By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
The lesson for the day was this: spend too much time hanging around the back of the peloton and you’re bound to end up in trouble. Among those in attendance were three former occupants of the top-10 overall here at the 2002 Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia.
The three riders — iTeamNova.com’s Allan Iacuone and Dominique Perras, plus Columbia-Selle Italia’s Ruber Alveiro Marin — all missed the day’s key move, and ended up on the wrong side of a 4:01 gap between themselves and the 50 riders who managed to stay at the front during Stage 7’s 196.7-kilometer trip from Kluang to Tampin.
The threesome are now all together at 19th, 20th and 21st place, more than seven minutes behind overall leader Robbie Hunter (Mapei-Quick Step). At the other end are just 13 riders within five minutes of the 24-year-old South African. There are three stages left in this 10-day, 1310-kilometer race.
“We saw some guys hanging around the back all day who were high in the GC,” said Mapei manager Eric Vanderaerden, whose team was the driving force behind the separation. “I decided it would be good to give them a lesson.”
In Perras’ defense, the Canadian rider had a problem with his bottom bracket, had to switch over to an oversized spare while the team mechanic tried to right the problem, and was waiting at the back for the repairs to be made when the break went. The poor timing forced him to the front to help with the chase, and he never did get his bike back.
As for the race’s finish, it was another day for the sprinters, and when the dust cleared Mobilvetta Design’s Moreno Di Biase had his second stage win of the race, outgunning Alexia Alluminio’s Daniele Galli in a width-of-a-wheel finish. Hunter wound up third, meaning he’s finished no worse than fourth in any stage this year — and he has three stage wins.
“He thinks he and Galli both benefited from the Mapei train,” said Hunter who jokingly translated for Moreno, an Italian. “Galli and he jumped at the same time and he just had a little more at the end.”
The day’s primary selection began near the 126-kilometer mark, an open stretch of road lined by a clear-cut palm-oil plantation. The barren swath of land offered little protection from the wind, which was gusting all day. The result was a split in the peloton that left the aforementioned three GC contenders, plus 76 others, on the short end of a gap, which grew steadily over the final 70 meters.
“As soon as things broke apart we saw we had a chance to put a little time on some of the other contenders,” said Hunter, who continues to downplay his chances for the overall title, though he clearly is on great form.
Once the peloton split, it wasn’t long before they reeled in the day’s only runaways, a group of three that included Credit Agricole’s Yan Tournier, Acqua & Sapone’s Cesare Di Cintio and Team Fakta’s Jorgen Bo Petersen. That threesome had slipped away early in the race, building a gap that peaked above seven minutes. But the heavy winds were in their face, and they had little chance of staying away once the lead peloton upped the pace.
Behind, the second group led by members of iTeamNova.com tried in vain to bring things back together. But they were no match for a motivated Mapei crew, which had all seven of its riders in the group up ahead.
“It’s just one of those things,” said a dejected Brett Lancaster (iTeamNova.com). “We got our guys up there and tried to drive it, but it just didn’t happen.”
In the overall standings Hunter’s lead now stands at 1:59 over Colombian Hernan Dario Munoz (Colombia-Selle Italia), with Mickael Pichon (Bonjour) third, at 2:10.
Among those who moved up in the standings were last year’s overall winner Paolo Lanfranchi (Alexia Alluminio), who is now 11th, at 4:09, and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal (Canadian National), in 12th at 4:41.
“Today was hard, really hard, but I’m still feeling good,” said the 21-year-old, who’s better known for his exploits in mountain biking than racing on the road.
As for his chances on what will surely be the deciding stage — the 27.3-kilometer hors category climb that concludes Stage 9 — Hesjedal likes his chances.
“It’ll be one of those days when you just settle into your suffer zone and go,” he said. “It’s just like a mountain-bike race.”
Before the trip up to the Genting Highlands, there is Friday’s Stage 8, the easiest day of this race. The 3:30 p.m. start time will give riders a chance to rest, and the 95.5-kilometer trip from the coastal town of Port Dickson northeast to Petaling Jaya is the shortest of the race.
