Tour de Langkawi mid-race review

The ten-day Tour de Langkawi reached its halfway stage today and saw the yellow jersey change hands for the first time since David Zabriskie dominated the opening time trial. Drapac Cycling’s Darren Longthorne holds a useful but far from impregnable 37-second lead heading in to tomorrow’s queen stage, which should decide the final general classification.

About Malaysia

Malaysia is a country of just 28 million inhabitants (less than half the UK’s population). It is only the 43rd-most populous nation in the world, but the 29th-largest economy. At one time the world’s largest producer of tin and rubber, the country has evolved over the past 30-40 years from a mining and agriculture-based economy to one centred on manufacturing, finance and other services.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur is an instantly recognisable landmark (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ethnically, religiously and linguistically, the country is diverse. Half the population are non-Malays (primarily Chinese and Indian). Nearly two-fifths follow a faith other than the state religion of Islam. And many natives are at least bilingual, speaking some combination of Malay, English, Cantonese and Mandarin. It’s also my parents’ original home, so although I was born and have always lived in the UK, I still have a strong affinity with the country.

In addition to boasting the Petronas Twin Towers, formerly the tallest building in the world, Malaysia has used sport to promote itself on a global stage. The capital Kuala Lumpur hosted the 1998 Commonwealth Games, Formula 1 and MotoGP hold races at the stunning Sepang circuit, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes owns both Premier League side QPR and the Caterham F1 team, and Genting Casinos is the shirt sponsor of Aston Villa [as Sheree well knows – Ed].

And then, of course, there’s the Tour de Langkawi, named after an archipelago of islands off the north-west coast of the Malay peninsula. A popular tourist destination of golden beaches and crystal blue waters, it used to host the start of the race, although nowadays it begins in a variety of locations on the mainland.

Anyhow, that’s enough geography and history. On with the racing!

Stage 1: Putrajaya, 20.3km individual time trial

Zabriskie destroyed the field to win by a full minute (image courtesy of Tour de Langkawi)

Putrajaya, just south of Kuala Lumpur, was established in 1995 – making the city only a year older than the race itself. The main seat of the federal government, it hosted a 20.3km time trial to open this year’s race.

It wasn’t just the weather – in excess of 30°C and approaching 75% humidity – that was too hot for the peloton as David Zabriskie set a blistering pace to take the yellow jersey. That the six-time US national time trial champion won the stage was no surprise, but his margin – one minute – was emphatic.

Drapac’s Darren Lapthorne set an early impressive time of 25:44 on the fast, flowing course, only to see teammate Adam Phelan lower the benchmark by ten seconds. That would eventually be good enough for second place, with only Zabriskie, who stopped the clock in 24:34, going faster. Garmin-Barracuda teammate and 2003 winner Tom Danielson was fourth, 1:17 down but gaining significant time on several other GC contenders.

The Androni Giocattoli trio of Jose Serpa (2009), Jose Rujano (2010) and Jonathan Monsalve (2011) have won the last three editions of the race, but enjoyed mixed fortunes. Rujano was sixth, handily placed at 1:26 behind Zabriskie (and just nine seconds behind Danielson), while Serpa was 23rd at 2:22 and Monsalve was 35th at 2:36.

Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, returning for one final year after his season-ending crash at the Tour de France, showed he is still not back to his best, rolling in 40th, 2:41 down. And our adopted VeloVoices rider for this race, the evergreen Shinichi Fukushima (Terrengganu Pro Cycling), who at 40 is the third-oldest starter, was 76th at 3:37.

Stage 2: Putrajaya to Melaka, 151km

Guardini wasted no time in adding to his five Langkawi stage wins from 2011 (image courtesy of Farnese Vini)

Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini comfortably won the first sprint in Melaka to add to his five stages from last year.

At various times ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Melaka (or Malacca) was once a strategic trade port but is now a popular tourist spot containing several notable museums, temples and forts, and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, however, it served as the finish town for stage two, offering the sprinters a first chance to strut their stuff.

But before the 22-year old Guardini could show the pack a clean pair of heels, the peloton first had to catch the obligatory breakaway. Sea Keong Loh (OCBC Singapore) and Foris Goesinnen (Drapac) built a four-minute lead before Farnese Vini sent men to the front of the peloton to assist David Zabriskie‘s Garmin team in the chase.

