The first Chinese rider to finish Paris-Roubaix

On one of the smallest women's teams at Paris-Roubaix Femmes, there was a little bit of history being made.

The Winspace team on a Paris-Roubaix recon. Xin Tang is second from right, Luyao Zeng is fourth from right.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 08.04.2024 Photography by
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At the Paris-Roubaix Femmes Avec Zwift race start in Denain, interspersing the fancy buses of the big budget teams, were the underdogs – and tucked away in a little corner of a parking lot was one team more underdog than most. That was Winspace, a French Continental team title-sponsored by Chinese bike brand Winspace, wearers of a jauntily cheerful kit and featuring an interesting distinction: on their roster were the first two Chinese women to ever race Paris-Roubaix. 

Those two riders – Xin Tang and Luyao Zeng – are riding their first season in Europe, both physically and metaphorically very far away from the comforts of home. They are among the few Asian riders in the European peloton (Vietnamese champion Thị Thật Nguyễn of Team Roland is another), and face a steep learning curve, linguistically and culturally, in adapting to the scene. In the case of Luyao Zeng, wearing the bright red kit of Chinese national champion with a matching red bike, they were also hard to miss at the starting line of Paris-Roubaix Femmes in Denain yesterday.

Luyao Zeng rides with a Winspace teammate while training. She has the bright red jersey of Chinese national champion, with the yellow stars of its flag.
Luyao Zeng rides behind a teammate in a Winspace promotional photo.

Waiting outside the team bus, I got talking to Yuxuan, an eloquent young Chinese man who acts as a go-between for the team and its sponsor, helps out with media, and acts as a translator for his two countrywomen. He told me that the project was an opportunity for the Chinese riders to “become more professional to follow the pace of the European scene – a chance to experience this ambience, and go back and teach the young riders how to improve the skills on the bike.” The pair of riders had been in Europe since January, living in a town near La Rochelle, a bit north of Bordeaux, said Yuxuan: “it’s a good place for training with a lot of wind, also for living: it’s quite calm. They can concentrate for themselves to race,” with the team’s big targets this season being Paris-Roubaix and the women’s Vuelta a España, before the two Chinese riders head back home for some national-level races. 

Luyao Zeng, a willowy 26-year-old who won her national road title last year, emerged from the bus later, shyly smiling in response to my request for an interview. She told me (via Yuxuan) that she was “quite honoured to be here for this big race,” that she was looking forward to the challenge and to have the “shock” of one of the biggest races on the road calendar. Before this trip, she said, she’d never ridden on cobblestones before, getting her first “little test” at Le Samyn des Dames a month ago. It’s a “big honour to be representing China in one of the biggest races,” Zeng told me, and she “would do her best.”

Xin Tang – at 23 years of age she’s younger than her teammate but a more enduring presence on the Chinese women’s scene, having won the National Championship road race in 2020 aged just 19 – was clearly focused on the task at hand: few words, no smiles, checking the taping of her hands and wrists.

Both were on their way to a challenging date with the cobbles, the biggest race of their young careers – a mix of trepidation and excitement in their stomachs.  

A photo collage showing Luyao Zeng racing on cobbles at Paris-Roubaix Femmes, just ahead of an Arkea-B&B Hotels rider.
Zeng early in the race at Paris-Roubaix Femmes.

We next catch a sight of Luyao Zeng at the opening cobbled sector of the women’s race, Hornaing à Wandignies. We sit on the verge, getting prickled with stinging nettles and worried about sliding into the brackish water of the gutter. Zeng is sitting at the back of the second group on the road, some of which is taking the left side of the cobbles around a left corner toward the end of the sector. Everyone looks extremely serious; one of the riders gives a Wilhelm scream as she gets chopped into a deep, dank puddle. 

Our day continues to the Mons-en-Pévèle, where the peloton is looking considerably more shattered. Ellen van Dijk is at the front of the leading bunch, giving it a burst. Cars bottom out with metallic gonks next to us. We are short on time, so we leave after a group or two, with no sight of either Zeng or Tang. 

We get to Roubaix after a disastrous interaction with a rule-abiding local policeman who tells us we need to drive all the way around the velodrome rather than parking near it. We get into the infield with about 10 minutes of racing to go, get our bearings, see Lotte Kopecky pip Elisa Balsamo, and watch the rest of the groups cross the finish line. After quite a while, I see a Winspace rider coughing and spluttering as she pulls to a stop in the infield: it’s Xin Tang. She hunches over her bars, breathing effortfully. I go over and ask her if I can talk to her. “No,” she says. I later learn, talking to a DS, that this is not rudeness but a pure statement of fact: she doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Mandarin, so she is very much correct. 

Xin Tang looks impassively at the camera after finishing Paris-Roubaix Femmes, the first male or female Chinese rider ever to do so. Her face and nose especially are coated in dirt, her jersey and arms flecked with grit.
Tang (right) at the finish in Roubaix.

I look up the results after the race: Tang in 99th place, 18’11” behind, and Zeng a DNF. Yuxuan forwarded some quotes: Xin Tang had the thought to “stop riding … but I told myself to not quit because I’m already here, I must finish and I did it.” It was, she said, a “painful experience,” and she hoped that it would tell cyclists that “we can improve ourselves day by day and become better and better.”

For Luyao Zeng it was a more disappointing day: she fell behind prior to the first cobbled sectors, and had a flat tyre soon after. But, she said, she would “have more experience on the cobbles in the future.”

Taking a deeper look back through the archives, I realise that I’ve just watched history being made. These Chinese women are the second and third people from their country to ever ride this race; male cyclist Jin Long (Skil-Shimano) was the first, way back in 2009. But, unlike Tang, Jin did not finish, making this tiny woman, from one of the world’s most populous countries, riding a world away from home surrounded by people speaking languages she does not, the first Chinese rider to finish the Hell of the North: one in a billion. 

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