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Four stages down, six to go, but we still have no idea who will win this seventeenth edition of the Tour de Langkawi.
Last Friday’s opening time trial in Putrajaya gave us a tempter, whetting our appetites. Although the course was on wide, smooth roads and mostly flat save for a three kilometer uphill drag, it provided a clue of who was in form in late February. After all, when has the race of truth ever lied?
2003 champion, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) performed best out of the GC contenders of note, 1:11 behind teammate and stage winner Dave Zabriskie – but six seconds ahead of him was a dark horse in the guise of Darren Lapthorne (Drapac-Porsche).
The Australian tragically lost his sister in puzzling circumstances when her badly decomposed body was found in a nearby bay off the Croatian city of Dubrovnik on October 6, 2008, and the accumulated grief he and his family suffered was enough to see him temporarily retire from the sport. Thankfully Lapthorne decided to come back, and told me after finishing third in the TT that after much introspection, he’s rediscovered his love for the bike and bike racing; better still, it appears he’s found the form of his life.
2010 champ, José Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) also rode very well, just 10 seconds behind Danielson in the 20.3-kilometer test of time. His teammates José Serpa and Jonathan Monsalve, respective 2009 and 2011 champions, conceded 1:06 and 1:20 to Danielson – not impossible to recoup but if Tommy D is in angelic climbing form as is his wont, then near-impossible.
Since then, the last three days has been the Andrea Guardini Show. All other acts have been postponed, cancelled, or relegated to the cutting room floor.
As he was last year, the Farnese Vini-Selle Italia rider is proving a dominant force at Langkawi, taking a record-equaling five stages in 2011 and appears well on his way to matching, if not breaking, his feat of yesteryear. However like Graeme Brown, the only other rider who has captured a quintet of stages in one race here in Malaysia (which he accomplished in 2005), Guardini has so far struggled in his ability to convert success at this level to the next.
He came here via the tours of Qatar and Oman and finished well short in both (last year he won the fifth stage in Qatar but his best this year was eighth on Stage 5 of Qatar and seventh on Stage 3 in Oman). Some have likened him to world champ and Sunday’s victor of K-B-K, Mark Cavendish, but with respect, it is more to do with his stature and vocation as a field sprinter than his outright speed against the world’s very best.
Cav’ he may one day be, but not for a while yet. Aged 21, he has time aplenty to improve.
There is still one more stage before D-Day strikes Wednesday, stage 6 commencing outside the Santorini-white-and-blue Shah Alam mosque. Some may well need to say their prayers before departure for what lies ahead is not pretty – particularly if you do not have a proclivity towards hills, and big ones.
I’m predicting a showdown on the Langkawi Corral between Danielson and Rujano, the latter’s team enviably stacked with climbers who therefore have a number of cards to play. It is the Coloradan and his Garmin-Barracuda sport director Allan Peiper’s job to ascertain that which is fake and which is real – or alternatively, launch a sucker punch of his own and ride up, up and away with the win.
Compared to the majority of years past when this mother of a climb has been included, the Genting Highlands leg comes earlier than usual. If the leader board is tightly packed and separated by just a handful of seconds after stage 6, it means that is still possible to launch a successful tactical offensive at whoever’s mellow in yellow.
Those more than a minute in arrears, however, must deploy Operation Kitchen Sink if they want to win.
Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan