His story is not so common, in hindsight. Ji chose one of the strangest sports for a Chinese man. He decided to become a professional cyclist starting from a country where riding bikes is common but not as a career. Ji used to run on foot, but there was a problem: Harbin, his city in the northeast of China, is more famous for ice sculptures than it is for runners. With Siberia just around the corner, temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero in winter. So at a certain point Ji started sprinting, but on a bike, under a roof and in a velodrome. Then the big jump from China to Europe in 2006 and his debut in the Giro in 2007, with his entry into the Dutch Skil-Shimano team.
Born in ‘87, he was the first Chinese cyclist to compete and finish a major stage race, the 2012 Vuelta a España. He closed the event in 175th place. That is last, 4 hours, 32 minutes and 35 seconds after the winner Alberto Contador. Ji was also the first Chinese man to participate in the Giro d’Italia, in 2014, but that time he was unable to reach the bottom over the three weeks. The Giant cyclist returned to glory in 2014, when he was the first from his country to ride the most prestigious route: the Tour de France. He held his own despite an injury to the knee, and reached the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées. Final position: 164th. Last. More than six hours after Nibali, who that year won the yellow jersey. In short: the chosen one.
Scrolling through the list of non-winners of the Giro, we find other stories like those of Coledan and Ji. Similar yet all unique. In 2014, last place was conquered by Jetse Bol: a Dutch long-distance cyclist who also knows how to sprint. But he suffered the uphill slopes. He started with blades under his feet, as a speed skater. In 2013, the honour was left to Davide Appollonio, one of the few cyclists from Molise to participate in the group.
The 2012 black jersey winner was a Spaniard, actually a Basque from Bilbao: Miguel Minguez. Another sprinter destined to finish at the back of the pack, another story ended badly. In 2012, his impressive team, the orange Euskaltel-Euskadi, closed up shop. With few results for his CV, he was unable to find another contract. And today he is 28, but watches his colleagues on TV. Jos Van Emden, on the other hand, is still passionate, competing the 2016 Giro d’Italia. The Dutch cyclist, an excellent long-distance rider, a terrible climber, took the black jersey in 2011. But he mainly remembered because three years later – in 2015 – he decided to make a marriage proposal in the middle of a time trial. He braked, performed the ritual gesture, received a fateful “yes” and resumed pedalling.
After all, this is the life of a cyclist: everything happens from the saddle of a bike; the bike almost becomes a part of you. You ride and you work hard because that is what you are good at. It is a life in which you learn to put aside your childhood dreams and the victories accumulated in your youth. You simply do your job. Because except for a few members– two, three at most – a race like the Giro is ridden only for the team. Your individual result only counts if you can compete for the pink jersey or a decent place in the standings. Or you are a sprinter, fast enough to win at least one stage. Otherwise – in 90% of cases – your job as a professional cyclist is very clear. This is modern cycling; nothing is left up to chance. You can forget the idea of breaking away and surprising everyone by unexpectedly winning a stage.