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Miguel Angel Lopez goes into the Tour de Langkawi as the huge favourite

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DE LANGKAWI

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23.02.2016 @ 17:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Tour of Beijing may have been the race that put Asia on the WorldTour but for several years it was a Malaysian race that enjoyed the status as the biggest race on the continent. With its iconic summit finish on the Genting Highlands and many sprint stages, the Tour de Langkawi has always been a spectacular event that has offered the European stars a chance to do lots of racing kilometres in good weather conditions.

 

During the past two decades, cycling has become a lot more globalized. While big stage races were created in North America and Australia, it was Malaysia who put Asia on the map when they first organized the Tour de Langkawi. While it has had a rich racing scene and many stage races for several years, it lacked a major draw card that could attract some of the biggest European races until the Malaysian race was first held in 1996.

 

With its early date, good organization and great weather, it has always managed to attract the interest of some of the big European teams that have preferred to head to the sun for the early racing kilometres. It may have lost the battle against races like the ones in the Middle East and the Tour Down Under and the start list has definitely not always been of the highest standard but it remains an important preparation race for many European riders. As it is held a bit later than the other main non-European build-up races, it is tailor-made for riders who aim to peak later in the season.

 

In recent years, the race seems to have turned into an event for young talents. Instead of having their established stars use the race as preparation for later goals, the WorldTour teams in attendance have mostly send young riders to Malaysia. The lack of stress and slightly lower level make it a perfect opportunity for the youngsters to get a chance to lead their teams and maybe get a few victories. Last year Caleb Ewan eased into the professional ranks in Malaysia and this year the attending WorldTour teams are led mainly by relatively young riders.

 

The Tour de Langkawi has always been a strange race.  Very often it has been held over 10 stages and as most of them are flat, it has been a paradise for the sprinters. Almost all stages have been decided in bunch sprints and this has made some of the races rather monotonous.

 

However, the sprinters have never been in contention for the overall win. Nearly every edition has included the famous summit finish on the Genting Highlands which has very often determined the overall winner of the race. In the past, there has been a time trial too but that stage has now been skipped. This makes the race a special affair where the sprinters battle it out in several flat stages while the climbers ride for several days, only waiting to make their move in the queen stage. The Genting Highlands is a very tough climb and can make a huge difference and as it has virtually decided the race every year, it is no surprise that the race has been dominated by pure climbers from Colombia and Venezuela.

 

The Tour de Langkawi has traditionally suited two kinds of riders: pure climbers and pure sprinters. For the latter category of riders, it is a perfect chance to show their speed instead of doing the harder races Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico where they have limited opportunities while the former get a rare chance to win a major stage race without having to do any time trialling.

 

Last year a late change forced the organizers to skip the Genting climb and instead the riders did the much easier climb of Cameron Highlands in the queen stage. This made it possible for strong sprinter Youcef Reguigui to stay with the best and take both the stage win and the overall victory. Unfortunately, continued works at the Genting Highlands means that the race won’t return in 2016 either and instead it will again be the Cameron Highlands climb that will be the decider, opening the door for a much wider range of riders than the pure climbers.

 

The course

As said, there will be no return to the Genting Highlands in 2016 but apart from that, not much has changed for the 2016 edition of the Tour de Langkawi. It is a very traditional affair made up of sprint stages and the queen stage to Cameron Highlands which again replaces the Genting climb. The main change is the new date which sees the race move back to February and the fact that it will keep the shorter 8-day format that was introduced last year.

 

The organizers have also included a bit more climbing and there are less completely flat stages but the relatively small rises in Malaysia have rarely been enough to challenge the sprinters. A breakaway has often made it to the finish in one of the later stages and the lumpy route on stage 6 could be a day for attackers. Apart from that stage and the queen stage which will decide the GC, it is likely to be a sprint festival.

 

 

Stage 1:

The race kicks off with a 166.6km stage from Kangar to Baling. It is a mostly flat affair but includes two category 4 climbs at the midpoint. The main challenge is a category 3 climb which summits 24.2km from the finish from where it is a downhill run to a completely flat finish. A long, straight road leads to a final turn just 200m from the line.

 

The late climb is unlikely to be enough to prevent the sprinters from getting their first of several chances to test their legs but the late turn will make it a tricky sprint.

 

 

Stage 2:

The second stage is another typical Langkawi affair as it is an almost completely flat run over 158.1km from Sg. Pegani to Georgetown. There is a pair of climbs in the second half, with a category 4 climb leading to a harder category 3 ascent that summits 29.3km from the finish. After the descent it is a mainly flat run-in to the finish but the final kilometres are slightly downhill. Again the finale is very technical as there are two turns in quick succession inside the final kilometre.