— Prior to the day’s racing, Hunter was called together with all the event’s commissaires for a brief meeting. And though there was no official word, two theories were circulating through the peloton the following evening. The first was that Hunter was upset about the previous day’s disqualification off countryman Jeremy Maartens, who was given the boot for extended motor-pacing.
The other — put forth by a member of the Canadian national team staff — was that Hunter was given a warning for collusion with some of his fellow South Africans who are here with their national team. This was based on several instances were it appeared that the green-and-yellow clad national riders were helping Mapei set up Hunter for finish-line sprints.
For whatever it’s worth, moments after Hunter was presented with the yellow jersey on Thursday, he took it off for the post-race press conference, a move that could be perceived as a slight to the event’s organizers.
— The number of expected starters for Friday’s race fell to 136, after three more riders dropped out. Among those was Canadian mountain biker Geoff Kabush, who has been battling a fever for several days.
“I actually debated quitting yesterday, but went ahead and felt okay,” he said. “But today the fever was still there and I decided it was time to stop.”
Hunter said he thought the heat — almost always near 90 and very humid — was definitely beginning to take its toll on the peloton.
“I think a lot of the Europeans especially are feeling the strain,” he said. “They’re coming from winter, so this is a tough adjustment. It seems like the guys who come from the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s currently summer) are doing better.”
— None of the race’s other three jersey’s changed hands. Mapei’s Andrea Tafi is still in green, though he’s actually second in the points to Hunter (one rider can’t wear two jerseys).
Meanwhile, Japan’s Koji Fukushima is still in the polka dots, while Indonesia’s Tonton Susanto stayed in the blue top-Asian jersey after making the break and moving up one spot to fifth overall, at 3:06.
— Long stretches of Thursday’s course ran on freshly paved roads, which according to one race official was done specifically for this year’s TDL.
TOUR DE LANGKAWI, Malaysia. February 1-10, 2002
Stage 7: Kluang to Tampin
; 1. Moreno Di Biase (I), Mobilvetta Design, 196.7km in 4:35:06 (44.38kph); 2. Daniele Galli (I), Alexia Alluminio; 3. Robbie Hunter (SA), Mapei-Quick Step; 4. David Fernandez (Sp), Relax-Fuenlabrada; 5. Nicola Chesini (I), Ceramiche Panaria; 6. Andy Flickinger (F), Ag2r Prevoyance; 7. Enrico Degano (I), Ceramiche Panaria; 8. Cesare Di Cintio (I), Acqua & Sapone; 9. Stive Vermaut (B), Lotto-Adecco; 10. Lubor Tesar (Czh), Team Nürnberger; Also; 17. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step; 34. Paolo Lanfranchi (I), Alexia Alluminio; 35. David Canada Gracia (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step; 37. Eric Wohlberg (Can), Canadian National; 39. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Canadian National, all same time; Overall standings; 1. Hunter, 1008.2km in 22:42:19; 2. Hernan Dario Munoz (Col), Colombia-Selle Italia, at 1:59; 3. Mickael Pichon (F), Bonjour, at 2:10; 4. Rene Joergensen (Dk), Team Fakta, at 2:46; 5. Tonton Susanto (Idn), Telekom Malaysia, at 3:06; 6. Artour Babaitsev (Rus), Team Nürnberger, at 3:27; 7. David Canada Gracia (Sp), Mapei-Quick Step, at 3:33; 8. David George (SA), South African National, at 3:43; 9. Nahan O’Neill (Aus), Ceramiche Panaria, at 3:51; 10. Charles Wegelius (GB), Mapei-Quick Step, at 4:06; Also; 11. Paolo Lanfranchi (I), Alexia Alluminio, at 4:09; 12. Ryder Hesjedal (Can), Canadian National, at 4:41; 21. Dominique Perras (Can), iTeamNova.com, at 7:25; 30. Eric Wohlberg (Can), Canadian National, at 18:25; 31. Andrea Tafi (I), Mapei-Quick Step, at 18:44