Notice: This article is for posting on sheldonbrown.com to correct the Westerns’ stereotypical view of cycling in China. All descriptions are based on my own experience and may be inaccurate. Information on routes to Tibet is provided by Ghostmcn , who has taken almost every route described. Information on route and slope of Mount Nan is provided by Lao Fang, who is one of the fastest riders in the forties on the mountain.
The cycling scene in China has moved beyond the Western stereotype. China is a big country with a booming economy but little democratic control and poor social welfare. There is serious economic inequality between individuals, and between parts of the country. In some areas, and among some segments of the population, cycling is evolving quite rapidly.
Certainly, most Chinese use bikes for daily transportation and would never think about paying over $100 US for a bike. My mother’s bike cost only $30 US; I was carried on it to school as a child, 20 years ago. It is cheap, heavy and slow, but no doubt super tough.
However, for enthusiastic cycling fans like me in Shenzhen, Guangdong — probably one of the most prosperous cities in China — it is normal to have several good bikes– on and off- road, foldable and BMX, fixed-gear and single speed. The brands and parts sold and used in China are almost the same as in other countries with avid cycling populations. Although avid cyclists are still the minority, people have got used to colorful jerseys and bikes everywhere.
Cyclists in China love mountains. Tibet, the highest plateau in the world, attracts thousands of Chinese cyclists, who ride to Lhasa every year during March and November. The journey can even be over 10,000 km long and take 3 months for cyclists leaving from northeast China.
Lhasa may be reached by air, a single railway, or any of five highways.
- The Qingzang route, Highway G109, starts from Xining, Qinghai, passing Golmud to reach Lhasa. This route offers the best riding conditions, but it is the least interesting, and few cyclists choose it.
- The Xinzang route, Highway G219, starts from Yecheng, Xinjiang, passing Ali to reach Lhasa. It is open for cycling during May and October; otherwise the weather can be quite unfavorable. This route has the very worst riding conditions, with and average elevation of nearly 4000 meters and one week of travel in an uninhabited desert.
- The Chuanzang route, part of Highway G318, starts from Chengdu, Sichuan, passing Kangmang to reach Lhasa. The best season for riding on it is March to November. As Chengdu is a fairly developed city in southwest China with good transportation and road conditions, most cyclists start there.
- The Dianzang route, a combination of Highway G214 and G318, starts from Dali, Yunnan, passing Kangmang to reach Lhasa. The fantastic views of Shangri-La and Moirigkawagarbo during September and October are irresistible.
- The Sino-Nepal route, a combination of Highway G318 and the Sino-Nepal International Highway, connects Lhasa and Katmandu. This is also the way to the north face of Mount Everest, with magnificent mountain views. Zhangmugou ( literally, it means a lowland with lots of camphor woods), at the boundary with Nepal and the south face of the Himalayas, descends nearly 2000 meters within 30 km; humid air from the Indian Ocean rises, resulting in rain and quite a few very beautiful waterfalls along the road.
Cyclists in Shenzhen also have our own climbing paradise. Mount Nan, nearby, has an average slope of about 13%, and some of its steepest parts reach 16% or even higher (peak slope reaches 38.7% according to the chart below). Cyclists train there almost every day to keep fit: some are looking to complete the ascent without having to stop and rest; others, to improve their time. Several mountains in eastern Shenzhen are also quite challenging, with an average slope of 5%-8% for as much as 8-10km.
Amateur and professional racing is getting more popular year by year. Generally, racers, no matter whether pros or amateurs are focusing, as is usual, on speed either on or off road. However, in China, many amateur competitions include road racing on mountain bikes, possibly just because mountain bikes are so common.
Some challenges, are more about competing with oneself. Some (brevets) require the cyclists to finish 200km, 420km or even 600km within a limited time; some (time trials) give the cyclists 12 hours or 24 hours to ride as far as possible around a loop. These events have lowered the entry thresholds for regular cyclists, as rankings are less important than finishing and personal records.
Some newspapers have reported that the Chinese version of PBP (Paris Brest Paris) is to be held by ACP (Audax Club Parisien) and ROCN (Randonneuring of China) in November, 2012 in Sichuan, following several tough qualifiers and requiring participants to complete 1200 km in 100 hours. 10 hours more are allowed than on the original PBP in France, because of more hazardous mountain roads including a formidable 45-km-long continuous climb of 4532 meters.
Cyclocross is still less common in China. I have heard that some cyclocross competitions held in China last year allowed mountain bikes.
AM (all mountain) and downhill still have a long way to go. Competitions for mountain bikes often refer to XC or light AM. Thrill seeking and risk taking are not popular here; cyclists I know prefer long and hard journeys stressing endurance. Good speed gets extra bonus of course, but perseverance is the key to honor. This agrees with our national culture’s emphasis on modesty but may also be due to poor maintenance of rural parks in China, resulting in few high-quality and safe off-road routes. Financial limitations can be another reason since AM and DH training and racing are likely to lead to bicycle-repair and medical expenses.