By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
You could see this one coming a mile away — or 183.5 kilometers for that matter. That was the distance of the Tour de Langkawi’s Stage 2 run north along the western cost of Malaysia from Klang to Sitiawan. But one look at the dead flat course profile, and you knew the final kilometer would be the only one that mattered. And with a sprint in the cards, no one holds a stronger hand here in Southeast Asia than Mapei-Quick Step and its South African speedster, Robbie Hunter.
Following a bold lead-out from Italian teammate Andrea Tafi, the 24-year-old Hunter out gunned Alexia’s Antonio Salomone to win his second straight Langkawi stage, ensuring that Mapei would spend another day in yellow.
“I was sitting on the Panaria train about 100 meters from that last corner and Tafi came from out of nowhere on the inside,” said Hunter of a 90-degree turn that preceded the race’s final 200 meters. “Then he was like ‘Come, come.’ The Panaria train had no chance.”
Hunter burst across the line a bike length ahead of Salomone, with Tafi claiming third. The win, plus Australian Nathan O’Neill’s failure to stay with the bunch, meant Hunter would carry a 55-second bulge into Stage 3. O’Neill was second in Friday’s time trial, but finished 27 seconds behind the field on Saturday. Word after the race was that he’d had a mechanical with 3 kilometers to go. That allowed Eric Wohlberg to take over second place overall. The Canadian was third in the TT, and finished in the middle of the field Saturday.
All told 140 riders were credited with the same 4:18:40 finishing time. The average speed was 42.40kph.
The day’s racing began on the narrow downtown streets of Klang, the former royal capitol of the Selangor, one of the country’s 13 states. From there riders headed out on a near dead-straight run up the coast. Scenery varied from dense urban areas to quiet stretches of road with nothing but palm oil and banana plantations. Anywhere where the was people, though, they seemed to be captivated by the hubbub of 1580 people storming by in the race caravan. Children and adults alike lined the streets waving flags and hands at all who passed.
Racing started in earnest at the 18km mark when a four-rider break including Josh Hall (Canadian National), Christophe Le Mavel (Credit Agricole), Trent Wilson (iTeamNova.com) and Rodney Green (South African National) slipped off the front. From there the foursome steadily built a gap that ballooned to 12 minutes near the race’s midway point. But the peloton seemed unconcerned as it enjoyed a leisurely ride on another scorcher of a day in Malaysia. But when the time came, the gap was closed at a furious pace.
Having covered the first 80km in two hours, the leaders saw their advantage drop to 6:28 by the 130km mark. Then, as the chase became serious, they lost another four minutes in just 20 kilometers. At 25 km it was down to 1:06, and at 10km it was gone completely.
“It was never really a major concern for us,” said Hunter. “If you looked at the results from the time trial, you knew none of them were in great condition. We didn’t want to waste too much energy on chasing early on because we’ve got guys on the team who are really good climbers and who represent our best chance for the overall. It would be silly to expend too much of their energy defending the yellow jersey this early in the race.”
Still, Mapei will be in yellow yet another day, a streak that now dates all the way back to Stage 8 of last year’s 12-day race, when Paolo Bettini took the lead from then-Mercury rider Jan Koerts.
Racing in Malaysia continues Sunday with the first trip into the heart of the country, a 129.6km run north then east from Lumut to Ipoh. Like Saturday, it’s a mostly flat trip that will likely mean another sprint finish.
Race notes— Canadian mountain biker Ryder Hesjedal continued his strong Langkawi debut, finishing in the bunch on Saturday and moving into 20th place in the overall standings.
— Japan’s Shinri Suzuki, in 13th place, was the highest placed Asian rider, while Arnel Quirimit of the Philippines remains best Asian overall, in 12th, at 1:36.
TOUR DE LANGKAWI, Malaysia. February 1-10, 2002
Stage 2: Klang to Sitiawan
1. Robert Hunter (SA), Mapei-Quick Step, 4:19.40; 2. Antonio Salomone, (I), Alexia; 3. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 4. Lubor Tesar (Czh), Nurnberger; 5. David Domingo Fernandez (Sp), Relax-Fuenlabrada; 6. Wesley Van Speybroeck (B), Lotto-Adecco; 7. Moreno Di Biase (I), Mobilvetta; 8. Enrico Degano (I), Panaria; 9. Bo Allan Andresen (Dk), Team Fakta; 10. Linas Balciunas (Lit), Ag2R Prevoyance; Also; 22. Graeme Miller (NZ), Telekom Malaysia; 53. Paolo Lanfranchi (I), Alexia; 61. Jens Voight (G), Credit Agricole; 64. Eric Wohlberg (Can), Canadian National; 68. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Canadian National; 74. Andrew Pinfold (Can), Canadian National; 100. Geoff Kabush (Can), Canadian National, all same time; 143. Nathan O’Neill (Aus), Panaria, at 0:27; Overall standings; 1. Hunter, 4:44:27; 2. Wohlberg, at 0:55; 3. Artour Babaitsev (Rus), Nurnberger, at 0:56; 4. David Canada (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step, at 1:02; 5. Tafi, at 1:17; 6. O’Neill, at 1:20; 7. Bo Jorgen Petersen (Dk), Fakta, at 1:24; 8. Charles Wegelius (GB), Mapei-Quick Step, at 1:25; 9. Dario Hernan Munoz (Col), Columbia-Selle Italia, at 1:33; 10. Luca Scinto (I), Mapei-Quick Step, same time; Also; 13. Paolo Lanfranchi (I), Alexia, at 1:38; 20. Hesjedal, at 2:10; 29. Voight, at 2:30; 38. Mario Aerts (B), Lotto-Adecco, at 2:39; 93. Kabush, at 3:56