to around half a million people in its municipality, though this is spread between nineteen towns, and of which Mianzhu itself contributes just under half. It is most famous for the Jian Nan Chun distillery, producing a spiced rice wine which has been based on recipes dating back to the Tang Dynasty and with the current distillery having a history exceeding 500 years. The town’s other landmark is its gold-covered wooden pagoda, the Lingguan Tower, which you can see in the above - slightly dated - photo. Sixteen storeys high and visible for miles around (from the Chengdu Plain side at least), it was China’s tallest wooden pagoda, but it was heavily damaged in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. It was undergoing renovations to bolster its structural integrity when it was sadly destroyed in a blaze in December 2017 and while attempts are ongoing to restore it, the full tower has yet to be reconstructed.

The stage begins by heading northwards, through Anzhou District, and into the foothills of the Min Mountains (岷山), bounded to the west by the river of the same name, which is one of the key rivers whose confluence creates the river known in the west as the Yangtze or a similar form phoneticised into other languages (Yangtsé in Spanish, Jangtze in German, and so on)(having come to common usage from Wade-Giles transcription; the pinyin romanisation standard is “Yangzi”) and is often seen as the river which is followed as its main source. We aren’t following the Min, however, but are one valley over, in the basin of the Tongkou, which almost converges with the Min close to source but then instead forms a complex array of streams and valleys as it heads into the Chengdu basin. One branch is the Subao, which we follow into the Mín Shan foothills to the Tongkou proper, via the long and gradual climb (I mean literally false flat until the last kilometre or two) into Beichuan (which translates as “north river”). Beichuan lays claim (contested) to being the hometown of 大禹, or “Yu the Great”, a ruler of the third millennium BC regarded as one of China’s greatest Emperors, who established the Xia Dynasty and popularised Dynastic rule in East Asia, presided over the development of great advances in flood defence, with the channel near Mount Longmen known as 禹門口 (Yu’s Gateway) to this day. However, while his accepted story is largely free from the kind of interactions with Gods and feats of superhuman endeavours we encountered with the semi-mythical dynasties of the Vietnamese creation stories during my HTV Cup (although he is said in some sources to have slain a dragon at one point), written records do not begin until several centuries after Yu’s life, and so some of the historiography is considered unreliable and hard evidence of his life and work remains only in the man-made channels and irrigation systems attributed to him and so debate reigns over his historicity as he does not appear in contemporary sources. Nevertheless, his legend reigns strong in China, his mastery of the floods have led him to be regarded as a philosopher king by the ancient Chinese, referenced by Confucius, and as a water deity in Taoism, and in Shaoxing, where he supposedly died, there is a mausoleum dedicated to the memory and shrine entombing what are believed to be the remains of the Emperor.

Beichuan was, however, the most severely struck and damaged of all towns by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and although it had a population of some 20.000 prior to the disaster, it has essentially been entirely depopulated; nowhere was as extensively damaged as Beichuan, and so much of its architecture has been deemed too dangerous to restore and salvage that it has been decided that it cannot be made safe, therefore the survivors have been relocated and the site of the city and its remains will be converted into a memorial park.

Beichuan in the wake of the earthquake

Around 20km of rumbling through the valley leads to another false flat - around 7km at 2% - before a slight downhill as we leave the Tongkou river and join one of the branches of the Fu. This then passes us through a canyon past the Ape King Grotto National Scenic Area, a cave complex and temple within the Xiqiang Jiu Huangshan Mountain Scenic Area, not to be confused with Jiuhuashan, a sacred Buddhist site in Anhui.

Coming out of the canyon and back into the plain, we have our first intermediate sprint shortly after the previous stage would have ended, in the town of Jiangyou. Jiangyou is a good spot for some cultural background for the intermediate sprint in case the organisers of the Tour of Sichuan (i.e. my Chinese counterparts) decide to go for a similar concept to the Turkish Beauties Primes in the Tour of Turkey, a separate intermediate sprint competition for particular tourist attractions - this is as the city is the home of Li Bai (李白, occasionally transcribed from Southern Min Chinese as Lí Pek), an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet, one of the most prominent figures in the so-called Golden Age of Chinese Poetry, and seen as one arm of the “Three Wonders” of Chinese culture in the Tang Dynasty - alongside the swordsmanship of Pei Min and the calligraphy of Zhang Xu. He was born in Suyab, a Silk Road trading post near modern Bishkek, but his family moved to Jiangyou in his youth. A true romantic of the kind Europeans would come to fête a millennium later, he learned swordsmanship in youth and fought and killed several men in battle in accordance with the tradition of knights-errant. He spent many years travelling and drifting and joining a literature and wine society in Shandong where he earned the ear of the Emperor for his skilful wordplay. He became friends with fellow literary giant and Sichuan native Du Fu, but during the An Lushan rebellion his wandering became restricted, which limited his literary inspiration. He was granted a position for the Emperor after volunteering to help in the fight to restore imperial order, but by the time it arrived, he had already died, apocryphally in romantic hero fashion to the last but more likely by natural causes - related to his hard living style. Much like Baudelaire, he wrote a great deal about the joys of intoxication, nominally with alcohol but not necessarily so. His style has endured, being imitated especially in the Song Dynasty but even as recently as by Mao Zedong in his own poetic endeavours.

The ensuing 50 kilometres or so are rolling, leading to the second intermediate sprint in the town of Zitong, with a population of around 300.000, and also home to a major cultural and literary figure, Sima Xiangru, a Han Dynasty era (2nd century BC) poet regarded as the greatest master of the fu rhapsody style of poetry, which he formulated new developments for and greatly expanded. He wed the widowed fellow poet Zhuo Wenjun and was granted an audience with Emperor Wu, composing his most widely known work, the Fu on the Shanglin Park, and impressed the Emperor sufficiently to earn a position at the imperial court and serve as royal envoy to the Shu (Sichuan) area. When he fell ill, much like Li Bai, he was too quick for Imperial intervention, for when word was received that the veteran poet was dying, Emperor Wu sent officials to secure authority to collect and preserve his writings for future generations, but by the time they arrived the poet had already died. He is portrayed rather less flatteringly in later years in the historical drama Feng Qiu Huang, as a manipulator and a skilled marketer and hype artist who wins influence and deceives his way into the Zhuo family fortune, so take it as you will.

Only 20km remain at the intermediate sprint in Zitong, however, before we make our way up to the city’s most iconic structure, the hilltop Qiqushan Temple, which hosts the stage finish and will hopefully see our first time gaps open up in the Tour of Sichuan.

The tree-lined Taoist temple Qīqūshān dà miào (七曲山大庙) has stood on this spot since the fourth century of the Common Era, having been originally constructed in the early Eastern Jin Dynasty. It was named the Yazi Temple after Zhang Yazi (張亞子), a Taoist deity known as the God of Culture and Literature. He is much more widely recognised under the taken name Wénchāng Wáng (文昌王), sometimes just Wén, a name which translates as “Culture Flourishing King”. Though no formal records exist, he is widely depicted as the man Zhang Yazi of Zitong, cited as a war hero who died an honourable death in the fourth Century, although this is not the first citation of Wénchāng Wáng, who mythology attests to have had at least 17 citations as incarnations over a 3000 year span. Wén was apotheosised in the 14th Century, and today he is appealed to especially by scholars and students for inspiration in academic work. He remained a popular deity to worship throughout modern history as he was a deity who could serve as inspiration and icon to both rich and poor, and in Sichuan there is something of a so-called “Wénchāng culture” (a local proverb conflates the Zhang Yazi incarnation of Wénchāng as the southern equivalent of Confucius), of which the Qiqushan Temple is the most prominent site and example. The formal connection confirming the mythological conflation of Zhang Yazi and Wénchāng was made during the Yuan Dynasty, and in the 17th Century the temple was rebuilt in a more grand fashion to mark this fact, and renamed the Wénchāng Palace to honour it. The grandiose temple is the heart of an ancient building complex which in its present incarnation spans the Yuan, Qing and Ming Dynasty styles, and using stilts, pavilion strata and clever use of topography to maximise the available space.

Qiqushan, or Qiqu Mountain, is a tranquil spot renowned for being home to China’s largest cypress forest - some 20.000 ancient cypresses surround the temple - and sits a little over 800m above sea level, around 350m above the neighbouring city. From a cycling perspective, it’s not a total brute, and it’s only because of the somewhat generous nature of the GPM in the Chinese stage races that it gets a cat.2 status. Its overall stats are 4,2km at 6,5%, although this comes in effect in three thirds, an initial 1500m at something around 7,5-8%, then a much milder stretch of 3-4%, before jumping back up to a final kilometre at just over 7%. So a perfectly reasonable climb, a little long to be a puncheur ascent but not long enough for pure climbers. In theory at least, however we have an extra sting in the tail, in the form of a short (11km) circuit that I have appended to the end of the stage, looping around the top of Qiqushan and around the temple and monastic complex. Riders, you’re welcome.

More recently, a second road over the summit of Qiqushan has been constructed, to the west of the original, which allows an easing of the traffic burden to the temple, since the original road passes directly through the centre of the temple complex, and increased vehicular traffic has had an impact both on tourist and pilgrim access as well as the tranquility of the site. The neighbouring road along the shoulder of the mountain has a radio transmitter built into it, and though it reaches a similar maximum altitude, it takes a while longer to get to it as it joins the road along the spine of the mountain range much later. As a result, after passing the finishing line with 11km remaining, the riders then have around four kilometres of flat terrain, before taking a hairpin left where the original road and the new road converge, and then they take a gradual, swooping descent through the transmitter station along the shoulder of the road before taking a left to re-do the final two thirds of the climb up to the temple. This omits the first ramp, so it becomes even more of a puncheur ascent this way, with all of the false flat retained and only the last kilometre at 7% sufficient to really put any time on anybody. The platform is there to attack on the first ascent of the finish if riders want to, especially bearing in mind the stages to come, but otherwise, the uphill ramps to the line will be our first chance to see some time gaps created in the Tour of Sichuan, and we should see some smallish gaps ensue in the manner of only a few seconds here and there.
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Stage 3: Mianyang - Nanchong, 197km

Ciujiagou (cat.3) 2,1km @ 3,9%
Banqiaozi (cat.3) 1,6km @ 6,0%

Second long stage in a row for this péloton, but a much more easy day in the saddle as this one is a flat stage and is likely to end in a sprint as we transition eastwards towards the perimeter of Sichuan Province, and the new border with the direct-rule municipality of Chongqing, one of four (along with Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin) such cities, and which was broken away from Sichuan province in 1997. The city is also the one which gives the popular Wong Kar-Wai movie Chungking Express its name, using (as is popular in Hong Kong, or at least was at the time) Wade-Giles transcription based on the southeastern pronunciations, though the connection is only indirect - the film’s name comes from Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui (again, in Wade-Giles, though the Hong Kong locations being named in Cantonese does make this often more effective than putonghua pinyin naming practices in the SAR) and the Midnight Express food stand nearby, around which the action in the film orbits - the Mansions were named for Chongqing so that’s where the connection spreads from.

We’re only headed in that general direction for the time being, however, starting a little to the southwest of yesterday’s finish, in the city of Mianyang, a fast-growing urban municipality with a metropolitan population of 1,7 million. The county’s population is in excess of 5 million, but that is inclusive of Jiangyou and a number of other towns in the region. It was recently voted into the top 5 of China’s most livable cities, however this reputation has been damaged somewhat by the rapid expansion that has ensued.

Mianyang’s location at the confluence of the Anchang and Fu rivers and on the route from Chengdu to the start of the Silk Road in Xi’an made it a logical place to start a community, and in its original name of Fuxian, it is attested back over 2000 years. Its strategic importance due to controlling resources in the Chengdu plain has made it a city of great military prominence, dating back centuries and being especially noteworthy today when the city’s military research complex earned the accolade of being the place where China’s nuclear capabilities were first developed. It holds Sichuan’s second largest airport, and is a major electronics hub, along with housing major research institutes and engineering strategy hubs, largely a legacy of the military past. More recently, it is hometown to table-tennis star and doubles World Champion Zhu Yuling, and to controversial and much-reviled quacksalver Hu Wanlin, a former criminal who opened an illegal medical practice in the early 1990s, distributing fraudulent treatments and being responsible, allegedly, for nearly 150 deaths. And it hosted the start of stage 4 of the 2011 Tour of China, a 215km flat stage to Suining which was won by Boris Shpilevsky.

This stage is one of the most straightforward of the race, decent in length but not heavy on obstacles, which will be fine by the péloton I would assume, after a long stage with a double climb at the end and with plenty of tough terrain to come. There is hilly terrain in the land which lies between Mianyang and Nanchong, but most of this is relatively low-lying and undulating, and although we aren’t following the highway route between the two, as is common throughout history, the main road routes tend to take the path of least resistance, so to speak, so by travelling relatively directly we head through terrain which is largely rolling at most (although the path of absolute least resistance would entail following the Fu river for most of it then turning northeastward at the end, which would extend the stage up to around the 240km limit, which I didn’t wish to do). Instead we head almost due east, toward the first intermediate sprint at about 1/3 distance in Yanting, a county of 600.000 inhabitants, around a third of whom live in the city itself.

