By Anthony Tan
Corruption, scandal, missing prize money, beauty, bravery, tragedy and of course, triumph have all been elements of past Tours de Langkawi, still one of the biggest races outside Europe. Though without doubt, “survival” has been a constant theme in each of those 12 editions, and survival is what brings us to Lucky #13 in the Chinese Year of the Rat.
What began in 1996 as an audacious plan to construct and host a world-class cycling event in a non-traditional, mostly Muslim environment had much to do with the current Prime Minister’s predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. It was he, later in collaboration with local businessman Datuk Wan Lokman and his company First Cartel, that put Asia on the cycling map, bringing cycling superpower Mapei and the names of Vinokourov, Landis, Bettini and Voigt to the tropics.
With a course not overly difficult and weather considerably better than the bleak European winter, the Tour de Langkawi blossomed. As the event quickly grew to become the fourth richest race in the world of cycling, it appeared the LTdL had cemented its name as the premier early season race for some of the world’s best and not merely as a showcase for Malaysia and its gregarious people.
But money is a dangerous thing, not least in cycling circles.
A group of Britons who had been contracted to run the race in cooperation with First Cartel fell out and turned on each other. Talk of certain sponsors not coughing up the cash, television crews not being paid, and among numerous others, 2005 overall winner Ryan Cox (who tragically died as a result of a ruptured artery last August) desperately trying to cash in his winnings inevitably led to a tsunami of bad publicity that almost killed the race.
It would have been a sad end for a very important event in Asian cycling, because without races like Langkawi and China’s high altitude Tour of Qinghai Lake, it’s too large a leap for Asian riders to go from national category events to the ProTour. Chinese rider Fuyu Li was the first to make that jump when he signed with Discovery Channel for the 2007 season, but their disbanding has seen Li return to his former team, Discovery-Marco Polo.
Now under the direct ownership of the Malaysian government’s sports ministry, which is determined to end the controversy, the race feels right again. For the trio of ProTour teams – Crédit Agricole, Bouygyes Telecom and AG2R-La Mondiale – they’re likely to use the race as preparation for a long season ahead, though that said, Anthony Charteau fought tooth and nail to take the biggest win of his career last year ahead of Colombians José Serpa and Walter Pedraza.
For the rest, comprised of some quality Pro Continental and national outfits, they will surely be laying it on the line for what is arguably the most open edition ever.
Why? The decisive penultimate stage to Genting Highlands is gone and although replaced with the lengthy ascent of Fraser’s Hill, it’s unlikely to be tough enough to see a climber don the final maillot jaune when the race concludes in Kuala Lumpur on February 17. If a break succeeds in any of the eight days before, one of the escapees may find himself in a position to win overall – but if every day ends in a bunch sprint – which, given the nature of the parcours, is also entirely possible – the best sprinter may well be able to accumulate enough bonus time to limit his losses on the only climb of significance.
The 13th Tour de Langkawi
Stage 1 – February 9: Alor Setar – Kepala Batas, 182.6 km
Stage 2 – February 10: Butterworth – Sitiawan, 159.7 km
Stage 3 – February 11: Sitiawan – Banting, 209.4 km
Stage 4 – February 12: Port Dickson – Batu Pahat, 169.0 km
Stage 5 – February 13: Johor Bahru – Bandar Penawar, 139.9 km
Stage 6 – February 14: Bandar Penawar – Kuala Rompin, 182.8 km
Stage 7 – February 15: Kuala Rompin – Kuantan, 126.6 km
Stage 8 – February 16: Temerloh – Bukit Fraser, 127.0 km
Stage 9 – February 17: Kuala Lumpur Criterium, 80.4 km
Total: 1377.4 km