LANGKAWI, Wednesday - It's all systems go for the 18th edition of Le Tour de Langkawi (LTdL) which officially gets underway tomorrow (Thursday), once again promising an exciting package with an unpredictable outcome.
With 10 stages including two tough climbs to the summits of Cameron Highlands (Stage 3) and Genting Highlands (Stage 5) which will offer early opportunities for the main challengers for the overall general classification to make their statements, the eight other stages beginning with Stage 1 from Kangar to Kulim tomorrow provides the ultimate stage for the battle of the sprinters.
With a host of world class sprinters representing an unprecedented five UCI Pro Teams, along with eight UCI Professional Continental Teams in the field of 22 teams presented at Dataran Lang in Langkawi today offering what is touted as the strongest field to ever take the startline of LTdL, exciting battles are promised from the word go.
Stage 1, which covers 162km from Kangar to Kulim offers a flat route with the chance for the sprinters to not only register the early psychological boost of a stage win and the blue jersey, but to also take charge of the yellow jersey as the overal leader of the race.
Much attention is drawn towards the LTdL's record stage winner Andrea Guardini (11 stages), more so with the 23-year old Italian returning with his new team the Astana Pro Team from Kazakhstan.
Guardini's advantage is his edge over the rest of the sprinters in his ability to hold a sprint for a full 100 metres without help from teammates, an advantage compared to most other sprinters who will require lead-outs into the final 50 metres before they explode into their sprint for the line.
Guardini's main challenger this time is Dutch rider Theo Bos, a former Olympic silver medallist in track events, who has entered this race fresh from registering his first victory of the season when he won Stage 2 in the Volta ao Alrgarve in Portugal last week. Bos also has former LTdL record stage winner Greame Brown (10 stage wins) as his lead-out man, which provides him an advantage with the vital experience of this race brought by the veteran Australian.
"I am happy to be able to return to LTdL and especially to Langkawi, as this is the place where I collected my first win as a professional two years ago. I also want to register my first win for my new team here," said Guardini.
"But I have to realise that the challenge this time is bigger with the presenvce of Bos and the Blanco Pro Cycling Team, who have come with very good preparations for this race. Overall there will be eight flat stages, take away the longest stage from Temerloh to Kuantan (Stage 6), which could see some breakaway riders going for the win, seven other stages will, on paper, finish in bunch sprints."
Guardini spoke at a press conference after the official teams presentation for the race, held at Dataran Lang in Langkawi today. The competitors had earlier joined cycling enthusiasts from around Malaysia in the LTdL Hot Ride, a 65km leisure ride around the island.
Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports Dato' Razali Ibrahim was also present at the function along with National Sports Council director general Dato' Zolkples Embong and LTdL chief operating officer Emir Abdul Jalal.
Bos, 26, said he was confident and is coming into this race with good preparation but will take a cautious approach.
"As soon as I arrived here I was a bit surprised by the hot weather, but it will be an interesting challenge in the sprints as there are many vying for the wins. That said, Blanco will have three others working for me," said Bos, winner of the 200m sprint silver medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The locals will also be in with a chance top spring some surprises, especially through Harrif Saleh of the Terengganu Cycling Team (TSG) and Anuar Manan, now with the Synergy-Baku Cycling Project from Azerbaijan. Anuar is the only Malaysian ever to have won a stage in LTdL.
"It will be a big challenge this year and the sprinters who have come are also of a much higher level, but I will do my best to spring a surprise," said Harrif.
In the overall race for the general classification Team Europcar presents a rider with the biggest reputation, Pierre Rolland, who is a two-time Tour de France stage winner and also winner of the young riders' classification in that race in 2011.
"I'm happy to be back in LTdL. Surely Cameron and Genting will be the deciders, but I believe this offers me an advantage because myteam has prepared well for this," said Rolland.
"I have not seen the start list, so we will first take it stage by stage."
Rolland will be challenged by LTdL 2011 winner Jonathan Monsalve who now rides for the Vini Fantini team and the Venezuelan's former teammate from the Androni Giocattoli team Carlos Ocho and JAckson Rodriguez, Victor Nino of RTS RAcing, who finished third last year, Julian David Arredondo of Team Nippo, Serge Pouwels of Omega Pharma Quickstep, Alexandr Dyachenko and Andrey Kashechkin of Astana.
The LTdL 2013, which carries the slogan "The Heat is On", will officially begin in Kangar on February 21 and the race comprises 10 stages, covering 1469.7 kilometres.
The race is sanctioned by the International Cycling Union (UCI) as a 2.HC (hors category) race on the UCI Asia Tour calendar, organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports, via the National Sports Council (NSC) in association with the Malaysian National Cycling Federation (MNCF).