 

We are still early in the race which means that the sprint teams are still fresh and they should easily keep it together for another bunch sprint.

 

 

Stage 3:

The sprinters can expect to be back in action on the short third stage which brings the riders over 107.2km from Kulim to Kuala Kangsar. There’s an early category 4 climb and another category 4 climb 14.9km from the finish from where the riders descend to a flat finale. There are two turns just after the flamme rouge, leading to an 800m finishing straight.

 

Compared to the first two stages, the final climb comes closer to the finish but it is easier than it has been on the opening two days. We can expect another bunch sprint as the sprinters want to stretch their legs one final time before the queen stage.

 

 

Stage 4:

This year the queen stage comes on the fourth day. As usual, it is a very short one as it brings the riders over just 129.4km from Ipoh to a mountaintop finish on Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. The first half of the stage is completely flat but the final 30km consist of one long drag up to the finish. The climb is split into two as there’s a category 1 KOM sprint 13.5km from the finish. Then the road is descending for 2.6km before it kicks up towards the finish. The final 5km average 6.8% and include several hairpin bends.

 

The final climb is nowhere near as tough as the Genting Highlands but it is steeper than the one that was used 12 months ago where it came down to a sprint from a pretty big group. The final five kilometres are not very steep but a 6.8% average gradient is enough to create time gaps in this field. When the climb was used in 2014, the gaps were pretty big. All the climbers know that this stage is very likely to decide the GC and it is their highlight of the week. Hence, there will be no room for a breakaway and it will all come down to a showdown on the final climb.

 

 

Stage 5:

It is back into flat terrain for stage 5 which brings the riders over 148.8km from Tapah to the capital of Kuala Lumpur. There are two smaller category 4 climbs during the first 100km and a harder category 4 ascent just 22.1km from the finish. From there, the riders will descent to a flat finish in the capital. For once, the finish is not very technical as the final sharp turn comes with 1700m to go and then there is only a sweeping bend just after the flamme rouge.

 

The GC is now likely to have been decided and very often a breakaway has made it in one of the stages after the queen stage as the small 6-rider teams have a hard time controlling things every day. If one sprinter has been dominant, there is a chance that this could be such a chance for attackers but the finish in Kuala Lumpur carries a certain prestige that makes a bunch sprint the most likely outcome.

 

 

Stage 6:

The race usually includes a lumpier stage in the second half and this is also the case in 2016. On the sixth day, the riders will tackle 147.6 relatively hilly kilometres from Putrajaya to Rembau. After a mostly flat first part with two small category 4 climbs, there’s a category 3 climb at the midpoint. Then it’s back onto flat roads before the riders get to the final category 3 climb whose summit comes just 7.8km from the finish. It’s a long, gradual rise followed by a fast descent that leads to 5 flat kilometres in the end. Again it is a very technical finish as there is a U-turn with 500m to go and a sharp 90-degree turn just 100m from the line.

 

As said, a breakaway often makes it once in the race and stage 6 is probably the day for the attackers. After six days of racing, the small six-rider teams are tired and the terrain in this stage is harder than it has been in most of the previous stages. A bunch sprint can’t be ruled out but as this is the day that all the attackers have marked out, we expect a breakaway to make it.

 

 

Stage 7:

The penultimate stage is the longest of the race as it will see the riders travel over 202.3km from Seremban to Parit Sulong. An early category 3 climb followed by one of the fourth category will test the riders’ legs in the first part of the stage but the final 130km are almost completely flat. In the finale, it is a slightly downhill run to the finish which is very straightforward as a turn with 2km to go leads onto a long, straight road that leads to the finish.

 

It’s not an easy task for small 6-rider teams to control such a long stage but most of the teams are here with sprinters. If one sprinter has not been completely dominant, there should be plenty of interest in making it a bunch sprint. A break has a chance but it is most likely to be a day for the sprinters.

 

 

Stage 8:

The race ends with a short 119km stage from Batu Pahat to Melaka. This part of Malaysia is completely flat and even though the organizers have often had KOM sprints on even the smallest rises, they have been unable to find a single categorized climb on this route. In the end, the riders will do two laps of a flat 7.9km circuit. It is not very technical in the first part but there are two sharp turns in quick succession in the penultimate kilometre. Then there’s another 90-degree turn at the flamme rouge and a sweeping turn 500m from the finish.

