KUANTAN, Malaysia — It has been a quiet week so far for Team Sky in Malaysia. The British WorldTour team’s second guard has been under the radar and off the podium after five stages of the 20th edition of Le Tour de Langkawi.
As per normal, Langkawi is traditionally a sprinter’s race, and this year is no exception with Andrea Guardini (Astana) and Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) dominating the first half of the eight-day stage race. Guardini continues to pad his race record of all-time stage wins (17), picking up three more victories this week, while the 20-year-old Australian neo-pro won stage 3 and lifted the yellow leader’s jersey off Guardini in the process.
Stage 3 (170km) featured two categorized climbs within the first 70km, but Sky was unable to capitalize with close to 100 kilometers of flat roads remaining afterward when it came down to a bunch sprint won by Ewan.
Ewan, like Guardini, signed on for stage wins and claims he poses no real threat to hold on to general classification past the penultimate stage.
“To be honest, I haven’t really looked into it,” said Ewan. “I climbed quite well on stage 3 and felt really good, but for me not really being a climber, I can have a day like that were I’m climbing really good, and today, if we went over the same climbs, I could be in the last group.
“If I’m feeling really good on that day, who knows what can happen, but at the moment I’m not really thinking about it.”
While Sky sports director Gabriel Rasch admits the team does feel pressure to perform, he’s not concerned about his team’s lack of success so far, and feels confident that his team is more than capable of making up the 26-second deficit on Ewan.
“We definitely have some pressure on us and we need to show that we are a good team, and that’s what we want to do as well,” Rasch told VeloNews post-stage 5. “Right now I’m happy with the team’s performance so far and feel confident in our chances when the race reaches the mountain stage.”
With the team’s first unit divided between Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in Europe, the six-man Langkawi squad predominately features climbers, such as Sebastian Henao, Ian Boswell, Philip Deignan, and Danny Pate — all of which share the 26-second time gap on GC — followed by workhorse Nathan Earle and sprinter Christopher Sutton.
Without a dedicated lead-out train, Sutton has been unable to find daylight among the sprint-dedicated teams of Astana, Orica-GreenEdge, and Southeast.
“CJ [Sutton] has to manage more by himself, so that’s just how it is,” said Rasch. “We have more of a climbing team here in Malaysia, but he is doing the best he can out there.”
For Sutton, it’s already been a long season since his second straight podium (third) at the People’s Choice Classic to kick off the Tour Down Under (TDU) weekend. The 30-year-old New South Wales native followed the TDU with the Dubai Tour, Tour of Oman, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne prior to Langkawi.
“I’m just doing what I can to try and get up there in the mix for the sprints, but it’s hard not having a lead-out train,” Sutton told VeloNews. “Robbie McEwen was the best in the world at not using anybody, and he was always good at picking wheels, but not everybody is Robbie McEwen.
“I am just trying to find my sprinting legs at the moment.”
Following Korean Joon Young Seo’s (KSPO) win on stage 5, and Friday’s short 96.6km stage 6 from Maran to Karak, the race moves back to the mountains before finishing with a predicted bunch sprint in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
“Our goal here is to be top three in general, so yes of course we are waiting for Frasier’s Hill,” said Rasch of the Cat 1 climb that replaced the infamous Genting Highlands (HC) a day before the race, due to safety concerns arising from construction work surrounding the area. “Our best rider is probably Henao,” admitted Rasch. “But we have to play on the numbers considering we still have four still in the mix.
“The Genting would definitely be better for us but we just have to adapt to the changes and do the best of our ability.”
Saturday’s summit finish atop Frasier’s Hill at the 180.8-kilometer mark sits at 3,773 feet in elevation and was last used in 2008 when Italian Filippo Savini won the stage riding for Ceramica Panaria-Navigare.
“The problem is that they changed the climbing stage, so we are not sure how tough it is or what to expect,” the 21-year-old Colombian told VeloNews. “That change in route could make the difference in the final podium.
“I want to be on the podium, and I will be disappointed if I am not.”
Whether it’s Genting or Frasier’s Hill, Henao has the full support and confidence of his teammates, including Sky’s two Aussies.
“Sebastian, Boswell, Deignan, and Pate will come into their own,” Earle told VeloNews. “I am looking after Sebastian this week and we are still in the fight for GC — it’s not over yet.”
Sutton agreed. “Although it sucks not having Genting in this year, which would suit Sebastian [Henao] a whole lot more, we still have four guys in the mix, so nothing has really changed for us regarding our GC aspirations,” he said.
“We are looking to get on the podium with Sebastian still, but as I said we have those other three guys as backup which is a pretty good thing to have.
“Plus, I still have opportunities remaining myself, so don’t count us out.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews