Tour de Langkawi preview

Tour de Langkawi 2013 logoThe 18th Tour de Langkawi – one of Asia’s biggest and best known races – begins in Malaysia tomorrow, with its customary mix of big climbs punctuating an extended sprint fest. This year’s race is bigger than ever, with the number of ProTeams attending up from two to five.

What kind of race is it?

The Tour de Langkawi is one of only five 2.HC on the UCI Asia Tour and, at ten days, is the longest other than July’s Tour of Qignhai Lake. It has been a ten-day race since 2011.

In fact, there are two distinct races within the race. The battle for the general classification is largely concentrated on one or two high summit finishes (there are two this year), with the rest of the event given over to the sprinters, who have ample opportunity to target wins, with each edition typically featuring seven or eight stages which favour the fast men.

With big-name stage racers largely opting to stay in Europe ahead of Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, Langkawi is often dominated by Pro-Continental teams, and in particular South American climbers. Colombian or Venezuelan riders have won six times, including the last four in a row, with riders from the climbing-focussed Androni Giocattoli team always showing well.

The most recent winners of the race are:

2008: Ruslan Ivanov (Moldova)

2009: Jose Serpa (Diquigiovanni-Androni)

2010: Jose Rujano (ISD-Neri)

2011: Jonathan Monsalve (Androni Giocattoli-Serramenti)

2012: Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli)

What happened last year?

2012 winner Jose Serpa (image courtesy of Tour de Langkawi)

2012 winner Jose Serpa (image courtesy of Tour de Langkawi)

Garmin’s David Zabriskie led the race for the first four days after a dominant win in the opening time trial. He would not relinquish the leader’s yellow jersey until stage five, when Androni’s Jose Serpa won from a successful two-man break. In between, Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini had stamped his authority on the sprint stages with three straight victories.

Serpa won again at the top of Genting Highlands – the fourth time he had won that particular stage – to take over the yellow jersey by 30 seconds from teammate Jose Rujano. That effectively set the GC in stone, as Colnago neo-pro Marco Canola won stage seven from a break before Guardini closed out with a second hat-trick of sprint wins to finish with six overall.

1. Jose Serpa (Androni Giocattoli) 32:55:31

2. Jose Rujano (Androni Giocattoli) +0:30

3. Victor Nino Corredor (Azad University Cross) +1:03

4. Alexandr Dyachenko (Astana) +2:20

5. Jackson Rodriguez (Androni Giocattoli) +3:50

6. Stefano Locatelli (Colnago-CSF Inox) +4:15

7. Ghader Mizbani (Tabriz Petrochemical) +4:23

8. Andrey Zeits (Astana) +4:28

9. Dennis Van Niekerk (MTN Qhubeka) +4:33

10. Joseph Cooper (New Zealand) +4:44

Our 2012 race reviews can be found here: Stages 1-5, Stage 6, Stages 7-10

This year’s race

The 2013 edition delivers a double-whammy of genuinely punishing summit finishes which will determine the general classification by the halfway stage of the race.

The pain begins on stage three with a concluding climb to 1,500 metres in the Cameron Highlands. This will blow the peloton to smithereens and see all the major contenders come out to play on what promises to be a hot, humid and sapping 141km stage.

Stage 3 ends with a summit finish in the Cameron Highlands

Stage 3 ends with a summit finish in the Cameron Highlands

Two days later, a short (110km) stage five is sure to see fireworks as it represents the last chance to shake up the GC. The finish is at the resort of Genting Highlands, 1,679 metres above sea level. The parcours is essentially identical to last year’s queen stage, won by Jose Serpa, who went on to claim the overall.

Stage 5's finish at Genting Highlands should decide the GC

Stage 5’s finish at Genting Highlands should decide the GC

In and around these two big climbing stages every other day offers the likelihood of a bunch sprint, though several are far from routine. Some stages feature a series of smallish climbs in the closing kilometres which could favour late attacks. Others have hard-to-judge uphill finishes which will challenge the sprinters’ staying power. Those who survive the mountains unscathed will have the prospect of a five-stage sprint-fest to sweep them to the finish. In all, eight of the ten stages could be claimed by the fast-twitch men.

Who to watch

Guardini will be looking to add to his 11 Langkawi wins (image courtesy of Astana)

Guardini will be looking to add to his 11 Langkawi wins (image courtesy of Astana)

With so many sprint stages on offer, it’s no surprise that the bigger teams have arrived heavily loaded with quick men. Astana can now boast Guardini, who won 11 stages here over the past two years for Farnese Vini. However, the young Italian will face a greater depth of rival talent this year. It will come as little surprise that Omega Pharma-Quick Step will focus their efforts behind a British sprinter, although in this case it will be Andrew Fenn rather than Mark Cavendish. Fellow ProTeams Blanco and Garmin-Sharp will line up for Volta ao Algarve stage winner Theo Bos and Aussie Steele Von Hoff, while Orica-GreenEDGE will most likely look to Aidis Kruopis.

There’s plenty of sprint talent in the European Pro-Continental squads too. Vini Fantini have Francesco Chicchi, Europcar double Etoile de Besseges stage winner Bryan Coquard and UnitedHealthcare German veteran Robert Forster. My pick of the local sprinters would be Salleh Harrif from the Terengganu team, who had three top-four finishes in the 2012 edition.