After passing through Yulong, we have a bit of rolling territory though the Leizu forested Scenic Area before heading south along a tributary of the Fu, before a sharp corner onto the X131 which takes us through some more undulations, including our first categorised climb of the day - albeit not a particularly threatening one, 2km at around 4%, just inside 70km to go so obvious fodder for the break of the day - towards Dizi. More undulations take us over the only other categorised climb, 1,6km at 6% with 40km remaining so again not likely to prevent the bunch kick being the bookmaker’s choice for this one.

However, the second intermediate sprint and its associated bonus seconds are only a few kilometres after the climb so if the bunch does bring the break back quickly or the break is very small and leaves some scraps for the bunch in terms of bonus seconds, then it could be fought over. The intermediate sprint takes place in Xichong, before we head onward through a very flat and, for the most part, very straight run-in towards today’s finishing city of Nanchong.

Historic Nanchong

Modern Nanchong, downtown Shunqing District, where we are finishing

Home today to some 1,8 million people in the inner city and 6,3 million in its prefecture, Nanchong is, after Chengdu, the second largest city in Sichuan, and has its origins in the city of Anhan (literally “Han-stabilising”), an outpost established to protect the border areas after the Han acquired the territory of the Qin Dynasty, who had successfully wrested control of the area from the Ba. After the stabilisation of the extent of the Chinese empire at the time, under Tang rule it was renamed Guozhou (“fruit state”) in 621, and then a century later to its present name. With the fertile waters of the Jialing river and hilly terrain surrounding it, it has become a prosperous city on the back of its abundance of natural resources. It’s a strange dichotomy, between the profiting off of rock oil and natural gas reserves, along with slate mining in the nearby hills, and heavy petroleum-related manufacturing trades, and its largely agricultural, food-producing surrounding areas, which arises out of an uncommonly (for modern China) agrarian-biased population split in the prefecture, and heavy farming of rice and orange for food, and silkworm cultivation for fabric.

Nanchong is also well known back into deepest Chinese history, for it is home of Chen Shou (陳壽), a third century historian and political figure whose Records of the Three Kingdoms is considered part of the “official” Chinese history regarded as authentic verifications of the eras, canonised as the “24 Histories” (二十四史, Ershisi Shi) or “Orthodox Histories”. He had been an official in the court of the Shu, but was demoted due to a refusal to dote on the influential and powerful Huang Hao, a eunuch who had the ears of the rulers of Shu at the time. He was hired by the Jin Dynasty to scribal roles, and so had a perspective of multiple views on history from within different kingdoms, enabling him to author a relatively unbiased version of events, which has lent credibility to his accounts of the time, and his Magnum opus is largely comprised of detailed biographies of the prominent people of the era. Of course, one man’s unbiased is another man’s defamatory, especially in a culture where pride, honour and face are so crucial, so his accounts did have some controversies attached. The book was considered important enough to be rescued from his deathbed for copying, just as with Sima Xiangru’s poetry, and then it was annotated and expanded on by the legendary historian Pei Songzhi, whose commentary on and expansions of the Sanguozhi to explain or add colour to Chen Shou’s writings tripled its length.

It is also the home to former leader 朱德 (Zhu De), a former military rebel warlord who rose to prominence after joining the Chinese Communist Party, defecting from Fan Shisheng’s protection in 1928 to ally himself closely with Mao Zedong, before leading the breakout that created the groundwork for the Long March, rising through the ranks of the Red Army to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Eighth Route Army and becoming one of the leading marshals of the People’s Liberation Army. From 1975 until his death in 1976 he was the official head of state of the People’s Republic. Another prominent Communist of the era, 罗瑞卿 (Luo Ruiqing), was also a Nanchong native, another participant in the Long March and long-time associate of Mao’s whose most notable achievement was the establishment of the security and police apparatus of the People’s Republic, serving as the Minister of Public Security for a decade from 1949, and Chief of Joint Staff from 1959 until 1965. He was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, although Mao rehabilitated his former cohort in 1975 after conceding that Lin Biao had fabricated the case against Luo due to their disagreements in the handling of the army.

Before the People’s Republic, however, China had the Democratic League, and that league was led by another Nanchong native, 张澜 (Zhang Lan), seen here with Mao Zedong. A supporter of the reformist Liang Qichao, Zhang campaigned for a transition from the Qing Dynasty to constitutional monarchy and opposed the Sichuan-Hankou Railway. He had a stint leading the government of Sichuan, but largely worked as an educator, opposing the nationalist government of the country as a whole. When the opposition formed a coalition of oppositional factions, the Chinese Democratic League, Zhang was elected its chairman, a non-partisan figurehead who could quell disagreements between the oppositional strategies and be the public face of the organisation. The League was declared illegal in 1947, and Zhang was placed under house arrest, however the Communist Party sent agents to free him in early 1949, after which he travelled to Beijing to help with the formation of the new government. He was one of two non-CCP members of the Central People’s Government from 1949 to 1954 in recognition of his work in opposition to the nationalists, along with Rosamonde Soong Chingling (Song Qingling), the widow of Sun Yat-Sen. The reorganisation in 1954, following the power grab attempt and subsequent suicide of Gao Gang, saw the Vice-Chairmanship reduced to one man only, with fellow Nanchong native Zhu De taking that role, so the ageing and ailing Zhang was re-deployed as a vice-chair to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. He spent little time in the role, however, as arteriosclerosis was setting in and eventually killed him at age 84, in early 1955.

These races in single-party states do like to honour people of prominence, even if the more globalised, international-facing modern face of China is less direct about this than some. Nevertheless, Nanchong’s surprisingly major prominence in modern China’s ideological forefathers is worth drawing attention to. And at least it gives me something to write about, since the stage is going to be a sprint.

Nanchong’s central ancient city
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Stage 4: Guang’an (Deng Xiaoping Guju) - Guang’an (Deng Xiaoping Guju), 115km

No categorised climbs in stage 4, something more typical of Chinese stage races in recent years - a flattish circuit race. It’s a lot like, say, Stage 2 of the 2018 Tour of Qinghai Lake, Stage 13 of the same race, Stage 5 of the 2019 Tour of Fuzhou (which is repeated in most years as the course for the Tour of Fuzhou changes little from year to year)… or Stage 7 for that matter; Stage 3 of the Tour of China I in 2019 and so on and so forth. Very common approach in extending out the races and allowing for some movement in transfers by having a short circuit which does not require point-to-point policing. Guang’an has even appeared in the Tour of China before, back in 2011 before it was split into the Tour of China I and the Tour of China II, when journeyman Asia Tour specialist Boris Shpilevsky won a sprint against Taiji Nishitani and Rico Dene Rogers to take the win for his then team, the mighty, legendary, iconic Tabriz Petrochemical Team.

Back then, we finished in the centre of Guang’an, but my stage does not, because of reasons.

The only “co-operation demonstration zone” between Sichuan and the newly-separated (well, newly meaning in 1997) Chongqing city, Guang’an is known as the Gateway to Eastern Sichuan and is the nearest prefecture-level city to Chongqing. The city itself houses around 800.000 people, but the overall municipality quadruples that. Surrounded by scenic hillside that has been turned into a number of parks and scenic areas by the government, Guang’an is undergoing rapid urban regeneration, installing a metro system, and redeveloping the urban landscape to better reflect modern China. And one of the main reasons for the choice of this particular city is that it is within an hour’s travel on rapid transit from Chongqing - but another more esoteric reason is linked into our stage today; it is the former hometown of reformist former premier 邓小平, whose name is widely recognised in the west by its pinyin form, Deng Xiaoping.

Likely of Hakka ethnicity but long settled in the Sichuan basin, the Deng family were mid-level landowners and educated, and Xiaoping’s father was a prominent educator and political figure in Chengdu. He studied in Chongqing and then spent time in France on an exchange program. In Europe he met a number of future collaborators such as Zhou Enlai and from them learnt the principles of Marxism, joining the Chinese expat Communist group in 1921 and the CCP in 1924, travelling to Moscow to learn from the Chinese-speaking Moscow Sun Yat-Sen University, where one of his classmates was the son of future enemy Chiang Kai-Shek. As you can probably tell from the fact the university in Moscow was named after Kuomintang founder Sun Yat-Sen, at the time at least Comintern approved of collaboration between the nationalists and the communists, as with China still at least nominally imperial, the nationalists were seen as left-wing agitants, just like in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. However, the Fengtian clique - of which Deng was a member - led to the break-up of this uneasy alliance, and after Deng’s failed uprising in Baise, Guangxi, he fled back to the USSR (you don’t know how lucky you are, boy), before being posted to Wuhan, then the centre from which the CCP activities were based. At some point during these battles, he disappears for two years before resurfacing in Shanghai as an aide to leaders of the underground Communist party. He became secretary of the party committee in a succession of increasingly important cities for the nascent Communist gains, and his support of Mao’s ruralist ideas vs. the classical Soviet urban ideology saw him demoted within the propaganda department. When Mao became leader and the Long March was initiated following the military success of the KMT, Deng was one of his supporters, which made him a “revolutionary veteran” and bought him much standing in the party when World War II ended and the conflict between the Communists and the KMT resumed.

In October 1949 he was present at the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, and was in control of the Communist forces when they marched into Chengdu and exiled the Kuomintang to Formosa once and for all, and for his achievements he was granted the role as mayor of Chongqing and leader of the Communist Party in the Southwest. Three years later, he was promoted and travelled to Beijing to become part of the centralised government. Supporting Chairman Mao in his Anti-Rightist movement in 1957, he became General Secretary of the Secretariat. However, after the muted success of the Great Leap Forward, he took more control in economic affairs and, together with Liu Shaoqi, helped essentially mimic Lenin’s New Economic Policy, reinstating a number of institutions that had been closed and nationalised during the Great Leap Forward, similar to how the Soviets had overstretched the capabilities of their nation to transition to Communism early on. This was a large part of the reason the Cultural Revolution happened - Mao sensing the loss of his prestige and also sensing that the direction was less “pure” in its communism and that its revolutionary credibility was being undermined. Deng was ostracised, and his son was thrown from a window and paralysed. However, after the death of expected successor Lin Biao in a plane crash, Mao found that Deng was the most important army figure still active, and the ailing second-in-command Zhuo Enlai, suffering with cancer, persuaded Mao that Deng was important and central enough to the party to bring back into the inner circle.

Deng focused on economic matters, which brought him to opposition with the more radical Gang of Four (the band of the same name is similarly radical, for the record). The Gang of Four, with Mao’s blessing, led a smear campaign against Deng once Zhuo Enlai, his most powerful remaining ally, died in early 1976 and the outpouring of public eulogising surrounding Zhuo’s death culminated in the original Tiananmen Square Incident. The Gang of Four accused. Zhuo’s close confidante and ally Deng, and in turn his allies, of fomenting counter-revolutionary thought and egging on the protesters, and Deng was excommunicated from the party. His isolation did not last long however; after Mao’s death, his fourth chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, chose to purge the party of extremists and succeeded in marginalising the Gang of Four, rehabilitating the reputation of Deng and, in doing so, signed his own death warrant as leader of the party, for he was subsequently outmanoeuvred by the Sichuanese native. However, Deng Xiaoping decided on a quieter, more respectful means of ousting Hua, enabling him to save his reputation, moving him away from leadership positions but retaining him within the central committee and allowing Hua to quietly retire, paving the way for the more peaceful transitions of power that have largely followed.

Statue of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen

From 1977-78, Deng initiated the “Beijing Spring”, and the more widely-recognised 拨乱反正 (“Boluan Fanzheng”) period, translating literally as “remove chaos, return to normal” but essentially being a process of de-mythologising Mao’s rule in the same way as de-Stalinisation took place under Khrushchev, pardoning and rehabilitating many of those who had been ostracised, killed or imprisoned under the Cultural Revolution. In 1982, Chairman Mao’s legacy was confronted in characteristically diplomatic fashion; his status as a great revolutionary and Marxist was assured, but his fallibility was acknowledged, albeit with the caveat that while he had begun the Cultural Revolution, blame for its scale and aggressive permeation was placed at the hand of extremist “counter-revolutionary cliques” such as the Gang of Four. During this process Deng also aggressively opened up China to the world, becoming formally recognised as the rightful controllers of Chinese soil on January 1st 1979, before which the Taiwan-based Republic of China had been perceived as the ‘true’ China, precluding business relationships between the PRC and the West from being founded or developed. He founded special economic zones and instigated the Four Modernizations, a large part of the foundations of the economic juggernaut that is modern China. Despite their Communist ideology, however, Deng did little to repair the relationship between his country and the Soviet Union, preferring to orientate their international policy toward thawing the relationships with the ascendant western economic powers and even their long-time rivals the Japanese, reducing the role of ideology in decision-making in favour of pragmatism and enabling market forces under the justification that the difference between socialism and capitalism is not solely defined by the black and white of planned vs. Market economies, adjusting the balance between the two according to the needs of the time.

Deng also adapted policies of his former mentor and collaborator Zhuo Enlai and the experiences of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea in their periods of rapid growth to shift the focus of China’s economy towards an export-led program utilising China’s ready excess in manpower to direct towards manufacturing and light industry, with “market socialism” as Deng’s policies were branded bearing similar hallmarks to NEP in the Soviet Union. He also laid the groundwork for the agreements of Great Britain and Portugal to the handovers of Hong Kong and Macau, successfully holding out against the so-called Iron Lady to secure an unequivocal handover (Thatcher had been attempting to keep UK control over Kowloon and the offshore island parts of Hong Kong, but Deng rejected this) at the cost of an agreement to maintain their current economic status and civil liberties as they stood under UK control for 50 years, so expiring in 2047.

