Updated: 07/05/2014 11:24 | By Agence France-Presse

Dream come true for China's Ji at Tour de France

Ji Cheng said it will be a "dream" come true on Saturday when he becomes the first Chinese rider to compete at the Tour de France.

Dream come true for China's Ji at Tour de France

Chinese rider Ji Cheng sign the start list prior to the third stage of 96th Giro d'Italia going from Sorrento to Marina di Ascea on May 6, 2013 in Marina di Ascea - by Luk Benies

It will also complete a personal ambition for the 26-year-old from Harbin in the northeast of China as he will achieve the clean sweep of taking part in all three Grand Tours, following his participations at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana and last year's Giro d'Italia.

"For me, personally, finally I did the three Grand Tours, I can say I'm the first Chinese. I'm really happy for that and also for my dream since I started cycling, so finally I got there. I'm really, really happy," he said.

It's been a long road for Ji, who started out as an athlete before switching to track cycling in his teens and then moving onto the road.

He came to Europe eight years ago with Dutch team Purapharm before moving a year later to his current outfit, Giant-Shimano.

But he has been struggling to make his mark ever since.

"Shimano China wanted to support some Chinese racers. They wanted someone to go to a European professional team to race, to finally have a Chinese rider start the Tour de France," Ji explained.

"I'm lucky they called me and said: 'there's a chance, you're young and good for road biking'.

"I'm really, really happy. The first year I was really sad, it was completely different. When you come to Europe, it's the small, funny things. When you come home from a race on Sunday and on Monday everything is closed in the city because they have some special holiday. We were looking, 'where do we have to be?'. Even the restaurants were closed."

Things have not necessarily got any easier since then as Ji is now married but hardly ever sees his wife.

"It's a hard life, I have a family but they stay in China, my wife also," he said. 

"Sometimes, like last year, I went back for one and a half months to stay in China, where we also had some races.

"It's different because there are six hours (difference) between Europe and China and you're a rider so sometimes you wake up, eat breakfast and go training.

"When you come back, my wife is probably already asleep because she's got a job, so sometimes we have to find a solution and a way to have more contact.

"We had a plan this year at the beginning but then I was probably going to start the Tour de France. But she has holiday in July so if she came to Europe I wouldn't be able to do anything because I'm following the race.

"It's hard actually. Personally I'd really like my wife to come to Europe."

But all the sacrifices will seem worth it for Ji once he sits on the start line in Leeds on Saturday.

He will be a pioneer and he's hoping his example will inspire others to take up cycling as a profession and try to emulate his feats in making it to the biggest races.

"For my career, I can start the Tour de France, it's already a victory. I can say, I'm the first one to start but I hope the people can follow my experience," he said.

"If you want to be there and want to change things, you can do it, it's not a matter of where you're from."

But he admitted it wouldn't be easy in a country where there are few races, particularly at a grassroots level, and where cycle lanes in cities are unheard of.

"If you want to make something, you have to change the whole system," admitted Ji.

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