FILE PHOTO: Giant-Shimano team rider Ji Cheng of China leads the pack of riders during the 185.5-km 12th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Bourg-en-Bresse and Saint-EtienneFILE PHOTO: Giant-Shimano team rider Ji Cheng of China leads the pack of riders during the 185.5-km 12th stage of the Tour de France cycling race between Bourg-en-Bresse and Saint-Etienne, France, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/File Photo
By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Selling the world's most famous cycle race to a country where an estimated 450 million people own a bike hardly sounds like a revolutionary concept.
Yet for vast swathes of China's population, the appeal of the Tour de France remains as far-removed from their everyday lives as car ownership was only a few decades ago.
Things might be about to change though with Tour organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) targeting the Chinese market in the ongoing globalisation of the fabled three-week event.
Philippe Fournier de Lauriere, ASO's Asia and Oceania Development Manager, is the man tasked with promoting professional cycle racing in a nation whose only ever Tour de France entrant, Ji Cheng, finished last in 2014.
This week ASO announced the first Tour de France China Criterium will take place in October with 60 of the world's top riders racing around a 3km closed road circuit in Shanghai.
Hardly comparable to the real Tour, but a tasty appetiser aimed at hooking millions of new Chinese cycling fans - with all the commercial spin-offs that could entail.
"Our studies show that Chinese people have heard of the Tour de France, it's not that strange, but don't really have any knowledge about what it actually is," De Lauriere told Reuters by telephone from Shanghai.
"They don't know how long it lasts, who are the big stars, how it works, so we want to bring this spirit to China.
"It's a huge market but also one that is difficult to penetrate. Bringing Tour de France style events to China is crucial because we want to share the passion."
China's ever-expanding middle class means cars have replaced the bicycle for many - but an increase in wealth and leisure time means the idea of cycling for sport is catching on.
"Sport generally is booming. Not just for media consumption but also as a practice," de Laurier said. "The goal is to accelerate the growth of cycling in China."
Crowds of 200,000 have watched ASO-organised Criterium events in Saitama, Japan since 2013 and it is hoped similar numbers will watch in Shanghai.
No major cycling races are currently staged in China and there are no professional road teams, although the country has already provided some world champions in track disciplines.
Huge amounts of money are being pumped into soccer as Chinese clubs sign big-name players and while a similar level of interest in professional cycling is still years away, De Lauriere believes the wheels are in motion.
He also thinks the next time a Chinese rider competes in the Tour, they will not be just making up the numbers.
"It's not always easy to apply the recipe we have in the west but it's very exciting opportunity," he said.
"China is still at the beginning of the journey in terms of structure and talent detection, but the long-term ambition is to have a Chinese rider crossing the line on the Champs Elysees in the yellow jersey."
(Reporting by Martyn, editing by Pritha Sarkar)