By Anthony Tan
Ruslan Ivanov, a man who for two years believed his career was over, has resurrected himself with overall victory at the Tour de Langkawi.
“It’s impossible to describe the feeling I have now. But I hope this is the start of a new career for me … It gives me confidence for looking ahead, and I want to repay the team later this year,” said a humble Ivanov when the race finished in Kuala Lumpur Sunday. “I said it yesterday and I’ll say it again today: I’m here thanks to Gianni Savio and Marco Bellini, who gave me the possibility to go back to a [professional] team — that’s why the team deserves the win as much as I do.”
As happens almost every time (when the race isn’t canceled by tropical afternoon thunderstorms), the final circuit race in the Malaysian capital ended in a bunch sprint, comfortably won by CSF Group Navigare’s Mauro Richeze from Jeremy Hunt (Crédit Agricole) and Enrico Rossi (NGC Medical-OTC). The young Italian, who caused a mass pile-up two days prior in Kuantan, asserted himself 200 meters from the line and remained unchallenged, dedicating the victory to his team.
“It wasn’t difficult for me to win today because my team worked a lot and took me to 200 meters to go, so that was the only time I was out in front the whole race. The other day, it wasn’t my intention at all to make anybody crash; I felt very sorry for the guy [Loddo] who crashed and I apologized,” Richeze said.
Until the penultimate stage to Bukit Fraser, no one was really betting on the 34-year-old Ivanov, whose previous best result was the Settimana Coppi Bartali stage race way back in 2001. Despite making the crucial 19-man race-winning break on the first day, Jackson Rodriguez, 12 years his junior, was tipped to be the man to beat. But on Saturday, Serramenti’s plan changed when Rodriguez announced he wasn’t at his best, and with casual aplomb, the Moldavian stepped up to the plate on Fraser’s Hill to finish second, just 15 seconds behind stage winner Filippo Savini.
In many ways, José Serpa is the unsung hero, for it was his selfless riding on this day that guaranteed victory to Ivanov. “If Serpa didn’t work for me yesterday, he would have won the stage for sure. As for myself, we didn’t have many adversaries to watch, so even without Serpa, I would have managed to keep some distance between me and my rivals,” said Ivanov.
As team manager Gianni Savio has always said, team unity will never be sacrificed at the expense of individual glory. It’s perhaps this egalitarian philosophy — as well as his uncanny ability to pick emerging talents and recharge the careers of riders who are labeled ‘has-beens’ — that has allowed Savio to stay in the business of cycling for so long, operating on far smaller budgets than any ProTour team.
Despite not winning a stage, Bouygues Telecom’s Aurélien Clerc won the points classification by a large margin, 23 points clear of Letua’s Anuar Manan. Following his breakthrough season in 2002, the gentlemanly Swiss has been knocking on the door of some big races in Europe; his palmarès include seconds and thirds, but only four victories. And at 28 years old, if he’s indeed destined to beat the best in the biggest races, time’s fast running out.
“I hope I can win a stage in a ProTour race this year, because for two or three years, I’ve come third or fourth in bunch sprints in big tours, but now I’m 28, and I hope this year I can win a big race,” Clerc said.
Savini, the King of Fraser’s Hill and mountains winner, needs to consolidate what he’s achieved in Malaysia and find out what he’s really good at — although at just 22, he’s still got time on his side.
“I will have to sit down with my director and work out what my race program will be. After that, I can set some goals for myself,” he said.
He may be turning 37 this September, but Shinichi Fukushima showed that like Ivanov, he’s not finished either, taking home the jersey of best Asian rider. The depth in Asian cycling has increased enormously the past few years, and this week, we witnessed the fruits of this evolution first-hand with the first Korean stage winner and a 21-year-old Malaysian, Anuar Manan, finishing second to Clerc.
“As the best Asian rider, I hoped to have a better result [general classification],” said the elder of the Fukushima brothers. “But I still feel good, and feel very good about Asian cycling, including teams like Letua and Seoul Cycling. I want to come back next year with a stronger team, where we’ll try to get the yellow jersey. This is the first time I won the [best Asian] jersey, so I feel like I can race for a few years [more].”
In the meantime, will the victor be uncorking the bubbly in celebration?
“No,” Ivanov said with a smile. “There only will be a small celebration with the team. We will finally be able to have one beer, no more. In a few days, we’ll be back in Europe. There’s not much time for celebration; the life of a bike rider goes on, and my next goal will be Tirreno-Adriatico.”