Zhong aims to pedal to another gold
China's cycling queen Zhong Tianshi is anxious to inspire residents of the "kingdom of bicycles" to further embrace the sport through a successful defense of her gold medal at next year's Tokyo Olympics.
With road races gaining more popularity in recent years, the public perception of biking has gone from being just a means of everyday transportation to a healthy lifestyle choice.
As the face of cycling in China, Zhong hopes to accelerate that process.
"I think only by helping people realize that riding bikes is more than just a way of transportation, and getting more people to embrace it as a serious exercise, can we call ourselves a strong biking nation," Zhong told China Daily at the launch of the 10th Tour of China road race in Beijing earlier this week.
As ambassador of the Sept 7-22 event, Zhong will show up at the final stop of the 11-stage race across five provinces.
"To try to defend my title at the Olympics and pedal for more golds is the best I can do to help bring more attention to the sport," said the 28-year-old Shanghai native.
A sprinting specialist with exceptional late-race acceleration, Zhong partnered with now-retired Gong Jinjie to win the team sprint final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janerio, bringing home China's only Olympic gold in cycling.
The tandem clocked 31.928 seconds in their first-round sprint in Rio, which still stands as the world record in the team discipline.
Zhong and Gong had also set the fastest time at the world championships in London earlier this year but were relegated in the final against Russian pair Daria Shmeleva and Anastasia Voinova.
Less than a year out from the Tokyo Games, Zhong is vowing to fill the vacancy in her trophy collection for a major international individual title.
"Leading up to Tokyo, I am focusing more on improving my strength and endurance, which will consequently enhance our team's competitiveness," she said.
"My goal for Tokyo is to go for gold in both disciplines as hard as I can."
After being hampered by a nagging lower-back injury that forced her to settle for bronze at the 2017 National Games, Zhong missed this year's track cycling world championships in Poland due to a rib fracture.
She said a return to top form could take longer than anticipated after she struggled to keep up with the grueling pace and heavy workload during a recent training camp in Spain that involved daily rides of up to 100 kilometers.
With Zhong still recovering her full strength, Hong Kong rival Lee Wai Sze is consolidating her supremacy in the individual events after claiming the sprint title at the worlds.
The 32-year-old Lee now tops the elite sprint ranking by the International Cycling Union, having won four of six UCI World Cup series events in the 2018-19 season.
Zhong said she will embrace the challenge against Lee at the upcoming Asian Championships, the World Cup series and next year's worlds in Berlin as invaluable tuneups for Tokyo.
In the team event, Zhong is confident her chemistry with new partner Lin Junhong, who joined the team following Gong's retirement in October 2017, will reap benefits in Tokyo.
"Lin is one of my best friends, we are close in life and of course it will boost our performance riding with each other on the track," Zhong said.
"She is a good partner. I trust her, we can win more golds in the future."
In their first major international outing, Zhong and Lin clocked 33.118 seconds to win gold ahead of Hong Kong pair Lee and Ma Wing Yu at last year's Asian Games in Indonesia.
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