As the pack closed in, RTS Racing’s Lee Rodgers bridged across to the lead pair, but the trio were nevertheless caught 5km from the finish. From there Farnese Vini bossed the run-in, setting up Guardini to kick in the final 200m to win ahead of Jacobe Keough (UnitedHealthcare) and Christian Delle Stelle (Colnago-CSF Inox).

Guardini was relieved to finally get his first win of 2012:

I needed to come back to Malaysia to be a winner again. This is my fourth stage race of the year and I didn’t manage to win any stage in the first three. Now I have found the serenity that I needed in Malaysia.

Zabriskie crossed the line safely in the peloton to retain his one-minute lead over Adam Phelan, who went down in a crash about 2km from the finish, for which he required stitches in his leg.

The peloton was literally home and hosed at the finish as marshals sprayed the riders with jets of water to cool them. Given the heat and humidity, it was undoubtedly a welcome shower.

Stage 3: Melaka to Parit Sulong, 187.6km

VeloVoices' featured rider was prominent in breakaways on stages 3 & 4 (image courtesy of Terrengganu Teanm web site)

Another day, another sprint, another win for Andrea Guardini. At the finish at Parit Sulong, a small town south of Melaka best known for the brutal massacre of 161 Australian soldiers during World War II, the Italian was similarly ruthless with his rivals, powering past everyone in the final gallop for his second victory in two days.

VeloVoices’ Shinichi Fukushima was one of the four men in the day’s escape, alongside Alex Coutts (RTS), Ahmad Lutfi M Fauzan (Malaysia) and Taiji Nishitani (Aisan Racing), the winner of the stage to Parit Sulong in the 2010 race. Fukushima took the first of the three intermediate sprints, with Fauzan and Nishitani claiming the others. Fukushima and Nishitani were the last to be swallowed up by the peloton 11km from home near the summit of the fourth category Bukit Belah climb.

Colnago-CSF Inox tried to put compatriot Guardini to the sword on the ascent, but the sprinter stayed in touch and maintained his position to out-pace Garmin’s Raymond Kreder and Champion System’s Malaysian rider Anuar Manan to the line.

David Zabriskie again finished securely in the pack, but admitted it had been anything but a simple ride:

It was crazy hot out there today. There’s a humidity as well that’s very hard. It’s tough on the body, but it’s also hard to breathe.

Garmin teammate and overall fourth-place man Tom Danielson fell in a crash late on, but because it occurred inside the last 3km he received the same time as the rest of the peloton.

Stage 4: Batu Pahat to Muar, 169.4km

After two days travelling south down the west coast, the race reversed back on itself towards a finish in Muar. North, south, it made no difference whatsoever to Andrea Guardini, who won his third stage in a row and eighth overall in Malaysia, one short of the race record held by Graeme Brown.

If the face on the top step of the podium at the day’s end was a familiar one, so too was one of those who animated the race in the break. Our friend Shinichi Fukushima worked his way into the day’s four-man escape alongside Rhys Pollock (Drapac Cycling), Kevin Reza (Europcar) and Louis Crosby (New Zealand). Fukushima gamely contested all three intermediate sprints, only to be pipped by Crosby on each occasion.

The quartet still had an advantage of close to five minutes with 30km to go, but Guardini’s Farnese Vini squad (now missing Rafael Andriato, who had retired after crashing the previous day) and then Alexandre Vinokourov‘s Astana team moved forward to force the pace.

Even so, the deficit was still two minutes with 10km remaining, but with the leaders tiring and the peloton setting a furious pace the gap tumbled rapidly, with Crosby and finally Reza succumbing inside the last 200 metres as the sprinters engulfed them like a muli-coloured tidal wave. Guardini kicked early at 300m out, but easily held off Jacobe Keough (UnitedHealthcare) and Salleh Harrif (Terengganu Cycling) by more than two lengths.

Guardini was delighted by the hard work of both his team and Astana:

This is the nicest win of my career because it has required a lot of sweating and suffering. We still believed that a bunch sprint finish was possible when everyone else seemed to think that it was game over.

