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.
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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.