However, after the reformist official Hu Yaobang died, many were upset at the lack of response from the official party; Deng had backed Hu, but he had been ousted from prominence by the Eight Elders; public mourning became a conduit for anti-government protests as the self-interest of the elders of the party became increasingly clearly dominant in policymaking decisions; by the time the funeral took place, 100.000 were protesting in Tiananmen Square. Deng’s general secretary Zhao Ziyang supported the protestors, but socialist hardliner Li Peng declared martial law, leading us to some of the most famous images of the 21st Century, most notably the fabled “tank man”, an unknown civilian who became one of the icons of peaceful protest, standing alone in the path of the might of the military.

In the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, Deng Xiaoping officially resigned his positions, though he retained a high level of influence. His authority had been greatly weakened by the protests, and support for his reformist agenda waned, but he was able to reassert the ideology on his famous 1992 “Southern Tour”, regarded as one of the most important parts of modern Chinese history in salvaging the support for the policies that have strengthened the Chinese economy in these crucial southern metropoles. He died in 1997 at age 92, never to see the handover of Hong Kong that he had orchestrated or the embodiment of the “One Country, Two Systems” ideology that he had acquiesced to.

Deng’s place in history is assured, with modern China becoming the engine room of the world and its economic might being formidable in the modern era. However, while he presided over a great increase in the lot of the everyday Chinese populace and great strides internationally, with global recognition of the PRC, normalised relationships with both the USA and, eventually, the USSR (during perestroika), reduced the nation’s dependency on the personality cult of Mao Zedong, and made trade agreements with all and sundry, he is also seen as the premier in charge for several of the drawbacks of totalitarianism such as human rights abuses, and the domestic cover-up of the internationally-broadcast Tiananmen Square incident. Nevertheless, though he has critics from both the radical wings of China’s highest political echelons, he remains a much revered figure in the country.

And here, after several paragraphs of Communist hagiography (didn’t I do this for Ho Chi Minh too?), is where the bike race comes in: because Deng Xiaoping’s former residence, in a northern suburb of Guang’an (Paifang Village, to be precise), has been converted into a museum complex, known as Dèng Xiǎopíng Gùjū (邓小平故居), one of eastern Sichuan’s most popular tourist attractions in recent years, and is the site of our start/finish point in our circuit race.

The official former residence of Deng, built by his great grandfather and grandfather

The museum, opposite the residence

Gate to the Deng Xiaoping Guju Scenic Area, in front of which the stage finish will take place

So, well, the reason for all the hagiography is that the man around whom the stage’s course orbits is far more noteworthy than the stage itself; it’s a stylised circuit, rolling but with no serious obstacles, descending down Guanghua Road with its low point in Nonghui Residential District, with a sharp left hand hairpin before ascending back up onto a sloping hillside by the river Qu, along Fuxing Avenue and Fushou Street, before cutting through the small shopping and tourist complex which has been built around the attractions, enclosing the Deng Xiaoping Memorial Garden and museum, with a slight slowdown around a traffic island and then a 60º left at 1400m from the line. Not even a single GPM point to mark it, because now that somebody is wearing the king of the mountains jersey, there’s no reason to artificially create a mountains point on a stage that does not require one; it would only be one of those ‘manufactured’ GPM points, like in the 2009 Vuelta’s Dutch stages, if we were to include one.

This one should most definitely end in a sprint, and at just 115km in length it should be a fast one too, so even with the rolling terrain this is going to be an absolute battle for supremacy between the sprinters on show, just like in 2011 when the Tour of China last rocked up in Guang’an.
Stage 5: Suining - Zigong, 181km

Youjingcun Jade Emperor Temple (cat.3) 1,6km @ 4,6%
Zhongyunshan Park (cat.3) 0,5km @ 8,4%

After one of the longer transfers of the race (again one of the reasons for the shorter stage on stage 4) we are back underway with a southbound transitional stage which departs from the city of Suining, around 100km west of Guang’an, forming a triangle with it and Nanchong, the finishing town for stage 3. Suining (遂宁, pronounced “sway-ning” with tones 4 and 2 in Sichuanese Mandarin) is a prefecture-level city with a population of just over 600.000 and an economy dominated by its reserves of natural gas.

Although the city is relatively modern, and has sprung up and expanded dramatically in recent years due to the discovery of the natural gas reserves, mythology cites the site of present-day Suining as the home of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of the compassion of the Buddhas. This figure is interpreted somewhat differently in Chinese and East Asian Buddhism, where the embodiment takes a female form and is known as the Goddess of Mercy. Her name in Chinese Buddhism is 觀音 (traditional characters) or 观音 (simplified), transliterated in pinyin as Guanyin, forms of which are used as the figure’s name throughout East and Southeast Asia. She is widely worshipped in a form which some traditionalists have expressed disapproval of but is largely not considered to be at odds with general Buddhist principles owing to her role as an embodiment of a characteristic considered to be at the heart of the values of the religion.

Suining is also a hub of dissidents, surprisingly enough, with three of the more prominent dissident figures in the modern People’s Republic calling Suining home. Chen Wei is perhaps the best known of these, one of the leaders of the student protesters at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, imprisoned after that until 1991, then again from 1992 to 1997 for organising events to celebrate and commemorate those protests and arranging an oppositional political party. He was a signatory of Charter 08, a call for reform and human rights that led to both the imprisonment and the receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize of Liu Xiaobo. Chen continued to support and campaign for freedom of speech and reform of the one-party system, and the incendiary nature of some of his essays brought him back to the attention of the authorities leading to a further arrest in 2011 as part of the clampdown on the pro-democracy protests in February that year, and a nine-year imprisonment that only recently concluded. Another Suining native is Liu Xianbin, again imprisoned in 1991 and 1992 for spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda and, after his second release he played a key role in the establishment of the Zhōngguó Mínzhǔ Dǎng (中国民主党), or China Democracy Party, in 1998. He spent all of 1999 through 2008 serving another sentence for anti-state agitation, and one of his first acts on his release was to sign Charter 08. Further articles authored by Liu led to further detainment in 2010 and although no official statement has been forthcoming he is believed to have been imprisoned since 2011 with a ten year sentence. Another Suining native, Li Bifeng, has been imprisoned almost continuously since 1998, after handing a controversial report on treatment of protesting textile workers to International human rights organisations, and more recently for assisting the escape of fellow Sichuanese anti-Communist writer Liao Yiwu.

Back in 2011, as I mentioned in stage 3, the city of Suining hosted the Tour of China. Just as with the ensuing stage from Suining to Guang’an that I mentioned in the previous stage’s details, Boris Shpilevskiy won a sprint - the first of four in a row that the veteran Russian would take that year in a race which followed a very bizarre pattern - a prologue and three stages around Xi’an, then a rest day, then five days around Sichuan, and then a rest day to travel to Tianjin for a single criterium stage to finish. Shpilevskiy was the king of Sichuan back then, winning all but one of the stages in the province.

While this stage is a sprinters’ stage, however, it’s got a bit more of a challenge late on than the last couple. But makes up for that by largely being less threatening early on. The first 40km are full on Po floodplain level flat, and the only categorised climb until the run-in is 1600m at 4,6%, so hardly the most scary ascent you’re ever going to see. Perhaps the most notable thing in the first half of the stage is the intermediate sprint at 安岳 (Anyue), home of the 臥佛院 (Wo Fo Yuan), the “Grove of the Reclining Buddha”, the largest single collection of Tang Dynasty Buddhist texts, largely in stone carving form, and the cave complex includes a number of sacred stone carvings that are a major tourist attraction.

There is a slightly elevated plateau that we spend most of the next phase of the race on, but there’s no real notable climb to get up onto it, so it’s a pure rouleur’s stage as we largely follow the path of the old S206 highway, which has been superseded by the more modern, wider and faster S11 expressway. The other feature of the expressway is that it avoids major cities, as is typical, whereas the older road will pass through them. The most notable city on the route today is 内江 (Neijiang), with a population of 1,25 million and being passed through at 48km from the finish, hosting our second intermediate sprint. Originally important for salt production (more on that to come), it is now a sugar cane processing centre.

Neijiang is also the home of China’s most pre-eminent artist of the 20th Century, 張大千. In pinyin his name is Zhang Daqian, but he is more widely known in the west as Chang Dai-Chien (strangely not in Wade-Giles, which would render Chang Ta-Ch’ien). He got his start in surprising fashion; he was made a personal secretary by bandits who had kidnapped him after the calligraphy shown in his self-penned ransom note to his family impressed the bandit leader. He learned textile dying techniques in Japan and studied Buddhist art, travelling around living what would be regarded in the west as a Bohemian lifestyle, affecting the look of an ancient historic-style scholar, keeping multiple wives in different cities and regions and never settling anywhere long. He was regarded by many as the pre-eminent master of Eastern art - and certainly the greatest master in the south within his homeland. As well as being one of China’s most eminent artists, however, Chang was also a skilled restorer and forger of earlier historic styles, using period materials to produce almost indistinguishable forgeries which have spread far and wide through the artistic world, such that curators are warned to check Chinese paintings of ancient provenance but questionable origin. Later on, however, much like Monet’s increasingly colourful and interpretive style later in his life, his eyesight began to fail him, leading to a revision of his style informed by abstract expressionism. He even met with Picasso, who had an interest in Chinese art and even asked Chang to review and critique his attempts at the genre, an occasion regarded as the meeting of minds between the greatest living proponents of western and eastern art forms.

A later landscape work by 張大千

The remainder of the race is the rolling route into the city of Zigong. This city of 1,25 million was formed in 1939, by the merger of the neighbouring cities of Ziliujing and Gongjing, with the initial syllables being concatenated to create the new city of 自贡, i.e. Zigong. As a result, because of the rendering of these cities in Wade-Giles, the alternative name for the city is Tzu-Kung, which is significantly altered from its pinyin form, even more than might ordinarily be expected. The area around modern Zigong is known predominantly for one thing, and that thing is salt.

Salt has played an absolutely crucial role in the development and economy of China over the years. As one of the “seven necessities”, and as one of the “five flavours” in both traditional Chinese cuisine and traditional Chinese herbology, as well as its essential role as a preservative and curing agent in the days before refrigeration, salt has been considered an essential commodity for the enormous population of this part of the world, which has rendered it an essential source of tax revenue and of economic wealth. Although sea salt is the most abundant variety along the eastern seaboard of China, inland, the well salt derived from salt pools and aquifers in Sichuan and Yunnan have been an invaluable source of the commodity for the inland communities, and the salt mines in and around modern Zigong are the most famous and renowned such sources in the world. In fact, it was by the detailed and accurate accounts of the salt production methods at inland salt mines (more likely in Yunnan) that scholars have been able to pronounce the veracity of Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels in China. People have drilled for salt in the Zigong area since the first century AD, and probably earlier - records attest back to this period, but some historians estimate that salt production could go back several thousand years. Crushed yellow soybeans are used to absorb impurities in the salt, leaving a yellow top layer atop the pure salt which can be scraped off and discarded. The people of Ziliujing (as it was at the time) also found natural gas in their salt exploration, using it as an aid to boil the brine obtained from the salt wells.

Today, like many such cities which have depended on a single industry, much of the traditional salt production of Zigong has been rendered obsolete by technological advances, and so the city has moved largely toward the production of natural gas using its reserves, now that the demands of the modern world render this a more useful and profitable industry than the traditional salt mining. Nevertheless, one traditional well, Shenhai, remains open, providing insight into the historic methods and retaining a link to the city’s past, as well as giving the signature flavour to traditional Sichuan pickles which still largely rely on the particular variety of salt produced in their home region. Nowadays, the old traditional Xiqin Guildhall (西秦会馆) used by salt traders and merchants has been converted into a museum of the salt industry in the Sichuan region, and the beautiful and traditional old building is a Major Historical and Cultural Site protected by the Chinese government.

The Xiqin Guildhall, which we will be finishing in front of.

Just northeast of Zigong lies the Shaximiao Formation, a slight protuberance on a small elevated plateau near the town of 大山铺 (Dashanpu). This particular formation is notable due to the discovery in 1975 by Dong Zhiming of a number of bone fragments during the clearing of the site for a new natural gas exploration. He successfully pushed for excavation of the area for paleontological investigation. By the time, ten years later, that Dong’s efforts had finally halted official construction on the site, their works had excavated over 100 dinosaur skeletons from the location, including rare and unusual sauropod skulls, including a new species which eventually received the name Dashanpusaurus Dongi, in honour of both the site and the palaeontologist. Many more recent animals have also been found and sourced in the formation, though it is for dinosaurs that it is best known. 1987 saw the opening of the Zigong Dinosaur Museum on the site, the first dedicated dinosaur museum on the continent of Asia (!), attracting some 7 million visitors annually.

