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12th Tour de Langkawi - 2.HC
Malaysia, February 2-11, 2007
Hot, hot, hotter
By Anthony Tan in Langkawi island, Malaysia
Just a few days out from one of Asia's biggest cycling events, talk is no longer of missing prize money, internal politicking, or whether the race will indeed continue. The focus, at least for the time being, is on the present, and there is no doubt Malaysia's Le Tour de Langkawi will begin this Friday, February 2.
Opening with a 81.4 kilometre road stage in Dataran Helang, the 12th edition marks a return to Langkawi island after a year's hiatus. Framed against the stunning backdrop of an azure Andaman Sea, the island is made popular for its unspoiled beaches, cascading waterfalls and virgin rainforest, not to mention the shopper's delight of Duty Free status since 1987.
Like the recent Tour Down Under that concluded roughly a fortnight ago, the majority of riders from the five ProTour teams will use the ten-day event as a 'training race'. However, as the TDU also showed with Swiss winner Martin Elminger from AG2R-Prévoyance, such an event provides the perfect opportunity for a future star to shine.
Unlike the race in Adelaide, though, don't expect to see an opening stage breakaway decide the ultimate race winner. For those chasing overall victory when the race concludes in the capital of Kuala Lumpur on February 11, two stages mark the key turning points.
The first, on February 4, sees the riders finish way up high in the leafy green surrounds of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands after 133 kilometres, 1434 metres above sea level. Last year, American young gun Saul Raisin took a magnificent win for équipe Crédit Agricole, before a serious crash almost claimed his life two months later at the Circuit de la Sarthe stage race in France.
Ultimately, while this stage creates a separation, the 2007 Tour de Langkawi will have its overall victor decided on the race's queen stage to Genting Highlands on February 9. The 17 kilometre monster is one of the cycling world's most feared ascents, on par with Spain's Angliru, Italy's Mortirolo, and France's Ventoux and L'Alpe d'Huez. For the day's maillot jaune, it's invariably a case of courage under fire; for everyone else, it's an all-or-nothing last-ditch attempt to secure their place on the final podium.
Defending champion David George, again riding for a composite team from South Africa, is back for another crack at the title. So too is second overall from the previous two editions, Francesco Bellotti (2006, Crédit Agricole) and José Rujano (2005, Unibet.com). The trio should show some cause for concern at Spanish veteran José Luis Arrieta (AG2R-Prévoyance), Frenchman Laurent Lefevre (Equipe Bouygues Telecom), eighth last year and in better form this time round, 2002 Giro d'Italia mountains champion Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio (Ceramiche Panaria Navigare) and SouthAustralia.com's Gene Bates, seventh overall at this year's Tour Down Under.
Arguably the biggest favourite of all, however, is 27 year-old Colombian José Serpa (Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia), the 2006 Vuelta a Venezuela champion a double stage winner and sixth overall last year, and already in good form after completing the fortnight-long Vuelta a Tachira in January.
A surprise victor may come from one of the Continental teams such as Giant Asia, who have perennial Langkawi performer Ghader Mizbani as their draw card. But for most national squads with the exception of South Africa, a place on the final podium would be a pipe dream come true.