Pierre Rolland (image courtesy of Europcar)

Rolland will be one of the big GC favourites (image courtesy of Europcar)

The winner of the general classification is likely to come from outside of the WorldTour squads. Although Serpa is not defending his title, 2011 winner Jonathan Monsalve is present with Vini Fantini. Last year’s third, fourth and fifth-placed finishers also return: Victor Nino Corredor (RTS), Alexandr Dyachenko (Astana) and Jackson Rodriguez (Androni Giocattoli). Androni’s Carlos Ochoa is another potential danger man.

However, the rider with the strongest pedigree is Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, who will be opening his 2013 campaign here. The Frenchman has placed in the top ten at the last two Tours de France and can count victories on Alpe d’Huez and La Toussuire on his palmares. If he’s in good form, he should win.

Race details

February 21st: Stage 1 – Kangar to Kulim, 162.7km

February 22nd: Stage 2 – Serdang to Kuala Kangsar, 117.8km

February 23rd: Stage 3 – Sungai Siput to Cameron Highlands, 140.7km

February 24th: Stage 4 – Tapah to Kapar, 168km

February 25th: Stage 5 – Proton to Genting Highlands, 110.3km

February 26th: Stage 6 – Mentakab to Kuantan, 217.5km

February 27th: Stage 7 – Kuantan to Dungun, 149.8km

February 28th: Stage 8 – Kuala Terengganu to Tanah Merah, 164.5km

March 1st: Stage 9 – Pasir Puteh to Kuala Berang, 123.6km

March 2nd: Stage 10 – Tasik Kenyir to Kuala Terengganu, 114.8km

The Tour de Langkawi starts on Thursday 21st February and concludes on Saturday 2nd March. For live coverage check

Link: Official website

Farewell to Grischa Niermann

Recent retiree Grischa Niermann (image courtesy of Rabobank)

German Grischa Niermann, long-time member of the team formerly known as Rabobank, has also hung up his helmet. His last professional ride was the Vuelta and having finished his 18th Grand Tour he’s another who’s climbed off his bike and into the team car, as a coach for the development squad.

Born in Hannover, where he continues to live with his wife and two young sons, he started his career in 1997 with the Die Continentale team and enjoyed wins in the Hessen-Rundfahrt in 1998 and the Regio Tour in 1999. Those successes brought him a contract with Rabobank where he rode, largely in service of the team’s leaders, tirelessly for the past 14 seasons. Indeed, his only victories for the team were the 2001 Niedersachsen-Rundfahrt and a stage in 2008 at the Regio Tour. However it’s a role he’s enjoyed and where he’s flourished, taking riders of the calibre of Robert Gesink under his wing.

Grischa took part in his favourite Grand Tour – the Tour de France – a total of nine times and obviously had a soft spot for his now defunct home Tour of Germany. But neither was his favourite race, as he explained:

My favorite race is the Tour of the Basque Country. It is one of the most difficult tours of the year, the weather is always humbling and the riding incredibly hard. But the Basques are the best fans in the world, they know every rider by name, and make even the worst rainy day seem like a holiday. I have taken part in this race 14 times in succession and have finished each one which makes it a bit special. I would have liked to have won there even more than a mountain stage in the Tour de France.

Grischa at the start of his cycling career (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Grischa only started cycling because he was overweight as a child. After losing 15kg on a diet, he wanted to take part in an endurance sport to keep the weight off. He started cycling, loved it and the rest, as they say, is history. He has, however, maintained his interest in diet and fitness throughout his career and claims he would have become a nutritionist if he hadn’t been a cyclist. He said he’d have designed an energy bar which didn’t taste claggy. We can only hope that he finds enough time in his new role to develop that bar. Meanwhile, here he is demonstrating a few exercises for cyclists in his local gym.

I’m going to leave the last word(s) to Grischa’s compatriot, Jens Voigt:

I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to a rider who finished his career this season. I’m talking about Grischa Niermann, from Rabobank, who rode his last pro race at the Vuelta. This is one hard-working and loyal rider!

Grischa and I have been in this business for many years, and I’ve watched him become an increasingly important player in his team. He never cared if it was raining or boiling hot. He didn’t care if it was a long race or short. When the time came, he’d be the first to go to the front and start chasing or riding tempo for his squad. He has had some nice wins, too. I remember one in particular, the Regio Tour of Germany. Grischa has played a role in many successes for Rabobank, and I’m happy that he’s going to stay in cycling and keep working with the big Dutch outfit.

I’ll miss his dry humor. It’s sometimes almost British it’s so dry! I’ll never forget one Tour of California. We were riding in the pack with like 40km to go in the stage with a strong headwind. Grischa is on my left and Robert Forster is on my right, and some young kid attacks all alone, straight into the headwind. And of course he doesn’t get far and comes back real fast, more or less immediately. Now, for obvious reasons, we call this a boomerang attack. As we watched this kid attacking, for a whole 20 seconds, Grischa says, totally pretending I’m not there, “Look at that! That was a Jens Voigt TV attack!” Forster almost fell off the bike he was laughing so hard. And hey, I had to laugh as well!

Grischa, in my books you are a legend. Congrats on your long and solid career. It was always great seeing you and racing with you. I wish you all the best.