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PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (VN) – While others have kicked off their season campaigns in Australia, the Middle East or Europe, two noted Tour de France riders have chosen somewhere decidedly different.
One of those names is Tom Danielson, who 10 editions ago, came to his first Tour de Langkawi and took the cycling world by storm. The angelic way the former mountain biker ascended the infamous 17-kilometer brute that is Genting Highlands, a climb that almost always features and decides the overall winner, the Durango kid appeared to be America’s answer to Marco Pantani.
Also gifted against the watch, most expected it would be sooner rather than later that one would see Danielson, 24 years young at the time, riding for a top-tier team in Europe, and onwards and upwards to the Tour de France.
The former did indeed happen, securing a contract with Fassa Bortolo for the 2004 season. But difficulty riding in large bunches at first and the culture-shock of living in a non-English-speaking land stalled his progress. Then at Discovery Channel (2005-07) it was sickness or poor form or too many already proven leaders, which began to erode his at times shaky confidence. So when he signed for Slipstream-Chipotle in 2008 many wondered if he would ever ride the Tour at all, let alone be a future contender.
Jonathan Vaughters, the team’s owner and the man who signed him, suffered his own Tour de France demons (and others) in his time as a pro rider. In 2001, a week away from completing La Grande Boucle and looking strong, an infamous resident of the region, the pesky wasp, put paid to his chances. Vaughters was determined not only to get Danielson to ride the Tour but to do something he never did – finish the wretched thing.
JV’s challenge proved perhaps more difficult than he expected, for it was only last year, at age 33, that ‘Tommy D’ finally made his debut. And he shone like the sun that burns candle-bright here in the tropics of Malaysia, just as he did en route to victory in Langkawi a decade ago.
Little more than a minute after he crossed the line along Paris’ most famous boulevard to place him in the books as the eighth-best rider in the world’s biggest bike race, he said he was already thinking about next year.
‘Next year’ is now this year. And what is he thinking about? He’s thinking about the podium, Goddamnit!
Eight minutes and 15 seconds behind 2011 champion Cadel Evans is a hell of a lot of time to make up between then and July, the Grand Départ of edition ninety-nine now just four months away. Regardless he is now hooked; he has been beguiled and charmed by Le Tour, and as each day dawns closer to the June 30 start in Liège, Belgium, he is drawn like never before.
Which brings us to the 2012 Tour de Langkawi, where Danielson arrives as one of six former winners of southeast Asia’s most prestigious cycling race, with five solid Garmin-Barracuda riders in tow, including idiosyncratic time trial stalwart Dave Zabriskie and Aussie neo-pro, Nathan Haas, the precocious winner of the Herald Sun Tour last October.
And then there’s Alexandre Vinokourov.
What is left to say about this never-say-die, hard-as-nails-albeit-slightly-flawed-Kazakh that hasn’t already been said?
When he careened off the roadside on Stage 9 of last year’s Tour and dove into the bushes faster than a hunted rabbit, he came out sans vélo and avéc a broken femur. A few days later, in an on-camera television interview with host broadcaster France 2, he cried like a baby to the cycling world, telling us he was leaving the sport for good. A career in parliament seemed on the cards… but a few months later, he decided to come back. He wanted to leave on his own terms.
Vino’s maiden voyage at the 1997 Tour de Langkawi was far less auspicious than Danielson’s. He came as part of the Kazakhstan national team but the curries and roti (pancakes) and humidity did not agree with him and he fell afoul of the food and oppressive heat, consequently unable to finish the race, won by Luca Scinto of what was arguably the first ‘super team’, MG Maglificio-Technogym, later known as Mapei-Quick Step.
“I’ve always wanted to do this race again but it was never on my team’s calendar or appropriate for my race schedule,” said Vinokourov, whose actual comeback race was the Chrono des Nations last October but considers the Tour de Langkawi his “first big race back”.
Among climbers like Danielson and the ominous flyweight four from Androni-Giocattoli, will he win this year’s race? Not a chance. Will he go on the attack? Every chance. The only question will be how often.
Among the half-dozen bona fide contenders a seedling will be created from day one, for the race kicks off with a 20.3km time trial in the parliamentary capital of Putrajaya, 25km south of the capital of Kuala Lumpur. For the next four stages, the days are mostly flat or mildly undulating and likely to end in bunch sprints unless the opportunists can make a go of it – but Stage 6 will be nothing of the sort.
A 108km journey from the mesmerizing (particularly if you stay next to it as this race often does; prayer begins at 5 a.m. daily) Shah Alam mosque to Genting Highlands, this will be the day that sorts the wannabes from the queen bees, as the race reaches its denouement. Top European-based pros have said the climb of Genting is unlike any other they have ridden, and judging from their pained expressions at its 1,679-meter-high summit, they aren’t kidding. It would not be a stretch to award it the sobriquet, ‘the Angliru of the East.’
Beginning this Friday, February 24 and concluding 10 days later on March 4 in Kuala Teregganu in the peninsula’s northeast, the peloton will traverse a distance of 1415.5km. Add the merciless humidity of the tropics and more than the odd malaria-carrying monkey and you have yourself a bike race not to be sneezed at.
Stage 1 – Feb 24: Putrajaya ITT, 20.3km
Stage 2 – Feb 25: Putrajaya – Melaka, 151km
Stage 3 – Feb 26: Melaka – Parit Sulong, 187.6km
Stage 4 – Feb 27: Batu Pahat – Muar, 169.4km
Stage 5 – Feb 28: Ayer Keroh – Pandan Indah, 187.2km
Stage 6 – Feb 29: Proton Shah Alam – Genting Highlands, 108km
Stage 7 – Mar 1: Bentong – Kuantan, 215.8km
Stage 8 – Mar 2: Pekan – Chukai, 100.8km
Stage 9 – Mar 3: Kemasik – Kuala Terengganu, 169.4km
Stage 10 – Mar 4: Tasik Kenyir – Kuala Terengganu loop, 110.7km
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