China's road cyclist Li Fuyu is likely to become the first Chinese to compete at the renowned Tour de France after signing the American pro team Discovery Channel, the Team of seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong.
The move also puts Li on the track to become the country's first men's road rider to race at the Olympics.
"This is something out of my expectation," Li told China Daily. "I am very happy to be selected as a part of the best team in the world. This is a dream come true for me.
"I hope that this will increase the awareness for the sport and also cycling participation in China."
Li, a rider of China's Continental team Marco Polo, is the first Chinese to join an International Cycling Union (UCI) ProTour team and is given a chance to race at the top three cycling events in the world - Tour de France, Tour de Spain and Giro'd Italia.
However, the 28-year-old from Shandong will face a tough challenge in the 27-member team because only the top nine riders can compete in the Tour de France, which takes place in July.
"For me, the first step is to get used to the team and the high-level training and competitions there," said Li. "For sure, all the riders dream of Tour of France, but I need to improve step by step and earn my own spot in the team."
According to the Beijing Games qualification system, which starts in January next year, the top 50 cyclists on the UCI men's and women's rankings will automatically qualify for the 2008 Olympics and points mainly come from the UCI ProTour events.
Li will be scheduled to take part in a series of events alongside with the Discovery Channel and is believed to have more chances to collect Olympic qualification points.
Having won the Tenth National Games in October last tear, Li has had a successful 2006 campaign riding for his current Marco Polo Cycling Team.
He won the GP Westfalen in Germany and enjoyed an overall win at the Tour of Thailand, the first time a Chinese rider ever won the overall at an international pro race. Back home, he finished third place in both the Road Race and Time Trial events at the Chinese National Championships in August.
Discovery Channel faced a slump in ProTour following the retirement of Armstrong. Its best rider Jose Azevedo was at a modest No 18 on the final standings of the Tour de France this year and the team slipped to No 8 on the team's rankings.
Li adds a 12th nationality to the team, which now boasts US George Hincapie, Russian aces Yaroslav Popovych and Viatcheslav Ekimov.
Discovery Channel's sports director Johan Bruyneel is confident of Li's success.
"Fuyu has proven that he is a strong rider, has had some impressive results and we are excited to have him as a member of our Team," he said. "He will certainly need some time to get used to the speed and style of racing but I will design a program that allows him to be successful. I am sure he will adapt quickly."
Despite being known as a country with more than 300 million bicycles, China has achieved nothing of note in the elite ProTour level. In the home 2.HC event Tour of Qinghai Lake that ended two months ago, Ma Haijun of the Marida team was the country's best performer, finishing 25th but almost half an hour down on overall winner Maarten Tjallingii, while all riders from China's national team were out of top 60.
Small steps are being made to improve the performances. Jin Long and Fang Xu joined Dutch-based squad Skil-Shimano this season, while Hong Kong's Wu Kin San and Xu Gang train with Lampre-Fondital, another UCI Pro Team.
In addition, Chinese teams are combining with bicycle factories to boost the professionalism by inviting senior experts and trainers from UCI top teams.
Source: China Daily