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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor
Ryder Hesjedal’s journey to the other side of the world started with a snowstorm in British Columbia. The 21-year-old was supposed to fly from his hometown, Victoria, to Los Angeles, where he would connect with a Malaysian Airlines flight headed to Kuala Lumpur, and the Tour de Langkawi. But the bad weather forced a detour via Las Vegas, and by the time it was all done, Hesjedal figured that even without taking into account all the hours lost to crossing multiple time zones, he’d been traveling for 45 hours without a minute of decent sleep.
Add in the fact that none of his bags — including the one with his bike inside — showed up at the airport, and this wasn’t the best start for what will be Hesjedal’s first serious foray into the world of stage racing. Still, the promising mountain-biking pro, who is dipping his toes in the road-racing waters simply for the experience, managed to see a half-full glass during the final leg of his trip, a 45-minute bus ride to a hotel in Shah Alam.
“With something like this you just try not to worry about things too much,” Hesjedal said. “You just try to get where you’re going and start getting ready. It’d be nice if my bike showed up, though. We’ve got an extra one, but its not really set up right for me.”
Hesjedal is in Malaysia as part of the seven-man Canadian national team, which is competing in the 10-day, 1310-kilometer race that travels up and down the western half of the country. When asked what will be new about the experience, he just laughed.
“There’s not one thing about this that isn’t new for me,” said Hesjedal, whose bike and bags would arrive the next evening. “It’s the longest stage race. Biggest stage race. Earliest time of the year. Farthest I’ve traveled. Everything.”
For that reason he brings no great expectations to Southeast Asia, just the desire to continue his cycling education, which began in the junior mountain-biking ranks six years ago, and will continue with Friday’s 20.3km Stage 1 time trial.
“I’m just looking to always be improving and that’s where the road racing comes in,” he said. “This will help me develop more as a cyclist. I’ll probably do some more of this stuff in April because the (mountain bike) World Cup starts so late.”
More stuff will likely include a trip to Europe with his country’s national team to do a slate of under-23 road races in France. But that doesn’t mean he’s considering following the footsteps of riders such as Cadel Evans and Miguel Martinez, who’ve switched from fat to skinny tires. Not yet anyway.
“I’ve still got a lot of things I want to accomplish on the dirt,” said Hesjedal, who signed a two-year contract extension with Subaru-Gary Fisher during the offseason, meaning he’ll be with the team until at least 2003. “I’m only 21, so I’ve got plenty of time. I could ride on the dirt right through (the 2004 Olympics in) Athens and still be young for the road.”
Hesjedal is justified in pointing to the next Olympics. If his development as a mountain biker continues at its current pace, he’ll likely enter those games among the favorites to medal. Last year he made a significant jump in the ranks, becoming a full-time podium threat on the NORBA circuit and a solid top-10 contender in the World Cup. His final 2001 NORBA stats included a pair of second-place finishes in the overall standings, plus one cross-country and two short track wins. He also won silver in the under-23 race at the world championships in Vail, and had success on the road, including a 15th-place finish at Redlands. Still, his goals for the race in Malaysia are modest.
“I don’t have any real gages, because everything is so different for this race,” he said. “Hopefully I can come through on the climbing days. But mostly I just want to come here and feel good, and take away a good experience heading back to North America.”
No matter what happens, at least he has this: While the flight from LAX to Kuala Lumpur took 37 hours when you take into account all the hours lost to crossing time zones; the trip back is a mere 50 minutes.
— The Malaysian National Cycling Federation is considering lodging an official protest against Telekom Malaysia’s entry in the Asian category of the Tour of Langkawi. National coach Daud Ibrahim said that Telekom Malaysia should not be classified in the Asian category because the team included non-Asian rider Graeme Miller, who’s from New Zealand.
— Thursday’s TDL highlight was the official team introductions in the Grand Ballroom of the posh Concorde hotel. Among those in attendance was Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister. There was also a three-person band doing covers of everything from The Beatles “Let it Be” to Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” and a 15×20-foot giant screen TV showing highlights of last year’s race.
— After the festivities fan favorite Andrea Tafi (1999 Paris-Roubaix champion) was seen chatting up the legendary Francesco Moser (1978-80 Paris-Roubaix winner). Moser is here on behalf of the UCI to consider the TDL’s request to be upgraded from 2.3 to 2.2. Depending on how the year goes, this may be Tafi’s final season of racing bikes.
— The start list for the Stage 1 time trial lists 151 riders from 30 countries. The first rider off will be Canada’s Josh Hall at 3:31 p.m. local time. Last year’s TT winner, Australian Nathan O’Neill, leaves at 5:15.