My stage passes the dinosaur museum at 12km from the line, then goes up onto the Shaximiao Formation via a gradual rise - this should not be decisive as it is around 3km at 2,5%, but it should at least make things a little more difficult for the pack to control as some may wish to attack on it, or alternatively it may just make pacing the chase a bit more difficult. We pass the Shenhai Well, before descending (sort of) into the Longjing residential district, before with about 5km to go there’s a 90º right-hander into a 500m ascent at 8,5%. This only really has two corners - a 90º left at the start and then a 180º uphill right, the best spot to attack; after that the road bears left and eventually turns around 75º, but it takes about 350m to do so, so it’s not really a technical challenge. What it will do, however, is offer the opportunity for a speculative late attack, as well as make it difficult for some of the less climbing-adept sprinters to be optimally placed in the run-in, making it harder to control the front of the bunch. Frustratingly, even with my pinyin-to-simplified characters converter and studiously ensuring we have the correct characters, I can’t find any pictures of the actual Zhongyunshan hill road, but we do have this view from it to the Shenhai hill.

There are a few corners after the summit which will favour a solo attacker or small breakaway, enabling them to get more out of sight/out of mind, however, but then the roads open back up and the corners get more shallow as we get back to the banks of the Fuxi river. With 1200m to go we have a left-hand sweeping curve, then the last opportunity for any shenanigans will be a left then right at 550m from home, before the last 400m stretch uphill at 7% to take us from the corners at the waterfront (nice wide three or four lane roads, so not too dangerous from a crashing perspective) up the hill to the salt museum. This is not enough to stop the sprinters, as the gradients don’t get particularly tough, but it will favour the Caleb Ewan, Michael Matthews type sprinter over the pure power Marcel Kittel or Pascal Ackermann type, so after a couple of days that are good for the power sprinters, we have a day which is still for the sprinters, but gives a few others their chance to feel this is their chance.

Zigong lantern festival

Zigong cityscape
Don't worry though, the fastmen are going to have a lot of suffering to do before they get another chance.

Stage 6: Leshan Dafo - Emeishan Jinding, 95km

Jiaopenba Village (cat.1) 20,7km @ 4,2%
Emeishan Jinding (HC) 20,1km @ 5,5% (total 44,5km @ 4,3%)

The GC battle hots up big time on stage 6 as we have our first ‘real’ mountaintop finish, albeit in a short stage - sub-100km - as is not uncommon on the UCI Asia Tour. Take, for example, the typical Ku Liang MTF in the Tour of Fuzhou (107km), the Longyanxia stage of the Tour of Qinghai Lake in several recent editions (100km), the Sembalun stage of the Tour of Lombok (117km), the Dadongshu stage of the 2018 Tour of Qinghai Lake (66km), the Gunung Jerai stage in the Jelajah Malaysia (102km), the Agam stage of the 2017 Tour de Singkarak (101km) or the Mount Hakodate stage of the Tour of Hokkaido (76km). There are actually more “normal” length mountain stages in these races and even the occasional marathon one by Asia Tour standards such as Selok Selatan in the 2018 Tour de Singkarak (194km), Tabriz-Eynali in the Tour of Iran-Azerbaijan (199km), Agam in the 2019 Tour de Singkarak (207km) and Qingshizui in the 2019 Tour of Qinghai Lake (224km). So there’s a wide range of mountain stages to use as comparatives, and I’m intending to vary things here. And first up is my micro-stage, connecting two of Sichuan’s most significant sites of religious and cultural importance, as well as major tourist attractions.

The city of Leshan (乐山) is on the southwestern fringes of the Chengdu plain, a little to the west of Zigong, as we need to now head in this direction to continue to access the mountains, seeing as south of here lies the border between Sichuan and Yunnan. It is linguistically very interesting because it is part of the southern dialect continuum and preserves many features of older Sichuanese language that has been lost over the centuries with the spread of Mandarin. As such, you can compare the Leshan dialect to, say, that of the Vaalsland in the Netherlands, which is south of the Benrath line and has therefore undergone some sound shifts that exist in German but not standard Nederlands. It has been a prominent and valuable site since antiquity, lying at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers, and only 2km downstream from the confluence of the Dadu and the Qingyi. Two smaller, less important rivers - the Linjiang and the Lengshui - also flow into the Dadu almost immediately before the Qingyi. As mentioned previously, the Min is regarded as the ‘true’ course of the Upper Yangtze, as its main upper tributary, although the Dadu, which starts up on the Tibetan Plain in southeastern Qinghai province. As such this has become an important trade route, on which the city of Jiading stood. Jiading county was later re-organised into Leshan county when the urban sprawl of multiple towns converged around the centre and rendered the former county seat of Jiading now the centre of a burgeoning metropolis, which was renamed Leshan. Some of its area was ceded to neighbouring Emeishan in the 50s, but it was upgraded to prefecture-level city in 1978. The county of Leshan includes the small town of Xinchang, site of a Qing Dynasty-era revolt, and also Shawan, the home of historian, writer and politician Guo Moruo. His writings, largely infused by western literature he had been exposed to while studying in Japan, were instrumental in shepherding Chinese literature towards a new and dynamic synthesis of tradition and multiculturalism, retaining some of the mores and traditions of classical Chinese literature, though serving these with a nod and a wink to western styles. He became a dedicated Marxist, and infused his plays, Chinese opera libretti and prose with social commentary, almost like an eastern counterpart to Bertolt Brecht if you like. He survived the Cultural Revolution by denouncing some of his own works as having been “naïve” and “incorrect interpretations of Marxism” and by showing fanatical devotion to Mao, however although his writing is held in high regard, he is also sometimes disparaged as the first of the ‘Four Contemporary Shameless Writers’ for his favour-currying sycophancy towards Chairman Mao, and the need to filter almost everything through an explicitly Maoist subtext makes much of his work a bit heavy-handed, or obscures the quality of the actual writing beneath, similar to Maxim Gorky.

However, despite Guo’s high prominence in modern Chinese literature, there is usually one reason people from outside of Sichuan have heard of Leshan, and it’s a big one. A very big, colossal, UNESCO-inscribed one.

Our stage starts at Leshan Dafo, or the Leshan Giant Buddha, the north easternmost attraction of the Mount Emei Scenic Area World Heritage Site, through which most of our stage takes place. Carved into the rock face over a period of 90 years from 713 to 803 AD, this was the largest statue of Buddha in the world for over a millennium (and in fact the largest statue of anyone or anything in the world too), until 1993 when the Japanese Ushiku Daibutsu statue surpassed it. The Chinese were not to be defeated for long, constructing the Spring Temple Buddha in 2008 to reclaim that throne, however in terms of carvings and in terms of pre-modern statues, the Leshan Giant Buddha is incomparable. At 71m in height, it was peerless - the next tallest statue that is more than 100 years in age is the Rongxian Giant Buddha, also in China, which is 37m in height - barely half the size of Leshan’s.

The Buddha was initially constructed facing the sacred summit of Emeishan at the behest of a monk named Hai Tong, who intended to calm the turmoil of the waves at the confluence of the rivers, plaguing shipping vessels. When he died, the statue was only complete from the shoulders up. However, his disciples continued his work several years later thanks to the contributions of beneficiary Prince Zhongwu of Nankang. Although the temple has been damaged during war several times and the Mongols destroyed the thirteen-storey wooden structure constructed to protect the statue from the elements, the Buddha itself has only required one restoration, during the Song Dynasty, to rid the body of overgrowth of moss. However, despite an incredibly advanced system of gulleys, channels and cavities to drain the rock and protect against erosion considering the age of the statue, an upsurge in pollutants arising from the rapid growth of industry in the region has started to erode the rock and the Chinese government are exploring options to protect the statue from further degradation. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and attracts in excess of 2 million visitors a year, with dozens of pathways around the cliffs to view the Buddha as well as boat tours.

From the Giant Buddha we ride through Leshan itself and head northwest for a little over 20km to arrive in Jiajiang. Jiajiang is a town of county standing but which is under the jurisdiction of Leshan. It has its own Buddhist shrines of great cultural provenance, albeit somewhat dwarfed by Leshan Dafo. The Thousand Buddha Rock Scenic Area showcases some more great works of the carvers of the era, albeit on a much smaller scale than the iconic statue nearby.

Here we turn south to head towards the city of Emeishan, which takes its name from the mountain of the same name (sometimes calqued to western audiences as Mount Emei or Mount Omei), at whose foot it stands. This can make the description of the stage a little confusing, hence why I’ve added the “Jinding” to the stage heading, to emphasise that we are not finishing in the city… because who wants a 45km flat stage after we’ve already had three probable sprints in a row? No, I have something far more interesting in mind.

While Emeishan city is host to over 300.000 people, it’s kind of, well, nobody really thinks of the city when you say Emeishan. They think of the mountain. So while we pass through the city and have an intermediate sprint there, the big deal for the rest of this stage is that we’re getting from around 400m above sea level to an Alejandro Valverde-crushing 2400m, up above the sea of clouds and really splitting this GC wide open, hopefully. The first few kilometres after the town are rollling, and lead us to the feedzone, but once we’re through that, we start climbing. And we keep on climbing. And keep on climbing. I have split the climb in two for categorisation purposes, since there’s a bit of a descent and flat phase in the middle of it, so following on from examples such as Sierra Nevada 2009 in the Vuelta or Serre-Chevalier 2017 in the Tour where intermediate summits that serve as part of a larger climb are categorised independently (El Purche / Alto del Monachíl in the Vuelta is categorised separately as it is frequently used as a decisive climb in its own right, such as in 2006, while Télégraphe is categorised separately from Galibier despite Galibier not being accessible from the north without passing through Télégraphe because they are both such iconic summits). There is a village and resort in the dip between the two sections of the climb here, so I have categorised them separately. After the first summit, we could turn right and head back down the mountain via a very long and gradual road towards Ya’an, but there are few plausible finishes in that direction, and this first climb is the less difficult part of the two, so instead I’m taking us all the way to the top (up where the air is fresh and clean, per Tom Waits). Well, as far as the road takes us, which is not all the way to the summit.

The overall total ascent from Emeishan up to the finish of the stage is 44,5km at 4,3%, but as you can see from the stats above, that consists of 20 kilometres at a little over 4%, then some descent and flat, before a final 20km at 5,5% - far from super brutal, and the steepest single kilometre is only at 7,2% - and that’s fairly close to the finish, although the steepest ramp, of 15%, is just after the road pitches back uphill again with around 20k remaining - so this is a stage which is going to be more about the attrition of such a long climb, even in a short stage. This one is about the thinning out process (unless vintage 2015-era Tabriz Petrochemical Team turn up, of course, in which case the only thing anybody else has to worry about is making the time cut).

The overall climb that takes up the second half of the stage

Once we take the sharp left hander onto the road which takes us towards Éméishān Jīndǐng, then it turns into a classic Alpine-style ascent, weaving back and forth across the mountainside across 19 switchbacks, for a climb which is somewhat akin to a climb like Passo di Rolle from the south, or a slightly tougher Port de la Bonaigua. It shouldn’t open up huge gaps to a World Tour péloton, but that’s not what we’re going to see here. Big attacks aren’t likely but just the sheer length of it should see people dropping away. That’s partly why it’s such a short stage - I have three big mountain stages here, and this is just the first, so it’s the least complex of them.

We can’t go all the way to the summit of the mountain on the road, however, for that would simply not be acceptable. The road does not reach all the way to the summit, which is a holy site; there are no fewer than seventy-six Buddhist monasteries located around the top of the mountain, including the very first Buddhist temple built in China, which dates back 2000 years. As space became limited, architects had to become progressively more creative when constructing new monasteries, so there are an array of multi-tiered, stilted or hanging monastery buildings dotted around the summits. It is regarded as the Bodhimaṇḍa (place of enlightenment) of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, known in Mandarin as Pǔxián Púsà (普贤菩萨), and as a result it is considered one of four “Sacred Mountains” in Chinese Buddhism (this to differentiate itself from the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism). In fact, sources from the 16th Century record the first documented evidence of martial arts training at the Shaolin Monasteries of Emeishan, so a large element of the mystique provided by the monastic martial arts which have dominated storytelling and fascinated westerners for decades now owes its origins to the religious orders here. In fact, the Emei Sect is a fictitious martial arts group prominently featured in wuxia film and literature, often posited as an opposing style to the Wudang Sect - which is sometimes translated - using Wade-Giles transcription rather than pinyin because of mostly coming to the west via Hong Kong and Taiwanese wuxia and martial arts films - as “Wu-Tang Clan”. So perhaps the Emei Sect were the ones that created da Mystery of Chessboxin’. Yea, I just used this as an excuse to get some vintage hip-hop up in here, what of it?

From the end of the paved road at 2400m, cable cars take pilgrims and tourists to the summit at Jinding.

The highest Buddhist temple in Han China, at 3077m, the Huázàng Sì (华藏寺 - Huazang Temple) is commonly known as the “Golden Summit” although that is officially the name of the specific summit it is built at. The original Huazang Temple was constructed in 1377, but the current temple dates only from 2004, after a disastrous incident in 1972 where, during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was used as an ersatz signal tower due to its location, and a power generator malfunctioned, engulfing the summit in flames, destroying countless relics. The temple was given a radical overhaul to restore its former glory as part of the “Jinding Renovation and Revival Plan” which also included the installation of the 48m statue of Samantabhadra that, being kind of head to toe in gold, is now the most eye-catching feature of the summit complex. The area is popular for tourists for its optical beauty - the scenic summit also is renowned for a sea of clouds and for its “Buddhist halo”, an optical glory visible at certain times of the day which shrouds the summit in a seeming circle of light. This has only helped support its status as a sacred pilgrimage site through the years, and it remains a popular site for religious pilgrims as well as being part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Emeishan’s Buddhist heritage that also includes the Leshan Giant Buddha.

