Wellens, De Lie, Kooij headline Tour of Guangxi after event's four-year hiatus

The peloton passes through a highway toll structure at the last edition of the Tour of Guangxi held in 2019
The peloton passes through a highway toll structure at the last edition of the Tour of Guangxi held in 2019 (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

It’s not over just yet. Tadej Pogačar’s Il Lombardia victory may have marked the symbolic end to the season, but there are still six more days of WorldTour racing in China before the 2023 campaign can be consigned to the books.

After a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tour of Guangxi returns to the calendar, with the race setting out from the port city of Beihai on Wednesday morning. The lie of the land, in professional cycling and beyond, has changed considerably since Enric Mas’ 2019 victory, but the route is a familiar one, and so too is the patchwork nature of the peloton.

At this late juncture, filling rosters is never a straightforward task. Like so many races in the dying days of the campaign, most lineups are a motley blend of youth and experience. Some riders travel seeking to capitalise on late-season form, while others are still desperately seeking contracts for 2024.

“Everyone has his own story for coming to this race,” inaugural winner Tim Wellens explained on Wednesday afternoon at a pre-race press conference in a shopping mall in Beihai. The UAE Team Emirates man is back in China for the first time since that 2017 race, partly because his 2023 season was interrupted by injuries sustained in the mass crash at the Tour of Flanders.

Wellens was able to return to action by the summer and he was back winning at the Renewi Tour in late August. The Tour of Guangxi, with its uphill finale at Nongla on stage 4, presents an obvious opportunity for Wellens to add to his tally before year’s end. 

“I didn’t do a lot of races this year because I was injured,” he said. “And it’s a WorldTour race, so it’s important to try to win.”

His thoughts were echoed by Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers), who returns to China for the first time in a decade. The Italian picked up a brace of wins at the now-defunct Tour of Beijing early in his career, but he is spurred on here by an altogether more recent triumph. His win on the first day of the CRO Tour last month was his first in just over a year and Guangxi offers a chance to add to his 2023 tally.

“I went a long time without winning and then I broke the ice in Croatia, so I’ll try to keep the momentum,” said Viviani, who hasn’t won a WorldTour race since his spell with QuickStep ended in 2019.

With potentially five sprints on the agenda in the days ahead, mind, Viviani is far from the only fast man to make the long haul to China. Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny), so impressive in this final portion of the season, will be favoured to shine here along with his contemporary Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma), while Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious), Sam Welsford (Team dsm-firmenich) and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) also feature in a deep sprint field.

For De Lie and Kooij, the Tour of Guangxi is a chance to add a little more garnish to already sparkling seasons. For Bennett, who is expected to join AG2R Citroën next season, the impetus for being here is something else. As he brings the curtain down on a difficult second act at Bora-Hansgrohe, the Irishman will hope to take something from the race to sustain him through the winter.

The format

The Tour of Guangxi sticks to its tried-and-trusted format for its fourth edition, with three clear opportunities for the sprinters in Beihai, Qinzhou and the regional capital Nanning ahead of the summit finish at Nongla on Sunday. The race concludes with two relatively hilly days around Guilin, though the flat run-in on each stage means that a mass finish is again likely.

The general classification will thus inevitably be decided by the 3.3km of that short, sharp hilltop finale at Nongla, where Wellens (2017), Gianni Moscon (2018) and Mas (2019) all forged their respective overall wins.

Wellens, backed by a UAE Team Emirates squad that includes Felix Grossschartner and the departing George Bennett, is an obvious contender, with Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar), Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), and Andreas Leknessund (Team dsm-firmenich) among his likely challengers.

EF Education-EasyPost field a team of notable strength, with Rigoberto Urán, Esteban Chaves and Hugh Carthy all extending their campaigns by another week, while Ineos have Luke Plapp and Ethan Hayter in their squad. Hayter, with his ability to hang tough on climbs and pick off bonuses in sprints, might add another layer to an otherwise one-dimensional GC battle here.

Beyond the racing itself, of course, the Tour of Guangxi sees the formal revival of WorldTour cycling’s efforts to expand into China. The much-trumpeted Tour of Beijing lasted four editions before it was quietly shelved after 2014, while the accompanying Tour of Hangzhou, planned and then cancelled in 2012, never got off the ground at all.

As recently as last month, some teams were privately expressing scepticism that the Tour of Guangxi would return to the calendar in 2023, but the event, still backed by the Wanda conglomerate, has duly been restored, and, for the first time since the inaugural Tour of Beijing in 2011, the Chinese national team lines up in a WorldTour race. A symbol of intent, perhaps, for the years ahead. The return of the race itself, meanwhile, is a symbol of sorts after the repeated cancellations during the pandemic.

“It was a strange few years for everybody and that was even more the case here,” Viviani said on Wednesday. “Let’s hope we see a lot of people out on the road. They deserve it, surely.”

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