This time it's Bongiorno
By Jason Sumner, VeloNews correspondent
If organizers had to choose an alternative to the sugary Tour de Langkawi theme song that’s been a staple of the race for years, they might consider the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” and its famous tune Anything You Can Do. It would certainly be appropriate for this year’s event, which thus far has been dominated by the one-on-one battle of Panaria speedsters Graeme Brown and Ruben Bongiorno.
Coming into Wednesday’s stage 6 run from Kuala Berang to Cukai, Brown had a 2-to-1 stage win lead on his Argentine teammate. But eager to prove that he could “shoot a partridge with a single cartridge,” Bongiorno evened the score, giving Ceremica-Panaria four wins in six days.
“It’s incredible,” said Panaria teammate Brett Lancaster, who was in his usual position as the team’s leadout man. “It’s the Brownie and Bongiorno show at the moment.”
Indeed, like Tuesday’s finale, which saw the orange-clad train go 1-2-3 across the line, the finish of Wednesday’s 152km stage was not close. After Bongiorno and Brown scored their fourth 1-2 of this year’s TdL, Barloworld’s Antonio Salomone was a distant third in front of the large crowd gathered in the coastal town of Cukai.
“They’re just out of control,” conceded Navigators American Jeff Louder, when asked how you beat the Panaria crew. “It’s a good time of year for them. It’s their summer. You don’t see them winning a lot of races besides here, so I guess you wait until March. That’s how you beat them.”
Bridgestone’s Koji Fukushima finished safely in the bunch to hold onto the yellow jersey. His lead over Aussie Nathan O’Neill (Navigators) remains at 1:20. But Fukushima did lose his grip on the KoM jersey after Great Britain’s Kristian House grabbed the first place points at the top of the category 4 ascent at Kijal.
The day’s racing was aggressive from the gun, but with Panaria and Bridgestone again patrolling the front, breakaways were kept at a minimum and nothing got above three minutes.
“It was fast all day,” added Louder. “At the start we were just hauling ass. I don’t think it dropped below 45[kph]. Then finally we had a time out and settled down a bit, but no one would let anyone go. Basically everything got covered right away. Everyone is just watching each other waiting for the climb [up to the Genting Highlands on Friday].”
The only real drama was between Brown and Bongiorno. Panaria manager Roberto Reverberi said the tactics are always the same. “It is Lancaster, then Brown, then Bongiorno.”
So who would be faster if you simply lined them up and yelled go?
“That is hard,” said Reverberi. “Bongiorno is faster in a short sprint like this. Brown is better for a long one.”
At the finish this time around, it was Bongiorno blasting by Brown, who conceded he was under-geared on the run for home.
“I rode too small a gear this time,” he said. “I was only midway down the cluster and I was spinning too much. I felt really good in that gear, then Ruben passed me and I was like ‘Oh I must have been going too good.’” Bongiorno, who speaks little English, kept his words to a minimum. “The race was a little boring at the start, but the ending was very good.”
Maybe now, with the chase for the blue points jersey tightening up between the pair, Bongiorno might consider telling Brown that, “Anything you can wear I can wear better. In what you wear I’d look better than you.”
Caught in the crossfire
American Tony Cruz (Discovery) had his best finish yet, coming home in seventh at the finish in Cukai. But Cruz had to be feeling lucky just to be there at the end after he narrowly escaped the carnage of a big pileup with 25km to go.
“We were all on the right side and all the sudden the road ended and there was rocks,” recalled Cruz. “I think it was one of the Irish kids, he freaked out and locked up his breaks and went over the bars. People just kept stacking up into him. I got caught up on the railing with guys falling into me, but I saw it coming so I just put my foot out watched guys tumble over.”
As for the sprint Cruz was happy to finally be in the game, though the ending was exactly to his liking.
“I’m still trying to find my legs,” said Cruz. “But everybody has their little patterns for leadouts, so you just try to figure [Panaria’s] out. Today we tried to work a little bit with Mr. Bookmaker because Panaria is really going strong. We figured if we team up maybe we could get something done. It’s so hard, though, because everyone has their own interests.
“Once I saw it wasn’t working out I just sat back and let all those guys fight it out. With 2km to go I shot up the side and put myself in position. I was right there, but in the last turn the two guys ahead of me braked and that was it. They put us out the winning spot.”
Trouble also took down the efforts of Navigators sprint man Oleg Grishkine who was in good position as teams began to line up for the dash for home before a puncture ended his chances.
“Oleg was going for it today but he flatted in the last 5km,” said O’Neill speaking for his Russian teammate. “He flatted at 5km and rode it for 2km to make sure he got the bunch time [for being inside 3km]. Panaria’s just got really good form right now. They’re phenomenal at the moment.”
North American update
Outside of Cruz and Mexico’s Julio Perez, the rest of the North American contingent finished in the second group at 0:03. Perez got gapped off at the end, losing 0:59.
Here’s the current overall standing of all nine North Americans going into the seventh stage.
6. Michael Barry (Can), Discovery, at 1:44
8. Tom Danielson (USA), Discovery, at 2:02
14. Tony Cruz (USA), Discovery, at 2:27
15. Mark Walters (Can), Navigators, at 2:37
17. Michael Creed (USA), Discovery, at 2:43
34. Patrick McCarty (USA), Discovery, at 3:22
36. Jeff Louder (USA), Navigators, at 3:23
71. Saul Raisin (USA), Credit Agricole, at 4:23
99. Julio Perez (Mex), Ceramica-Panaria, at 5:26
In the team standings Discovery is third at 0:46, while Navigators are fourth at 1:31. South Africa’s Barloworld is No. 1 with a team time of 55:22:22.
Yellow (Overall): Koji Fukushima (Jpn), Bridgestone
Green (Points): Graeme Brown (Aus), Ceramica-Panaria
Polka Dot (KoM): Kristian House (GB), Great Britain National
Blue (Top Asian): Koji Fukushima (Jpn), Bridgestone
NEXT UP: Stage 7 — Maran to Raub, 167.7km
After two days along the South China Sea, the race heads inland to the state of Pahang. Stage 7 brings a single category 3 climb at the midway point at Kampung Olak Batang, but another bunch sprint is very likely.