We decided to do the whole work no matter what and I thank Astana for their contribution to the chase. [Alexandre] Vinokourov has demonstrated once again today that he is a lord of cycling. He didn’t only ask his team-mates to chase but he went to the front himself as well.

Garmin’s David Zabriskie and Tom Danileson retained their positions in first and fourth in the general classification, with the latter riding with bandages and a swollen leg after his crash the previous day.

Stage 5: Ayer Keroh to Pandan Indah, 190km

Jose Serpa lived up to the promise of his Androni Giocattoli manager Gianni Savio, who had promised his rider would feature at the front of the race’s first mountain stage. The 2009 overall winner won from a late two-man break alongside Drapac’s Darren Lapthorne, who moved into the yellow jersey.

Stage five saw the first serious climbs of the race and was enough to produce an initial selection

The day’s route took the peloton northwards from Ayer Keroh (near Melaka) to Pandan Indah, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, and included two second and one third category climbs in the last 90km, with a further uncategorised hill just before the finish. Several breakaway attempts were reeled back in a rapid first hour which covered nearly 48km. That pace was too fast for second-placed Adam Phelan (Drapac), who succumbed to his earlier crash injuries and abandoned.

A four-man break was eventually allowed to get away 80km into the stage, establishing a lead which concertinaed between one and four minutes over the first climb. They were subsequently joined by a fifth companion after a long and lonely chase: who else but our friend Shinichi Fukushima? But it was to no avail, as the leaders were absorbed back into the peloton on the second climb of Genting Perez.

By the base of the descent, however, a new four-man break including 2011 winner Jonathan Monsalve (Androni) had formed. However, they were always kept on a tight leash and never looked like getting away. Eventually Lapthorne broke free about 3km from home. Serpa was the only rider able to go with him, and the Colombian beat the Australian in the final sprint. Matteo Rabbotini (Farnese Vini) won a five-up sprint for third 11 seconds later, with most of the other main contenders a further 13 seconds back.

With Zabriskie finishing last but one and losing nearly 20 minutes, Lapthorne assumed the yellow jersey with a 37-second lead over Tom Danielson, who moved up to second. Just 77 seconds cover the top ten ahead of tomorrow’s queen stage.

Coming up

Despite the demise of Zabriskie and Phelan, the general classification remains shaped by the opening day’s time trial. That will all change tomorrow, however, as the peloton must tackle a mighty hors categorie finish in the Genting Highlands. The 1,679m summit comes at the end of a long, gruelling climb which is really two steep ascents separated by a short, slightly downhill section. It is particularly difficult near the top, with several sharp bends featuring gradients of up to 20%. Outside of the Grand Tours, it’s considered to be one of the toughest climbs on the calendar.

A summit finish in the Genting Highlands will shape the final general classification

Although he is 22 seconds behind teammate Jose Rujano and 1:08 behind leader Darren Lapthorne, today’s winner Serpa has every reason to be confident tomorrow. He has tackled the climb three times before – in 2006, 2007 and 2009 – and won on each occasion. Moreover, his first victory in 2006 also came the day after winning on a relatively flat stage. He’ll be hoping history repeats itself tomorrow. Don’t be surprised if Serpa and Rujano launch a one-two punch in the closing kilometres of the climb, with the former taking the stage and helping his teammate take the overall lead.

Whoever ends up in the yellow jersey tomorrow will most likely wear it all the way to the finish on Sunday, as the final four stages are all flat and likely to end in bunch sprints. The winner won’t be our man Fukushima, though. He’s 105th overall, 15:15 off the leader.

General classification after stage 5

1. Darren Lapthorne (Drapac Cycling) 17:00:36

2. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) +0:37

3. Alexandr Dyachenko (Astana) +0:46

4. Jose Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +0:46

5. Joseph Cooper (New Zealand) +0:51

6. Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana) +0:53

7. Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli) +1:08

8. Artem Ovechkin (Rusvelo) +1:11

9. Yohann Gene (Europcar) +1:12

10. Alfredo Balloni (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) +1:17

Links: Tour de Langkawi preview, Tour de Langkawi official website

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