Most of our riders will be happy enough to finish at 2400m and then take the team bus back down, but if any of them do wish to take the cable car and pay their respects or even just admire the views, then they have every chance to do so, since the stage is so short. And in a Continental pro péloton, the winner might have enough time to get up there and have a look around before the autobus makes it to the summit.
Stage 7: Emeishan - Xilingxueshan Ski Resort, 189km

Qijiagou Reservoir (cat.3) 1,8km @ 5,4%
Gongba Anchu Road (cat.3) 1,5km @ 7,5%
Xilingxueshan Ski Resort (HC) 19,1km @ 5,7%

A second straight mountain stage, and a second straight Unipuerto stage, at least functionally; those two cat.3 ascents in the first 3/4 of the stage will mean nothing for the overall results of it. And though the climb stats check out with those of the final climb of yesterday’s stage (19km at 5,7% vs. 20km at 5,5%), it’s a very different climb (plus of course, the Emeishan climb was split into two separate but very much connected ascents). And this one comes after 170km of previous racing, not a micro-stage like stage 6.

Before that, however, we set off from Emeishan City, at the base of the climb and which we passed through during the previous stage. Although it is a city approaching 400.000 in population today, historically there has been little role for Emeishan City other than as effectively a base station for pilgrims to the monasteries and sacred sites on the mountain above, and it wasn’t connected to the rail network until 1965. However, the increased tourist attention to the mountain and the moving of the railway station to allow it to serve as a staging post of the Chengdu-Kunming railway as well as an outpost of the Sichuan internal suburban rail network has made it much more valuable as a location and it has quickly expanded.

The main body of this stage is a matter of traversing the eastern edges of the Chengdu Plain, to move from the southern mountain ranges into the Qionglai mountains (邛崃山) which form the western edge of the plain. As a result the first part is a retracing of our steps from yesterday in reverse, as far as Jiajiang, before we cross the Qingyi river and head north. A lot of this is through fruit forests and rice fields, with some rolling uphill at false flat gradients to interrupt us before passing through Danleng. We then cross the low-lying Yingtaoshan hills, which also includes our first categorised climb, up to the edges of the reservoir at Qijiagou. A rolling trip through the hillside leads us to the other side of the plain and the town of Pujiang, a storied county established by the Qin after their conquest of the Shu in the 4th Century BC. The river of the same name which flows through the county and its eponymous county town is a popular getaway with boat rides through the tranquil hillside a popular weekend pastime.

We, however, continue to head north, toward Qionglai, the town that gives the mountain range its name, and this entails travelling through a couple of other attractions, the Xinshiqi Relic Site, and then the Xilai Ancient Town (西来古镇), one of several beautifully preserved old towns that have been protected from the interfering hand of modernisation in order to retain some historic character and charm. Xilai was built in the 4th Century and most of the current buildings date to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

The next stop is the first intermediate sprint in Qionglai City (邛崃), the city which takes its name from the mountain range it sits at the foot of. It hosts an airbase which was used as a main departure point for the USAF during World War II, as due to the issues with flying over the Tibetan Plateau and the Japanese control of the seas along the Pacific Coast, most air combat against Japan from China had to be accessed via India, so because of the challenges of flying over the eastern Himalayas, the B-29 flying fortress required a base in central-western China to ensure suitability for further combat flight. Four bases capable of hosting the B-29 were built, and Kuinglai, as it was named due to postal romanization (and a typo) was one of them. In 1945 when the US gained control of some Pacific territory, the circuitous route via Europe and British-controlled India was no longer necessary, so the planes were relocated into the Mariana islands and the airbase turned over to the Chinese. The city’s other main attraction is the Stone Pagoda Temple, a 12th-Century pagoda.

Although we head directly into the mountains from here, the initial salvos are just valley roads; save for a short and sharp dig near Xiabacun where the gorges of the Chuhe river become too narrow and the road through the valley has to head up and over a hill, the next 50km are simply tracing the gradual false flat upstream along the river’s path. From Wangshen where we enter the foothills of the Qionglai mountains to the second intermediate sprint at Xilingzhen is around 40km in distance, but Xilingzhen is 420m higher in altitude - as you can see, it’s essentially climbing at 1,05% - so this is the kind of climbing that is such to be inconsequential. The town of Xiling (西岭, not to be confused with Hangzhou, which was formerly called Xiling) is a small town, and essentially serves as just the base from which the nearby Xiling Snow Mountain (Xilingxueshan) ski resort is administered.

Xiling Snow Mountain Ski Resort (西岭雪山风景名胜区) is a modern resort which was constructed to make the best use of a mountainous area which is snow-capped all year round; the resort is open 12 months a year, although the main body of the runs are only open in season. The main resort parking is at 2200m, and it is to this which we will climb for our second consecutive mountaintop finish of the race. The main resort functions are from 2100m to 2800m and this is the largest ski station in southern China, and the southernmost permanent ski facility of its size in Asia, with the main competition in that respect being The Cedars in Lebanon, Mount Hermon Ski Station in Israel (contested territory) and a couple of the Iranian facilities. It has 10 runs homologated for international competition, although as of yet no FIS-sanctioned events have run, only national and regional championships within Asia.

It’s also a very serious cycling climb, and one of somewhat different character to that which the riders took on yesterday. While the ascent to Emeishan was gradual and tempo-driven, this one, until the last 3,5km, is one that gets progressively nastier as you climb it. I had my doubts over that descent in the profile but further careful analysis has shown it to be legit - I thought it would be where there was a tunnel as all terrain engines agree there is a significant dip the road heads into then climbs the other side of at around 4,5km from home, but satellite views confirm that the road does not go through a tunnel, it legitimately goes over a small crest, descends markedly into that bowl to meet the side of a stream, then follows that stream’s path up another small steep rise before the more gradual rise up onto the plateau where the resort has been constructed.

As you can see, therefore, this is one of those climbs where the overall stats don’t tell the whole story, because it’s not a comfortable or consistent climb. So while yesterday’s climbing might have been more like those big, soaring Alpine passes? This one’s more akin to those in the Pyrenees. Possibly even the Sierra Cantabrica, given the nature of climbs like Lagos de Covadonga and Jitu d’Escarandí. The first 6km of the climb average a little under 4% with only the one extended stretch at 6%. There’s then a first steep ramp up to 8%, a short flat, then a 2km @ 8,3% riser. After a flattening out we have the main decisive stretch, which comes from around 9km to go to 5km to go - but this part is very serious indeed, measuring in at 4km at 9,8% - so this should be where the biggest moves are made. This leads to the aforementioned dip into a small bowl, before the last steep ramp, an 800m @ 12% kicker that ends with 3,6km remaining, leading to that mostly very manageable final stretch, but that could prove endless for those riders who were suffering on the steepest bit. So while yesterday’s MTF was all about the attrition, this one is going to leave a trail of suffering in its wake.

The mountain in summer
Stage 8: Anren-Jianchuan Museum Cluster - Dajiangyan, 131km

Qincheng Outer Mountain (cat.3) 1,6km @ 6,1%
Dujiangyan Lingyanshan Scenic Area (cat.3) 1,7km @ 5,4%
Dujiangyan Lingyanshan Scenic Area (cat.3) 1,7km @ 5,4%
Dujiangyan Lingyanshan Scenic Area (cat.3) 1,7km @ 5,4%

After a couple of mountain stages, the péloton will be glad to have a short and not too difficult 8th stage to ease their way through, with a more typical UCI Asia Tour distance and a stage which includes a few climbs but nothing super severe. Certainly nothing that should be any problem for any reasonably capable continental pro that has managed to survive the time cut in the last two stages. Sure, we can joke about the guys like Andrea Guardini getting dropped, but he can make time cuts just fine.

The stage opens up at the Jianchuan museum cluster (建川博物馆) at Anren, essentially at the outskirts of the mountain range the riders headed into yesterday. Near the town of Dayi, next one north on the plateau from Qionglai, Anren is a small town for which the museum cluster serves as almost its entire tourist revenue.

On site at the Jianchuan museum cluster there are 15 museums spread over the area, making it the largest single museum cluster in China. Over the 15 museums there are literally over eight million artefacts, including over 100 which are categorised as Class One National Treasures. These are divided into four specialised areas, although three of them are comparatively modern history. The largest is the “culture and folklore” segment, then there is a second section on the Second Sino-Japanese War and the World War II era artefacts, then the “Red Era”, and then finally on exhibits relating to the Wenchuan earthquake. With a huge amount of parking and space set up to welcome the tourists to the cluster, this fits ideally with the type of location that tends to target stage starts in this type of race.

In fact, this is very much a tourist board special of a stage. The first half of the stage is a fairly straightforward ride through Dayi towards Dujiangyan but going via a brief detour into the foothills of the Qionglai mountains in order to take in the first categorised climb of the day. This comes slightly after we pass through another of the Sichuan Ancient Towns, a preserved medieval town which is a popular day trip for Chengdu-based holidaymakers and a nice glimpse into historical China for those so close to the hustle, bustle and skyscrapers of the modern, rapidly expanded cities of the Chengdu basin.

The Jiezi ancient town is right at the entrance into the mountains, but is along a river so we can enter the mountain range via its banks before returniing, and so we have a brief detour via a cat.3 climb to bring us back into the flatlands of central Sichuan. After this we head directly to Dujiangyan, our finishing town, for three laps of an 18,8km circuit, with an intermediate sprint at the end of each one.

Dujiangyan (都江堰) is another major tourist hotspot that I’m sure the regional authorities of Sichuan would want on the itinerary. Historically, its name has been 灌县, or Guanxian, meaning “irrigation county”. The city was renamed in 1988 after its most iconic feature, the Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation system that was used to control flooding and supply fresh water to Chengdu for over 2000 years. Prior to the construction of the Dujiangyan, which was commissioned by King Zhao of Qin, the Min river would bring a lot of silt down from the mountains, and this would make the area prone to flooding, which became almost annual during the Warring States period. Li Bing, a legendary hydrologist and engineer, surveyed the area and isolated the causes of the flooding. However, a dam was not a feasible solution owing to the need to keep the waterway open for boat traffic, so instead a levee was created to divert the water and then channels were cut to bring the water through the mountain at varying points, created by a very labour intensive system of heating and cooling rock until it cracked, as this was prior to the discovery of gunpowder. The ensuing system diverted water through over 5000 square kilometres and helped Sichuan to become the most productive region in the country agriculturally. A statue of Li Bing was placed in the river as a measure of water level - with his shoulders at ‘flood’ height and his ankles at ‘drought’ height - this is the oldest known stone statue of a human being in China, and was recovered from the river in 1974. For his achievements in conquering the floods and bringing prosperity, Li Bing was deified by the animistic Shu people and has become a cultural icon. The original system remained almost completely unchanged from its unveiling in 256 BC to 1933, when it was damaged in an earthquake. The system was reconstructed in sympathetic fashion by Zhang Yuan, and was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

The city is also known for the eyeball-punishing, MC Escher-style Zhongshuge Bookstore, a relatively recent addition to the city, with curved bookspaces, mirrored ceilings and reflective black tile floors to create optical illusions along the lines of Borges’ Library at Babel.

The circuit in Dujiangyan will enable us to see a bit of the classic irrigation system, with the finishing line on Tianyi St., before looping up to the scenic area on the edges of Lingyanshan, a shoulder-summit on Mount Yulei. Originally a Wangdi temple dedicated to a Shu king was on the site of the peak of the relatively benign road up to the high point of this circuit, but that was moved. In recent years a road tunnel has been constructed through here, so there is a comparatively low level of traffic on this 1700m at 5,4% ascent, and near the summit is the current Two Kings Temple, or Erwang, containing a modern statue of the god Erlang Shen, controversially connected to Li Erlang, second son of Li Bing, by the Shu people. An oft-repeated legend of the area is that he suppressed a fire dragon that lived in the mountains north of Dujiangyan by climbing to the top of Mount Yulei, by turning into a giant and building a dam out of the neighbouring mountains before filling it with water from the Dragon Pacifying Pool.

Erwang Temple

From here, 15,7km remain (so on previous occasions it is 34,5km and 53,3km), so realistically the sprinters ought to be able to fight their way back here, unless the bunch is happy to let the break take it. The descent is gradual and only at about 3%, with only a couple of technical corners before we cross the Min from east to west and, despite a very short uphill false flat, spend most of the next few kilometres descending out of the foothills along the banks of the river. The run-in is well suited to the pack, with the last 4km being on wide open roads and only really featuring a couple of corners. There’s a 90º left at 1500m out, then a right-hand sweeper and another 90º left at 1200m remaining, crossing the river once more before a final turn at 800m to go and then a long straight up to the line. A stage around Dujiangyan in the 2011 Tour of China was won by Matej Mugerli, with a reduced péloton coming in just a couple of seconds behind him, however the fact that riders like Hossein Alizadeh and Vladimir Efimkin were among those sprinting for 2nd tells you this was not a pure péloton sprint; however two years later when a 102km short stage came into town from Chengdu, there was a sprint that took place, albeit a slightly unusual finish as it was won by Maksym Averin, and people like Giorgio Brambilla were in the top 5 while legit sprinters like Francisco José Pacheco were down at the bottom of the top 20. This stage sits between GC stages so might be turned over to the breakaway, or it might be a good opportunity for the sprinters to take a day, since they’ve had a couple of difficult days before this, but an outcome akin to that in 2011 is not unlikely, with a baroudeur or puncheur taking a small time gap and a somewhat reduced sprint being contested by riders of the Boasson Hagen, Matthews, van Aert types rather than the Ackermanns of the world.