 

The Tour de Langkawi has always been a race for sprinters so it is only fitting that the fast guys will have their say on the final day. There are no challenges at all in this stage and the sprint teams will make sure that it all comes down to one final bunch sprint at the end of 8 days of racing.

 

 

The favourites

When it comes to the GC battle, there is not much mystery about the Tour de Langkawi. The sprint stages have no influence on the final classification which will be completely shaped by the climb of the Cameron Highlands. The sprinters will probably decide the first three stages before the climbers will battle it out in the queen stage and then it is all about staying safe in the final half of the race. Stage 6 is a lumpy one but the climbs won’t be severe enough to do any real damage.

 

Many of the finales are very tricky with several late turns so there may be splits of a few seconds. Furthermore, there are always plenty of crashes in Malaysia. The field may be split in the wind but hat rarely happens. Hence, it will almost exclusively come down to the queen stage.

 

It is hard to get much information about the final climb in stage 4. It is far from being as hard as Genting but it’s also a different climb than used 12 months ago. Back then it was decided in a sprint from a small group and was even won by a strong sprinter in Youcef Reguigui. This year the climb should be much harder as the final 5km average 6.8%. If that information is correct, there will be no room for the faster guys and we should see the climbers come to the fore. Still it’s not a very hard climb and if this had been a European race, we would probably end up with a sprint from a small group of climber. As this level, however, it should be hard enough for the best climbers to make a difference.

 

The field doesn’t include a lot of top level climbers but one name stands out. Miguel Angel Lopez is one of the biggest climbing talents in the world. He won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2014 and had an amazing debut at the pro level. When he first went for GC in a WorldTour race, he finished in the top 10 at the Tour de Suisse and he beat an elite field on a stage of the Vuelta a Burgos. Due to injuries, he raced very little but whenever he pinned on a number, he showed his class.

 

This year he again proved his amazing potential by winning the queen stage at the Tour de San Luis. He has not raced since then but has carefully been building his condition in Colombia. On paper, he should be in a class of his own in this race and we will be hugely surprised if he doesn’t come away with the win.

 

Skydive Dubai go into the race with a two-pronged attack of Ivan Santaromita and Francisco Mancebo. The latter is still very competitive but he is not climbing as well as he once was. Hence, the leadership role will probably go to Santaromita who is eager to return to the WorldTour level next year. His first three races didn’t offer him any real opportunities to show his form so no one knows how he is going. However, he aims to be at his best for Coppi e Bartali and Giro del Trentino and so should be at a competitive level. He has not been at his best for several years though and it remains to be seen whether he can rediscover the legs that allowed him to win the Italian championships.

 

For Jesper Hansen, this is a rare chance to lead the Tinkoff team. He didn’t have much luck in his first years at the pro level but suddenly his legs came around when he rode to victory on at the Tour of Norway. He confirmed his potential with some amazing performances at the Vuelta where he rode in support of Rafal Majka. He was ill in San Luis but claims to be back on track after a solid training camp. If he can continue to build on the progress he showed last year, he will be one of the strongest in this race.

 

Unitedhealthcare have three leaders: Janez Brajkovic, Jonathan Clarke and Daniel Jaramillo. The latter has failed to shine at the highest level so it will probably be left to Clarke and Brajkovic to go for the win. Brajkovic has had some troubled years but suddenly returned to form last autumn when he was in the top 5 at the Abu Dhabi Tour. He has not been at his best yet in 2016 but he showed growing condition by taking 15th on the Green Mountain in Oman. Here the level is lower and so he should be much closer to the front.

 

Clarke has spent several years as a domestique but suddenly turned into a climber at last year’s Tour of Utah. This year he confirmed his newfound skills at the Herald Sun Tour where he was third in the queen stage and one of the best on the climbs. The form is definitely there and as the final climb in the queen stage is not overly hard, he will be a contender.

 

Drapac have a two-pronged attack with Lachlan Norris and Gavin Mannion who have both shown their potential in the biggest American races. However, none of them were flying during the Australian summer. To be competitive here, they need to show a significant improvement but they have the potential to do well.

 

Finally, Bardiani’s Giulio Ciccone deserves a mention. The Italian neo-pro has been impressive in his first races as he has been among the best on the climbs in the Italian classics. This is a much longer climb but his performances in the U23 races prove that he can handle this challenge as well.

 

***** Miguel Angel Lopez

**** Ivan Santaromita, Jesper Hansen,

*** Janez Brajkovic , Jonathan Clarke, Francisco Mancebo

** Lachlan Norris, Gavin Mannion, Daniel Jaramillo, Giulio Ciccone

* John Ebsen, Julen Amezqueta, James Oram, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, Richard Handley

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