By Neal Rogers
Panaria’s 24-year-old Brett Lancaster, a member of Australia’s four-man world record-setting team pursuit squad, pulled off a courageous stage victory Sunday in heavy rain at the Tour de Langkawi.
After Saturday’s 60km climbing day, the event’s third stage featured 100km of flat terrain before ascending a gradual pitch at Gap Rest House (elevation 881m), deep in Malaysia’s highland country. The course then quickly dropped into a fast and winding 35km descent to the town of Raub.
At kilometer 36 Lancaster escaped with New Zealander Scott Guyton (Wismilack) for what would be a 135km breakaway. “I said to Scott, ‘Let’s go off the front and see what happens,’” Lancaster said. “We worked really strong, and I knew we’d made a big gap before the hill.”
As both riders started the day over 20 minutes down on the general classification, the Columbia-Selle Italia team of fist- and second-placed race leaders Marlon Perez and Freddy Gonzalez was content to let the pair open a substantial gap.
“It was a perfect situation for Selle Italia” said Canadian National’s Eric Wohlberg, “Two guys are up the road, both of them 20 minutes down, so they just had two guys setting a real easy tempo and then they dialed it up a bit on the hill.”
Wohlberg added he wasn’t surprised by Lancaster’s impressive stage win. “He was so strong yesterday,” Wohlberg said. “When we had to start chasing, Panaria was chasing with us. He was setting tempo, doing 10-minute pulls at 50kph by himself. It was unbelievable.” At 42 kilometers in Lancaster and Guyton — former teammates at the British iTeamNova squad — held a 1:54 lead that stretched to nearly six minutes by 66km and reached a maximum of 10 minutes at the 102km point. But as they approached the winding and densely vegetated climb, an intense rainstorm began and shortly thereafter Guyton dropped off the pace.
“Scott probably spent half the climb at the front,” said Lancaster, “but I don’t think he had the legs. When I saw the time check and I saw they’d gotten a few minutes out of us, and I said, ‘I’m going to have to go, mate,’ and just took off.”
By the time Lancaster had reached the summit at 136km, heavy water and debris had flooded the course, making for a treacherous decent.
“Lighting cracked about 100 feet from us,” said Canadian National’s Roland Green. “‘Boom!’ It was epic. The descent was all fragmented. Guys were going back, guys were going forward, guys were going sideways.”
One rider that went down was race leader Perez, who lost control as the road reached a slippery steel bridge, snapping his chain and requiring a bike change. But the yellow jersey would remain with the Columbia-Selle Italia squad for another day, as it exchanged hands from Perez to teammate Freddy Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, who began the day second overall, 55 seconds down, hit the summit of the climb in fourth, 3:15 behind Lancaster. Braving the descent with a lead chase group that grew to a dozen riders, Gonzalez’s group finished just 35 seconds behind a visibly tired Lancaster in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
“At 5km to go I saw I had a 1:16 gap, and thought I might be in trouble,” Lancaster said, “I had nothing in the legs, but I just kept chipping away. I could go alright on the flats, but on the little rise at the end I had nothing.”
Perez dropped to third overall, 27 seconds behind Gonzalez, tied with Ryan Cox of Barloworld. In all, 17 riders are within two minutes of Gonzalez on GC. With two riders at the top of the GC, Columbia-Selle Italia team director Gianni Savio said he’d wait until after the flat stage 5 time trial before he’d decide who would be the team’s leader heading into the stage 9 Genting Highlands climb.
“Perez is a better time trialist, but Gonzlaez is a better climber,” Savio explained. “We’ll see what the result of the time trial is before we make any decisions on the race leader.”
Canadian Gord Fraser of Health Net won the bunch sprint for second-place ahead of Gert Vanderaerden (Palmans-Collstrop), taking the sprinter’s jersey — a prize he won in 2000 when Mercury teammate Chris Horner won the race overall.
“I’m happy to have won the sprint for second,” Fraser said. “You’ve got to take hats off to Brett for a very courageous ride. Now that I have a bit of a point lead on the other sprinters, maybe I can concentrate on a winning a stage, which is the other objective. But I think the first thing for me now is to take the points jersey all the way to the end.”
For Green, the top North American (19th, 2:28 back) his bid for the overall remains a wait-and-see situation. “I felt good on the climb,” Green said. “As the climb wore on, I was more and more at the front. Just staying out trouble was the main thing today. I’m not quite climbing as fast as I’d like to be right now, but that’s okay.”
1. Brett Lancaster (Australia) Ceramiche Panaria-Magres, 171.20km in 4:03:59 (42.10 kph)
2, Gordon Fraser (Canada) Health Net Pro, at 33 sec
3, Gert Vanderaerden (Belgium) Palmans-Collstrop, at same time
4, Freddy Gonzalez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, at 35 sec
5, Michel Van Haeke (Belgium) Palmans-Collstrop
6, Philip Deignan (Ireland) Ireland, both at same time.BEST ASIAN: Guozhang Wang (China) China.
TEAM: Palmans-Collstrop, 12 h 13 min 40 sec.
BEST ASIAN TEAM: Japan.
1. Freddy Gonzalez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, 434.90 km in 10:23:14(41.95 kph)
2, Ryan Cox (South Africa) South Africa, at 27 sec
3, Marlon Perez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, at same time
4, Kurt Van De Wouwer (Belgium) Palmans-Collstrop, at 41 sec
5, Nicholas White (South Africa) South Africa, at 46 sec
6, Hector Guerra Garcia (Spain) Relax-Bodysol, at 50 sec.BEST ASIAN RIDER OVERALL
1. Ghader Mizbani (Iran) Iran.OVERAL TEAM CLASSIFICATION
1.Team Barloworld, 31 hr 11 min 58 sec
2. Colombia-Selle Italia, at 24 sec
3. Relax-Bodysol, at 1 min 12 sec.BEST ASIAN TEAM OVERALL: Japan.OVERALL POINTS COMPETITION
1. Gordon Fraser (Canada) Health Net Pro, 28 points
2, Freddy Gonzalez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, 26 pts
3, Marlon Perez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, 22 pts.OVERALL MOUNTAINS COMPETITION
1. Marlon Perez (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italian, 27 points
2, Ruber Marin (Colombia) Colombia-Selle Italia, 26 pts
3, Freddy Gonzalez, 20 pts.