Dujiangyan Old Town
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Stage 9: Sanxingdui - Deyang, 31,8km (ITT)

As we move into the final days of the race, we have a solid ITT, of the kind of length we seldom see in the UCI Asia Tour. Almost all non-national championships ITTs on the Asia Tour are short, but there is the occasional exception. For example, the 42km ITT in the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2019, the 22km one in the Tour of China II in 2018, the 23km one in the Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2016, and the old 11km Lusail TTs in the days of the Tour of Qatar. As you can see the full length ITTs tend to be in Chinese races, whereas the TTs in the Japanese and Korean races tend to be prologues (though these are fairly common in the Chinese races too, particularly the Tour of Taihu Lake and the Tour of China I) while the Malaysian races and those in the South East Asian region tend to go with TTTs if there are any tests against the clock at all, which there frequently aren’t.

This is the kind of race that absolutely needs an ITT to balance it, however, so here we are, with what I’d describe as an upper mid-length TT at normal levels, but it’s equivalent in length to the ones you typically see in races like the Volta a Portugal, of this kind of balance. I’d be looking to find a similar type of péloton to that which faces the Tour of Qinghai Lake, currently the highest status and best attended Chinese stage race, so if that péloton is happy to face 40+ kilometre races of truth, then we should be able to here as well.

Again, on a cultural bent, the Sanxingdui relic site and museum was an essential stop for the route. Sanxingdui’s component elements, 三星堆, are all in the first tone (high flat) and translate as “three star mound”. Preliminary archaeological findings were unearthed here in 1929 when a farmer unearthed a number of jade relics, and then a plethora of discoveries were made in 1986, when workers looking to develop the land outside the town of Guanghan unearthed a sacrificial pit full of broken pottery and relics, which resulted in a more in-depth analysis of the area which uncovered a significant ancient city and economic centre divided not concentrically as is common throughout most of the world but instead along a modern town-planning idea into individual zones isolated as palatial grounds, industrial and trading areas, a residential zone and a sacrificial area (this last one tends to be left out in modern planned cities for some reason). The discoveries, when analysed, completely changed the traditional preconception of Chinese history, which had always supported the spreading outwards from the Yellow River basin theory, so the discovery of an established culture with an artistic style completely without precedent and hitherto undiscovered at Sanxingdui challenged those notions. The excavations at Sanxingdui cover four distinct periods, and periods II and III are of the most interest because they match up to the Shang Dynasty time-wise, but have completely different artistic values and different methods for producing bronze that was well-developed enough for them to produce a 4m tree sculpture and an oversized human statue.

The discoveries have since been connected, if not conclusively then at least with a reasonable degree of certainty, with the Shu culture and people prior to their contact with the Han and subsequent Sinification. The enormous collection of bronze heads, sculptures and artefacts were considered a discovery of a magnitude approaching that of the Terracotta Army, and exhibits from Sanxingdui became a worldwide hit for several years following the site’s discovery. In 1996, American Express helped fund earthworks to better protect the site from pollution and flooding, and the following year the first public museum - which is where we start our stage from - was opened. The site has since been added to UNESCO’s tentative list for inclusion as a World Heritage Site, and though it has not been added as of yet, it seems inevitable that it will achieve that status before too much time has passed - the scale and scope of the site is significant and discoveries continue to this day - even in March 2021, six new sacrificial pits were unearthed that suggest the city may have been larger than previously thought, and included a 3000-year-old gold mask. It appears that the site becomes abandoned after the fourth period, but it is as yet unclear as to the reason - assimilation is likely from a time basis, but the abandonment of a significant population centre would suggest a natural disaster - probably a flood given the period and location - is the most likely culprit.

A selection of artefacts from Sanxingdui in the eponymous museum

The ITT route is pretty basic, and is essentially just over 30km of hard fast and flat racing against the clock that takes us by the most direct route available without disrupting highways to the nearby city of Deyang, which lies just to the north of Chengdu and close by to stage 2 departure town Xianzhu. This entails passing through Guanghan, home of the Civil Aviation Flight University of China, the world’s largest flight training hub, before continuing on to the finishing town. Deyang (德阳) is a prefecture-level city whose official population is actually approaching 4 million, largely accommodating people working in heavy machinery manufacture, which is the main local commodity.

The population of Deyang is also somewhat in flux because the latest census data is from 2010, and the city’s population was badly affected by the 2008 earthquake, with some 90.000 killed and half a million injured. Structural damage impacted many times this many as well, leaving many people homeless or unable to afford the repairs needed to their homes. The government managed to rehome the vast majority of those left homeless within two years and reconstruct the city, but many districts were re-shaped and the city’s shape was rather impacted by new commuter areas created around factories, and government-provided mobile home mini-cities subsidised during the reconstruction project. Its most famous progeny include Sun Zhen, a Kuomintang general from the Chinese Civil War, who we can reasonably expect will not be a focal point for the present regime, and Li Xuemei (李雪梅) who might be - she is a sprinter who holds the Asian Continental record and Chinese National records in the 100m and 200m to this day, after setting times of 10,79 and 22,01 respectively at the national championships in 1997. The following year she won Asian Games gold in the 100m, silver in the 200m, and gold in the 4x100m. She went on to win two golds (200m and 4x100m) at the Universiade and appear in two Olympic Games, but injuries plagued her late career including a two-season layoff in the early 2000s, and she retired in 2006.

There’s not a great deal to say about the TT - we head into Deyang by a very direct and straight route, and we don’t really deviate from it until the last 500m of the TT, heading to the finish at a central park to the west of the river to minimise disruption. This is here primarily for balance, as there’s a really tough day tomorrow. Really tough. Like, really, really tough.
Stage 10: Yingxiu - Nibagou Scenic Area, 235km

Balang Shan La (HC) 56,5km @ 4,0%
Jiajin Shan La (HC) 29,5km @ 4,5%
Nibagou Scenic Area (cat.2) 2,6km @ 8,5%

Yes, that’s right, it’s a stage so brutal that I’ve done something that I might never have done before in the thread, and that’s come up with a contingency plan. Not a “well, if the weather is bad” contingency plan, but an actual “if the UCI kick up a fuss” type contingency plan. Because this one is pushing the boundaries, it really is, with a stage that is heading up towards - but not topping - the maximum distance allowable without special dispensation, and not one but two climbs going up above the mythical 4000m altitude, which comes up very, very seldom in racing. In fact, the UCI’s rules are somewhat vague about maximum altitude allowable. The Tour of Qinghai Lake has become known for its stages spending enormous amounts of time at 3500m+, and includes in recent years a summit finish at Dadongshu, or Winter Tree Hill, at over 4100m, but that’s still 350m below our ceiling here. The Vuelta a Bolivia has been over the monolithic Alto de La Cumbre, 70km at 5% and a max altitude of 4670m, but that was not during its period of UCI sanctioning. When the UCI were sanctioning the race the highest they got was also the Alto de La Cumbre, but was a separate one in Cochabamba Province which tops out at a “mere” 4496m. So I’m pushing it close, but the Bolivians still have me beaten. This Bombeo-Oruro stage was run annually from 2009 to 2013, with Boyacá’s Mauricio Neiza in 2010 the only non-local winner; Juan Cotumba won this stage in 2011, but in 2009, 2012 and 2013 the stage was won by Óscar Soliz, Bolivia’s best ever cyclist, a 58kg pure escalador who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a specialist at high altitude and who won a lot of races in Colombia, Ecuador and at home from the late 00s to the mid 10s, but is currently awaiting release from a four year suspension for CERA.

Still the reigning and undefeated champion

However, if the UCI looks at the examples I provide and says, “well, Libertine, the thing is… that Bolivian stage is consistently up at 3800m+ so acclimatisation is not as much of an issue as in your stage where you’re climbing up from 1000m to over 4000m… that Qinghai Lake stage starts lower but it’s Unipuerto and short so nothing like as gruelling as your stage going up over 4000m twice… and those races where we have had multiple climbs at high altitude, such as the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, have been with lower max heights and higher minimum heights too, so you should tone it down a little”… you know what? I get it. This stage is probably a bit on the extreme side and, while the Tour of Qinghai Lake does like to throw in the occasional 240km stage, those ones don’t tend to be anything like this brutal. So, for contingency’s sakes I came up with the alternative of cutting off the summit of Balang Shan La and instead going through the Balangshan Tunnel at around 3850m - this shortens the stage by about 20km and also lowers the maximum height reached back into less atypical terrain.

Profile of alternative version

Either way, this is a monster of a stage with a lot of accumulated height gain. We actually head back toward stage 8 finish Dujiangyan to start the stage a little into the foothills of the mountains, in the town of Yingxiu (映秀), at the southern tip of the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, a self-governing division of northwestern Sichuan which was granted that power by the ROC in 1952 and has retained that right ever since. Yingxiu is part of Wenchuan County, and is the gateway from the Chengdu Basin to the Siguniang mountains, the highest peaks in the Qionglai range. The population is small, but that’s largely because it was enormously depopulated following the 2008 earthquake, and with the overall county population being in six figures, the intention is for the town to repopulate in time. It was especially heavily hit by the earthquake seeing as the town was directly at the epicentre and the earthquake hit magnitude 8,0, which categorises it as a “great Earthquake” under the present scaling definitions; the specific site of the epicentre on the surface has been redesigned into a park and monument called Benevolence Square. On that day and in the ensuing clearance, 5.642 people died in the area and 80% of Yingxiu was destroyed. It would be a nice nod to the past to start the stage here, as the town, though small, has that historical significance, as well as being convenient in bringing the stage distance down below the UCI-mandated maximum, of course.

Leaving Yingxiu, the road is already sort-of uphill, but sort-of isn’t. It’s like when you look at those Peruvian climbs that are like, 120km long, and they’re only at 2,5%, and you think ‘that’s not much of a climb’ only to realise that’s about 3000 vertical metres total. This is all slowly turning uphill, but most of this early part of the stage is ascending at, you know, about 1%, so really shouldn’t be counted as ‘climbing’ per se, as it’s just riding through a valley road as we slowly follow the Shaotang River upstream. Eventually, however, the false flat becomes slightly steeper false flat, and then after a while longer the slightly steeper false flat becomes something approximating an actual climb. It’s just the length of the stage makes it look like this is basically 100km of genuine climbing, from the start up to Balangshan La.

After 33,5km we head through the town of Wolong, which is about 600m higher in altitude than the stage start, so just under 2%. This enters us into the 卧龙自然保护区, or Wòlóng Zìránbǎohùqū in pinyin, which translates to Wolong National Nature Reserve. Established in 1963, there were multiple reasons for the area to be protected. It was then massively expanded in 1975, extended to 10 times its original size, and is an incredibly scenic area of the Qionglai mountains. It preserves over 4.000 species of fauna and attracted over 200.000 annual visitors before the 2008 earthquake damaged access infrastructure. This has now been re-established so the tourist numbers are increasing once more. However, there is one species that, above all others, stands tall as the attraction par excellence for the Wolong Nature Reserve - and considering that includes endangered species like the snow leopard, that’s one thing. But let’s face it, let’s talk about animals native to China, iconic of Chinese wildlife throughout the world… what animal are we going to talk about?

Panda panda panda panda pan-panda!

Wolong is now one of the UNESCO-inscribed Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, and since 1980 the World Wildlife Fund and the Chinese government have collaborated on a program to increase captive bred pandas, with the aim of reintroducing more into the wild. This program also loans pandas from the nature reserve to zoos worldwide, as part of the ‘panda diplomacy’. Though we enter the wildlife park and pass the Daxiongmao museum and villa marking the park entrance quite early on, it is a long way up to the specific panda centre for the breeding and research programs. In fact… Balang Panda Kingdom is at nearly 4000m of altitude so if the UCI forces the alternative course on us, we won’t go past the actual base, some 2000m higher up and 55km of road later. Which, yes, averages less than 4%, but then this climb never truly gets steep so to speak, it’s its length and the severe altitude that make this one a killer, totalling 56,5km at 4%. So after we’ve gone far enough that the gradient turns uphill long enough to be considered a genuine climb rather than false flat, the next 15km average 3,3%, then there’s a bit of flat before 38km at 4,6% which is mostly very consistent - only a couple of kilometres in the middle of the climb get up to around 8%, and four separate kilometres late on in the climb average 6% (three of which would be omitted if the short form of the climb is required; the rest of the time this is pretty scenic riding through increasingly thin air. I mean, this is pretty extreme, so I can understand if we get cut off at 3800m to go through the tunnel. Even the official tours in the region provide oxygen to participants if required at the summit of Balangshan La, although in fairness these will usually be enthusiastic amateurs who want to see the pandas, rather than the likes of Yonathan Monsalve, Ilya Davidenok and Mirsamad Pourseyedi who want to win bike races (yes, I know Monsalve is currently suspended). dangerousroads.org suggest that part of the route is unpaved but don’t worry about this - this is covering the full 700km route all the way over to Siguniang, none of the unpaved sections come until after we’ve left the road behind, because the Chinese want to have access to the panda sanctuaries and to encourage the tourist attendance in the area. Balangshan is a Chinese reading of the original Tibetan name (Balang being approximations of the pronunciation of the Tibetan name, and then ‘shan’, Chinese for mountain, is appended, and then La, which is the word for pass in both languages) and means “strange willow mountain”.

