By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
Robbie Hunter is best known for his sprinting, but on Friday the blond South African showed he has other talents, taking the 20.3km Stage 1 time trial at the Tour de Langkawi. Hunter’s win meant that once again the Mapei-Quick Step crew would be defending the race’s yellow jersey. A year ago the Italian-based team won just about everything meaningful in Malaysia, led by Paolo Lanfranchi’s overall crown.
Hunter clocked a time of 24:57.17 on the rolling course, which wound its way around Putrajaya, site of Malaysia’s new government administrative center. Australian Nathan O’Neill, winner of last year’s TT, was a distant second this time, at 43.19. Canadian Eric Wohlberg (Canadian National) took third, at 45.06. The gap was so large that member’s of O’Neill’s Ceramiche-Panaria team logged a protest after the race, but review of the videotape yielded no infractions, and Hunter’s victory stood.
“I felt good coming into today, but I didn’t think my form would be this good,” said Hunter, whose career highlights include a stage win at last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
Lanfranchi, who switched over to the Alexia team during the offseason, wound up 13th, 1:28 behind Hunter.
The course at Putrajaya was deceptively tough, sending riders out onto an exposed network of wide-open roads where there was little protection from a steady breeze that kept up for most of the day. Add in the heat and humidity typical of this Southeast Asian country, plus a nasty hill at the 3km-to-go mark, and it was not an easy way to spend a little less than half an hour.
“It was really windy, and it seemed like it was always in your face,” said Wohlberg, who won the Commonwealth Games TT title near here in Kuala Lumpur back in 1998.
Hunter’s win was just one of the stellar efforts from Mapei. Teammates David Gracia Canada (fifth), Andrea Tafi (sixth), Charles Wegelius (eighth) and Luca Scinto (10th) meant that the squad placed five of its seven riders in the top 10. Tafi, the 1999 Paris Roubaix champion, likely would have been in contention for the win Friday were it not for a puncture at the 8km mark.
“He was probably going 50k when it happened so he must slow all the way down, then change and go,” said Mapei team manager Eric Vanderaerden. “It cost him at least maybe a minute.”
Afterwards Tafi was his typical upbeat self despite the stroke of bad luck.
“I’m very happy for my condition,” the Italian said in his best English. “I’m not so happy about today, but tomorrow is another race.”
On the other side of the standings was Graeme Miller. The New Zealander, who is riding as part of the composite Telekom Malaysia team, got temporarily off-course during his run and ended up dead last (151st) in the standings, at 12:54.
The 10-day, 1310-kilometer race continues Saturday with a mostly flat ride from Klang to Sitiwan, which will take riders 183.5 kilometers north on Malaysia’s western coast.
“We’ve got a strong team that should be able to pull me through in the sprints,” Hunter said. “We ought to be able to keep the jersey for the next few days.”
— Canadian mountain biker Ryder Hesjedal had a respectable Langkawi debut, finishing 21st, 2:00 back of Hunter. His teammate and fellow fat-tire rider Geoff Kabush was 95th, at 3:45.
“This wasn’t a big man’s race,” said the lanky Hesjedal, referring to the windy conditions. “I’m not really used to being hunched over like that either. It’s a lot different than riding a mountain bike.”
— Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, came down from his office in the nearby administrative center to take in the final third of the day’s racing. Afterwards he was spotted in the VIP area talking with Francesco Moser, and then came up on to the podium to pass out the winner’s jersey.
— Philippine Arnel Quirimit was the top placed Asian rider, finishing 12th, at 1:26. That earned him the right to don the blue jersey given to the top Asian rider.
— Race announcers had to go silent for about 30 minutes during the middle of the race in deference to prayer that was taking place in the nearby Putra Mosque. Friday is the Muslim equivalent of Sunday in America.
TOUR DE LANGKAWI, Malaysia. February 1-10, 2002
Stage 1: Individual Time Trial, Putrajaya
1. Robert Hunter (SA), Mapei-Quick Step, 23km in 24:57.17 (48.81kph); 2. Nathan O’Neill (Aus), Ceremiche Panaria, at 43.19; 3. Eric Wohlberg (Can), Canadian National, at 45.06; 4. Artour Babaitsev (Rus), Team Nürnberger Versicherung, at 46.70; 5. David Canada Gracia (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step, at 51.86; 6. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step, 1:11.18; 7. Bo Jorgen Petersen (Dk), Team Fakta, at 1:14.01; 8. Charles Wegelius (GB), Mapei-Quick Step, at 1:15.78; 9. Dario Hernan Munoz (Col), Colombia-Selle Italia, at 1:22.92; 10. Luca Scinto (I), at 1:23.05; Also
13. Paolo Lanfranchi (I), Alexia Alluminio, at 1:28.65; 21. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Canadian National, at 2:00.06; 31. Jens Voight (G), Credit Agricole, at 2:20.18; 40. Mario Aerts (B) Lotto-Adecco, at 2:29.06; 61. Dominque Perras (Can), iTeamNova.com, at 2:50.56; 89. Josh Hall (Can), Canadian National, at 3:35.35; 93. Mark Ernsting (Can), Canadian National, at 3:39.49; 95. Geoff Kabush (Can), Canadian National, at 3:45.86; 97. Andrew Pinfold (Can), Canadian National, at 3:48.42; 132. Glan Randall (Can), Canadian National, at 4:52.51; 151. Graeme Miller (NZ), Telekom Malaysia, at 12:54.38; Overall3. Wohlberg, at 0:45; 4. Babaitsev, at 0:46; 5. Canada Gracia, at 0:51; 6. Tafi, at 1:11; 7. Jorgen Petersen, at 1:14; 8. Wegelius, at 1:15; 9. Hernan Munoz, at 1:22; 10. Scinto, at 1:23