If we are forced to top out at 3800m and go through the tunnel, the climb measures in at 43,5km @ 3,8% - but nevertheless despite low gradients, again altitude will be a factor. The UCI has had its concerns about climbs of certain length or altitude in the past, but as mentioned they have sanctioned races going to 4496m with the Vuelta a Bolivia’s run as a UCI-sanctioned race in the late 00s and early 10s, and climbs of absurd length in the Vuelta a Ecuador and with Letras in Colombia. That we’re climbing to this altitude from a fairly ‘normal’ kind of altitude is the extreme thing here, however, and I understand if that is too much for them. Especially as we’re only halfway through the stage here. So realistically, apart from attrition (which I expect there will be plenty of. With stage 9 finishing relatively close to Chengdu, I would not be surprised to see much of the rouleur armada and the less established members of the péloton simply climb off or even just DNS this one), it is likely that we simply see a large breakaway and then the bunch climb over Balangshan La. There’s over 100km remaining and the gradients are low, so survival is the bigger deal for the time being, unless the race organisation committee (consisting of the Sichuan regional government in collaboration with me) decide on some special Cima Coppi-esque prize of monolithic proportions for cresting the highest altitude in a UCI race that year (presuming the Vuelta a Bolivia is not back at UCI-sanctioned level by then - or that I haven’t also been enlisted to design said race by the Bolivians, as that is a race and area I’ve been very tempted by, but lack of paved road options is somewhat restrictive there, and while UCI categorised the race essentially followed the same format each year).

Summit at 4480m

The descent from Balangshan La is actually somewhat steeper than the ascent, but it’s also significantly shorter. The descent is 36km long and averages 4,3%, but does include around 5km at 6% so this lengthy respite will be much appreciated by the riders who have been up to such significant altitude. In the shorter version of the stage it is 21,1km at 4,5%. We have the feed station in the town of Siguniangshan, which takes its name, unsurprisingly, from Siguniang Mountain, a small scenic hill station close to the Siguniang South Gate access point, where the first intermediate sprint takes place. The two intermediate sprints actually follow directly on from one another, with the second being at Daweixiang just 15km after the first. This is largely because there is precious little flat terrain in this behemoth of a stage, and also because I didn’t want to leave the intermediate sprints right until the very end and kill any hope for the breakaway of getting anything out of the day.

At Daweixiang, we turn left and move away from the Siguniang road to take on Jiajinshan La, the mountain pass over Jiajin mountain, the final HC mountain of the stage and of the race as a whole. The other two mountain stages were Unipuerto, so this one is a bit of a shock to the system and a change of pace for the péloton as this is more savagery, albeit once more it’s low gradient grinding for the most part (there is a steep kilometre near the bottom, though Cronoescalada has exaggerated this from the more realistic 9-10% up to 15% due to the issues of where the roads line up to the contour lines in mapping the People’s Republic). The Jiajinshan La climb again only averages 4,5%, but is 29,5km in length and tops out just under 4100m in altitude. However, much more helpfully for the riders this time, we’re starting from nearly 2800m and so the suffering is much more limited, as well as, having already been up over 4000m once in the stage the extent of the impact of the thinning air while ascending is likely to be less significant than when we were climbing from 1300m at the start as the altitude difference is less enormous.

While some climbs of low average gradient hide their brutality, such as La Marta, Cálar Alto from Tijola, Torre or Croix de Fer, this one is fairly open with you - the problem here is the altitude and the oxygen debt, not just the gradients, as this doesn’t get especially steep, in fact other than that bit at the start, the steepest stretches are 3,3km at 6% near the bottom, and 1,6km at 7% in the middle. The last 9km average 5% on the money, and I would expect we’re going to see attrition break this one up into ones and twos just from distance and altitude by the time we reach the summit, which comes at 57km from the line, almost all of which is downhill. The Mount Jiajin (Jiajinshan) Scenic Park (夹金山风景名胜区) is also inscribed within the UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Giant Panda Sanctuaries (there are seven nature reserves and nine scenic areas connected under this), but unlike Balangshan there is no specific sanctuary/centre, it’s more a protected area. Dangerous Roads’ profile of this one describes it as a road to drive at least once, and that it is open all year round most years. And it’s a beauty of a road, too.


And with that, an epic descent begins. Over the next 45km we will descend 1900m at an average of just over 4%, with the steepest parts at the beginning. The descent is no less scenic than the ascent but comes with the advantage that this part of the stage is much more likely to be televised. After all, you can watch coverage of the Tour of Fuzhou, so this should be establish-able as a race that can get some reasonable coverage, at least for selected stages as is sometimes the case in some races, and let’s face it, stages 6, 7 and 10 are the obvious choices in that respect.

Believe it or not, we’re only scratching the surface of the climbs in the Qionglai range, but ultimately, these mountains are pretty sparsely populated, and the best alternative option was Bailongchi lake in the valley of the Min river to the northeast. And to be honest, I didn’t want another MTF. Both mountain stages have been Unipuerto thus far, whereas I wanted a stage where the racing would be entirely different to that. And while this stage is perhaps a bit excessive, it is worth noting that the Tour of Qinghai Lake does include stages with climbs as difficult as this at 3750m, and although a bit easier than my stage, also includes 225km+ mountain stages. The Tour de Singkarak and the Tour of Iran-Azerbaijan have also included 200km+ mountain stages on the Asia Tour in recent years, and since I am essentially proposing a Qinghai Lake replacement, a long stage race to compete in grandiosity and be a late-season counterpart to Langkawi to provide UCI Asia Tour pseudo-Grand Tours in a part of China which is both economically strong and growing, culturally rich and geographically diverse enough to support long-form stage racing, I feel this is acceptable - just. Possibly with the tunnel use because I’m still a bit unsure about that 4480m ceiling at Balangshan La.

The descent largely follows the Donghe River, through Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve (蜂桶寨自然保护区), one of the seven reserves included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is also a popular breeding site for the other species of panda, the much smaller Red Panda, which despite the name is not at all related to the big fuzzy black and white things that you and I will think of whenever anybody mentions the word “panda”. Around Qiaoqixiang, a dam has been constructed on the river, leaving a large reservoir which the riders will arrive at the edges of at around 15km from home. Around 10km of looping around the reservoir (ignore the significant dip in the profile, that is where we cross the dam itself, so it’s the usual cycling profile builder problem with bridges and tunnels) lead us to a final uphill kicker.

The final ramp is up a short, punchy climb to the Nibagou Scenic Area, a spa resort built into a valley adjacent to the Donghe.

Image from Petra Spohn - entrance to Nibagou Scenic Area

2,6km at 8,5% is a very generous second category, but in keeping with the climbs from stages 1 and 2 that got that status. But pretty minuscule in comparison to the first two climbs of the day, even if significantly steeper. However, we’re deep into Aprica terrain here, where the easier climb opens up huge gaps just because of the sheer pain of going uphill once more after such a tough previous climb. Yet here it’s kind of the reverse of the usual Race Design Thread “Aprica Theory” stratagem - here, rather than being “hard climb-easy climb” where the first climb is steep and the second climb either short, shallow or both, here instead it’s a long and gradual climb followed by a short and steep one, and the real difficulty in the gradual climb comes from its altitude. After all, it’s not every day you finish at nearly 2400m and it’s a barely perceptible uphill that finishes the day. I mean, what’s the nearest you can manage to that in Europe? Sant’Anna di Vinadio? It’s at 2015m and can only be off the back of a short descent after the Col de la Lombarde. Places like Pra Loup and Auron are only at 1600m so don’t have the altitude factor. Colombia has probably a few, such as some of the routes into Manizales after the Alto de Letras, but nevertheless, this is very much an unusual and almost unique (certainily on the Asia Tour) style of stage which makes a more than worthy - possibly too worthy - queen stage. The last two days of the race will be far, far easier and just surviving this one will be enough for much of the péloton.
Brilliant. Like you say most of Qinghai Lake is at high altitude, and a lot of the teams do 10-14 days there before the race starts. The idea of a stage going over 4000m+ from "sea level" (in acclimatisation terms) is wild.
Yea, this is about as much as I've pushed the limits of realism in this thread I think, it doesn't quite top Progsprach's Mauna Kea descent ITT or Steven Roots' insane epic four week Silk Road trek as it is still justifiable within the boundaries of the UCI's rules as far as I can tell (there may be some rules withiin rules that forbid this) - but even then, it's only by the letter of the law. I ummed and ahhed about whether to include this one because of that, but given the other mountain stages were Unipuerto and, you know, the race isn't real, I wanted to include it even if just to show off pictures of Jiajinshan La.
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But I'm quite curious about how the altitude would affect the riders. On climbs like Stelvio and Iseran, riders are only very briefly above 2500 m and while they are going slower there, I've never heard of altitude sickness from riding over a mountain pass. Here on the other hand, they would be roughly an hour and a half above 2500 m on Balang Shan La. So how quickly does altitude sickness present itself?
But I'm quite curious about how the altitude would affect the riders. On climbs like Stelvio and Iseran, riders are only very briefly above 2500 m and while they are going slower there, I've never heard of altitude sickness from riding over a mountain pass. Here on the other hand, they would be roughly an hour and a half above 2500 m on Balang Shan La. So how quickly does altitude sickness present itself?
Usually symptoms appear 6 to 24 hours after reaching altitudes above 2500m, but I've seen a friend getting headache and problems on a hiking trip up to 3200m rather fast and before reaching the top of the mountain. I guess most of the riders would be ok, but some could have problems, the stage is clearly not Valverde approved.

I know that you can't compare it to Quinghai Lake because the teams come earlier and have time to adapt to altitude, but in 2018 (and 2017, that was Cunego's last win as a pro) they had a short stage with a MTF at over 4100m.

The day before they also had something pretty crazy, a sprint stage where the riders had to ride over 200kms at around 3200m of altitude, they have pushed things pretty far.
Also wow, that stage is awesome, I'd love to see something like this.
Besides Sant'Anna di Viadio the closest thing in Europe would probably be Saint-Véran after the Agnello from Italy (something that really want to see once in a race).
Stage 11: Lushan - Ya’an, 108km

Chenjiashan (cat.3) 2,7km @ 6,0%
Mengdingshan (cat.1) 8,2km @ 5,9%

After the monstrous mountain stage yesterday, the final two days of the race are much easier fare; in fact, they total in at less mileage than stage 10. Even the shorter version.

The stage begins in Lushan (庐山), a city of 100.000 which is around 60km south of the Donghe river dam around where the previous stage finishes. Realistically, it’s a looping stage that means Ya’an is most likely to be the logistical hub for both start and finish. Lushan is under the administration of Ya’an, so that would connect too. Lushan is best known for its historic mausoleum of Fan Min (樊敏). Located at the confluence of the Mohe and Yuxi rivers, just before it links up to the Qingyi (which the Donghe flows into). The Chinese government also promotes Lushan as the ancestral home of the art of ebony root carvings. Lushan was also, like yesterday’s stage start, the centre of a major earthquake, this time the 6,6 magnitude 2013 Ya’an Earthquake, but thankfully that one was much less impactful than 2008’s, limiting the loss of life to only 196.

The essentials of this stage are that the first part of it is undulating - never especially severe, including just one cat.3 climb, but never really flat per se until we reach the town of Shiyang some 40km in. The first part of the stage is full of scenic meadowlands and hillside farmland on the slightly elevated plateau between the Qingyi and Tianquan rivers.

We meet the Tianquan river at its eponymous city, just before our first categorised climb, which comes as we bypass the new tunnel on the Yakang Expressway. We then follow the path of the river to its confluence with the Yingjing, and then subsequently re-join the Qingyi when the Tianquan flows into it just upstream of our finishing town of Ya’an, where we arrive after a mere 66km, and have an intermediate sprint in the downtown area. Ya’an is a city whose population is just under 400.000 (although because of administering outlying cities like Lushan, Tianquan and Yucheng, its official population statistic is nearly four times that amount) and dates all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty over a millennium before Christ. However, its outpost nature meant that it was somewhat abandoned and alternated between being a nomadic mountain tribe seasonal home and a Shu culture outpost until its reintegration into Chinese control in the 5th Century CE. It was known as Yazhoufu for most of its history, and was rechristened Ya’an in 1912. It used to be part of, and briefly the capital of, its own province, Xikang, as the Kuomintang created this as a Tibetan-led autonomous province that was essentially an enclave within Sichuan, but after the streamlining of the provincial system in 1955 the province was subsumed into Sichuan once more.

Yazhou Gallery Bridge, near the first intermediate sprint, is Ya’an’s most iconic landmark

Ya’an is also one of the most economically crucial cities in China, and that is largely thanks to the neighbouring mountain of Mengdingshan, or Mengding Mountain. A lot of mountains take this name, and it is not to be confused with its namesake near Ningbo - however this is the most famous of them. The main reason for this? Tea. The ubiquitous herbal infusion beverage which has become synonymous with China (and India, from whence it has become an iconic image of Great Britain too) comes in many, many different forms across the globe (after water it is the most consumed beverage in the world), but its origins lay in the eastern Himalayan ranges and outcrops where the tea plant grew - northern India and Myanmar, Tibet and the southern and western outreaches of the Chinese empire of the time. The character 荼, meaning “tea”, is pronounced “chá” in most standard Chinese forms, including Mandarin and Cantonese, but has its origins in a character pronounced “tú”. Hokkien and Min varieties of Chinese pronounced the character “té”, so when the Dutch began trading from Formosa (Taiwan) they inherited this pronunciation and spread it throughout western Europe. The Portuguese, however, brought the pronunciation “chá” from Cantonese through their colony in Macau, and introduced this to India through their trading in Calicut and Goa, hence the strange dichotomy whereby English inherited the pronunciation from Dutch, despite their two primary colonial regions where the drink was popular using the “chá” pronunciation.

Why am I talking about the origins of tea? Well, originally, it was collected from trees growing in the wild by foragers and specialists in collecting the leaves and stems for herbal use, either recreational or medicinal. Chinese legend attributes its introduction to the semi-mythical Shennong, but this would have been in northern and central China and realistically the herb (the character used for tea was originally from Chinese medicine and meant “bitter herb”) would have been introduced from the south and west. It is known to have been drunk by Han Emperors back into the second century BC, however it was largely disdained in the north as a drink of slaves and of uncultured southern folk for many centuries afterward. During the Tang Dynasty, however, this stigma was thrown off and the drink spread like wildfire. This increased the demand for tea beyond that which could reasonably be collected in the traditional method, and the favourable soil and climate of Mengdingshan, along with its proximity to a trading town in Yazhoufu (Ya’an) and its ready access to major rivers for transport, made it a perfect spot. Therefore the world’s first artificially-cultivated tea plantations were created on the slopes of Mengding Mountain, and the authorities responsible for the Mengdingshan plantation maintain seven historic trees, believed to have dated back if not all the way then at least most of the way to the first days of cultivation, as the ‘cradle of tea production’. Ya’an is also the centre for two further types of tea - “Panda Tea”, from tea plants fertilised by giant panda dung, which is also cultivated on Mengdingshan, and “Brick Tea”, a specialised local form of compressed tea leaf which also includes stems, twigs and coarser leaves along with other plants for aroma and infusion. Regarded as an inferior product by the Chinese, it was popular with Tibetans because it complemented the yak butter that Tibetans usually used with their tea, and as Ya’an is the primary trading post for Tibetans coming down from the mountains in the Garzê prefecture, it has become a speciality of the area, and also somewhat popular as a low-cost, low-prestige ‘people’s drink’ in the city, akin to, say, aguapanela in Colombia. The mountain therefore produces all manner of tea from the highest to the lowest prestige and teas suitable for all - Mengding Ganlu is considered Sichuan’s finest and one of the most prestigious varieties in the country.

Mengding also in fact has a bit of cycling heritage, hosting the decisive mountaintop finish in the 2019 Tour of China II. There, it was a similarly short stage to mine, but finishing atop the climb, and it was won by Kevin Rivera of Androni Giocattoli, ahead of Lyu Xianjing and José Fernandes of Burgos-BH, enabling Lyu to take the yellow jersey and ultimately the GC.

The 2019 stage climbed Mengdingshan from the northeast, however, so the opposite side from me, and also it included the steeper final 800m from where the two roads converge to the summit. I already have had two MTFs and an uphill finish, however, so I felt this would be overkill as I would either have to have the stage be just 83km long (feasible but unattractive) or loop around for a longer stage with a greater mountain imbalance considering the unusual nature of the race and the level of the péloton likely to do a race like this (which can vary from real ProConti super talents to riders on teams that are to all intents and purposes elite amateur teams that have Continental status because of meeting some requirements and paying a registration fee so they can get into races like this). Therefore I thought - especially as this is the last GC stage - it would be nice to have this stage feature a descent and run-in, because even though it’s barely over 100km, I think this stage could be a banana skin and good for an ambush simply because so many legs will be so tired after stage 10. 8km at 6% is realistically cat.2 in most races, but it’s cat.1 here because there’s such a big difference between this level of climb and the four HC climbs that have been included. There ought to be some big time gaps on the GC now, too, of course, so it’s not like you can have a sprint up the last kilometre of the climb to open up the gap you need either.

As a result, I have the summit of Mengdingshan coming at 25,5km from the line. I could have put the finish at the base of the descent, in Mingshan, which hosted the stage start for that 2019 Tour of China II stage, as well as the start and finish of the final stage a day later, which was a 92km sprint stage won by Reynard Butler of ProTouch. It is home to 250.000 people and hosts the second intermediate sprint, 14km from the line. This is also to entice a bit of movement on Mengdingshan, with some more bonus time available, both 10 seconds for the stage win and 3 for the meta volante. After this, however, it’s just a fast, flowing final 10km into Ya’an, where we finish at the stadium in Yucheng district. Riders have got to make this one count if they harbour any hopes after stage 10. And if the GC battle is over after that one - which it very well could be given there could be some herculean time gaps if we get something like a classic Tabriz Petrochemical demonstration, then this is a great chance for ATV type riders to get something out of the race.

Stage 12: Chengdu - Chengdu, 98km

The final stage of the Tour of Sichuan is a straightforward, simple flat stage, consisting of 12 laps of an 8,2km circuit back in the heart of Chengdu. I’ve talked about the heritage and history of the city on stage 1, since that was also a Chengdu - Chengdu course, but that was a 2012 Olympics-style lollipop stage rather than a pure circuit race as this one is. What I hadn’t talked about so much, however, is the cycling background of Chengdu and its many appearances in recent years in the Tour of China. In 2011, the last year of a unified Tour of China before the split into two separate stage races, the race had a bizarre format over ten stages, consisting of four days around Xi’an, a rest day to transfer to Sichuan, five stages in Sichuan, then a rest day to transfer to Tianjin all the way over on the northeast coast for a single 85km stage. This absurdity is probably why it ended up being split into two races, but nevertheless, stage 7 of that edition was a flat stage around Chengdu, the last of the four back-to-back stages won by Russian veteran sprinter Boris Shpilevskiy (we already came across these stages earlier in my race, since Mianyang, Suining, Guang’an and Dujiangyan all appeared on that route).

In 2013, two different stages started in Chengdu, both ending in sprints. The second was the Dujiangyan stage won by Maksym Averin that I mentioned in the stage 8 descripition, the first was won by Alois Kankovsky in Pengzhou. In 2014 two circuit stages - one in Pengzhou and one in Dayi - were attributed as Chengdu stages, but we know better. The same goes for the 2017 Jintang ITT. All three were noted as Chengdu because the city administers the three towns, however it has now been eight years since Chengdu hosted a race proper. Except in this universe where it’s eleven days, since I had stage 1 here. I know.

Once more, like on stage 1, the start/finish is at Tianfu Square. The circuit is by and large an out-and-back, but that gives it a kind of arrowhead shape at the top as we circumnavigate Tianfu Square, but rather than just a square route around it, we follow the road as it slides to the left to reconvene with the other side of the road that covers the opposite side of Tianfu Square, at Chengdu Sports Centre (成都市体育中心), also known as Sichuan Provincial Sports Centre (四川省体育中心), a multi-purpose sports arena opened in 1991 with a capacity of 40.000, which hosted games in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup and was formerly the home of two soccer clubs - Chengdu Wuniu Guoteng, who were dissolved after a match fixing scandal in the early 2000s, and Chengdu Blades, their successor club, whose name and identity came from their shared ownership with English team Sheffield United, nicknamed “The Blades” and clad in the same red and white striped shirts. However, further scandals around gambling resulted in the sale of the club and the dissociation of the English team from their Chinese counterparts, and following enforced relegation and a further sale the team was wound up in 2015. As a result, the stadium is now used primarily for athletics events, concerts and ceremonial events such as the opening ceremony of the World Police and Fire Games, one of those industry-specific athletic competitions akin to the Military Games or the Universiade - the latter of which was due to take place in Chengdu in 2021, but with the Covid-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Olympic Games, these have been delayed until 2022 to accommodate Tokyo.

After returning to the opposite side of Tianfu square, we essentially convene on Renmin South Road, for a straightforward out-and-back circuit. It’s not straight - we take a 90º right before reaching the Jin river, then a left, which takes us to a southwestern bearing to take us out to one of Chengdu’s most iconic attractions, which is where we reach the outermost part of our circuit and reach what isn’t quite a U-turn, but a sequence a low-speed turns, one right and two left, to take us back onto the opposite side of the same road so that we can return to Tianfu Square by the same route we approached it. This is the historic-cultural beating heart of Chengdu.

The Temple of Marquis Wu, better known as the Wuhou Shrine, is one of Chengdu’s most beloved and scenic attractions. Constructed during the Western Jin period in the late 3rd century AD, it was built to honour both the then-present leader of Shu Han, Zhuge Liang, and also the founder of the southwestern most of the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei. It has a significant number of statues and shrines to prominent individuals of the Shu Han era and, in the Hui Mausoleum, holds an absolutely unique proposition in China, in proof of a recognised major Chinese civilisation where the emperor and his subjects are both enshrined in the same temple. The site, across the shrine and its surrounding temple complex, is arguably China’s most comprehensive site for relics of the Three Kingdoms era. We are also to the south of a couple more cultural attractions of Chengdu, the scenic waterside Thatched Cottage of Du Fu, the former residence of the 8th Century Tang poet, and the Sichuan Museum.

Within the complex surrounding Wuhou shrine, however, is Jinli Street (锦里古街, Jǐnlǐ gǔjiē in pinyin), a preserved medieval Chinese street with traditional Sichuan architecture which is chocked full of restaurants, teahouses, bars and handicraft stores, dealing with local Sichuan specialities, especially in the cuisine stakes. The name is not original - the original Jinli Street, dating back to the Han Dynasty, was in another location in the city which has been lost in conflicts over time, but from its name meaning “improving on perfection” and was. Considered the beating commercial heart of the city in the Shu era, the present street was originally dubbed Jinli informally as the most representative of the old heart of the city, and in time has attracted the many different types of traders and markets that made the original street what it was; in time it has adopted the identity of the original and become effectively regarded as one and the same. It is culturally protected to be maintained as close to its historic image as possible - so even successive renovations (most recently in 2005) have seen it restored as faithfully as imaginable. And with so much competition, the street food on Jinli Street is to die for.

Opposite the entrance to the Wuhou Shrine and the surrounding narrow lanes and Jinli Street, sits the Sanxingdui Art Museum, another arm of the archaeological site and the main city-centre site housing some of the most spectacular, yet only a fraction of the, artefacts from the complex used as the departure in the ITT stage. We essentially leave the main nodal road to loop around the entrance of Wuhou Shrine and Jinli Street, before returning to the main road to pass the Sanxingdui Art Museum. From here we simply return to Tianfu Square via the same route we left it to create a flat finishing circuit and a short final stage.

So, overall, there are 12 stages in my Tour of Sichuan, for a total distance of 1748km, or 1730km if we need to take the adjusted version of stage 10. This means an average stage distance of 146km, so not long at all, and in typical Asia Tour long-form stage race fashion, some somewhat bonkers variation between the shortest and longest stages, from sub-100km flat stages to 230km mountain odysseys. We have a few options for shortening the race because we head close to Chengdu before a final loop-de-loop; we could do stages 1-8 and finish with the ITT, or we could do a 10 stage race and cut out stages 10 and 11 and go straight to the ceremonial finish. But obviously I’d prefer, for the sake of balance, to do the race in full - two Unipuerto stages do not a 10-stage race make, in my humble opinion. Plus, just for the scenery point of view, it would be nice to get stage 10 in there, with that beautiful scenery on the top of Jiajinshan La and in the Qionglai range. All too often these Asian stage races somewhat miss out on taking advantage of the beauty of our sport; while I have stayed true to one thing that is pretty characteristic for them - putting stage starts and finishes at touristic hotspots such as the Anren museum cluster, Dujiangyan, the Sanxingdui site, the Zigong Salt Museum, Qiqushan Scenic Area and Emeishan - all too often we see races like the Tour of Beijing, the Tour of Guangxi, the Tour of Taiwan, the Tour de Langkawi, and so on focusing their stages on urban areas, bringing the racing to the fans, but as a result hamstringing their opportunities to attract an external audience to the natural beauty spots, as if you look at some of the most popular places in cycling these are frequently for the imagery they provide as well as the action they generate - the Serrai di Sottoguda, the Casse Déserte, the Tour of the Moon, the Alto da Senhora da Graça - and keeping a race primarily urban in nature both damages the ability to maximise both the racing and the touristic advantages - as well as rider development. I have tried to compromise what would be a good race with what would be achievable parameters given the characteristics of the Asia Tour and the races that we presently see being developed and hosted within China.
Then it doesn't really sound like a dangerous or harmful stage design. Just brutal.
Worth noting is that the Vuelta a Bolivia, which I referenced a few times, wasn't like it was all at altitude either. The UCI-sanctioned version of the race spent its first four days around Santa Cruz de la Sierra which is only about 400m above sea level, then transition to Villa Tunari (300m) before stage 6 would climb to Cochabamba (2600m) and then the Bombeo-Oruro stage going over La Cumbre at 4496m, so it's a lot more like my stage than the Tour of Qinghai Lake which is almost all at 3000m+. The rest of the race (10 days, so three more days' racing but with two split stages in that) would be at high altitude, including some brutal time trials. The non-UCI version of the race has had some more altitude in, as I mentioned even going over the more famous La Cumbre at 4670m, but that was with more time to acclimatise.
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