Tales from the tropical peloton, February 6, 2006
The first of two major shake-ups in this year's race, Navigators Insurance was one team with a lot to ride for on the stage to the Cameron Highlands. On that day, Anthony Tan took a ride in the car with their team manager Ed Beamon, and got to experience life inside the pressure cooker.
The third stage was billed as a big day, so I took the opportunity to ask Navigators Insurance team manager Ed Beamon if he had room in his car this morning, knowing full well their star climber Cesar Grajales had come to Malaysia to prove a point.
"Well, I was just about to come around and ask you myself," says Beamon with a friendly smile.
"Sweet bro," I say. "See you 10 minutes before the start. I'm off to get a cup of kawfee and some noodles."
"Sweet bro," Beamon replies. (We're not really brothers, in case anyone's asking.)
It's unfortunate the tour entourage didn't get to spend more time in here. A seaside town with a industrial feel, the people of Lamut were particularly friendly, and really seemed to embrace a stage of the Tour de Langkawi being hosted in their home town.
15 minutes before the race begins, I caught up with the team's GC rider, Colombian mountain goat Grajales.
CN: So Cesar, what's the game plan today? Is it simply to stay cool till the bottom of the climb?
CG: Yeah, that's the idea, just to have some of the other riders on the team watching the movements and just be careful when the climb starts, watching the riders [high] on GC.
CN: You know now who the riders are to watch - does that make things easier for you?
CG: Oh yeah; the first stage was good and there are now 24 riders [capable of] going for GC, and everybody knows Cox and the Selle Italia riders are the main riders to watch.
CN: You must have been really happy to have made the break on the first day, because you had a difficult race last year, where you were tipped as one of the favourites?
CG: Oh yeah [Cesar likes saying that :)]. Last year, it took me six days to come to Malaysia because I had a lot of problems [with my visa] coming from Colombia. This year, I've tried to do everything very carefully; I think I've prepared better this race, but we'll see.
CN: So you still spend a lot of time in Colombia, then?
CG: Just during the winter when it gets cold in the States. Where I live is perfect, at 2000 metres altitude; I can ride my road bike to 4,000 metres altitude, and I can also go very low to 600 metres, so a perfect place for training. Maybe a little bit hard, though, because everything is going up or down. After this race, I go to the States to do the rest of the season.
CN: Whereabouts do you live when in Colombia, and what about in the States?
CG: It's in the middle [of the country], right where the coffee plantations are in Colombia. In the States, I live in Athens, Georgia, a little town about one hour's drive from Altanta. I like it also; it's a fun place to live.
CN: And the next race for you guys is the Tour of California?
CG: Well, I don't know if I'm going to the Tour of California or if I'm in the team yet. I think I'll be racing the Settimana [Ciclistica Internazionale] in Italy, though.
CN: Finally, what can you expect from yourself in this year's race, or what would you like to achieve?
CG: If I can get on the podium this year, I'd just be so happy. But it really depends on today and the fifth stage [to Genting Highlands].
I wish the affable Colombian well, and he rolls to the start.
Eddy B turns the key to his Proton team car and revs the V6 engine. "C'mon Beamon, doo iiit!" I want to say, only for the sake of using a slightly modified line out of one of my favourite Arnold Schwarznegger flicks. But I chicken out and refrain from unleashing my poor humour on yet another unsuspecting victim.
And they're off from the port of Lamut! So are we.
Race radio comes in: "One non starter today: Yevgeniy Yakalov of Equipe Asia." That makes the peloton 117 riders strong. With a tortuous 50 kilometres of climbing ahead of us, we're sure to lose a few more by the end of the day.
10:48 km 0
The official stage starts, and already Beamon is on the two-way radio to his boys:
"[David] George is already looking antsy, so you want to make sure you're at the front right from the get-go."
He gets confirmation back from one of the his riders. Sounds like their team captain out on the road, Burke Swindlehurst. "He's the guy keeping everybody on plan," says Beamon.
The riders waste no time in getting the race going - the peloton's strung out single file, motoring along at over 50 clicks an hour.
Beamon's on le radio again: "Hey guys, remember the first sprint's at 12.8k, and the race is almost certainly going to be controlled by the Germans [Wiesenhof], so you want to be paying attention to them and any attacks."
11:04 Pekan Damai, km 12.8
We approach the sprint in Pekan Damai. "Watch the counter after the sprint, watch the counter after the sprint," Beamon repeats.
The results of the first sprint come through. Sprint leader Steffen Radochla takes it, so no surprises there; it looks as if Panaria aren't interested in this classification and are going for stage wins, so all the better for Wiesenhof.
The counters don't come, so I take a bit of time to catch up on the first two days with the team manager who sits next to me.
CN: Ed, you must have been pretty happy to see two of your strongest riders in this year's race make the break on the first day?
EB: Yeah, that was a pretty unexpected bonus. Ironically, we sort of talked about the crazy possibility of something like that happening, and I think that had both of those guys really focused.
We talked about the probability of a field sprint, but we also talked about the presumption of a field sprint being a potentially dangerous scenario. Cesar was the one that did the great read. when he saw Cox and the Colombian champ [Walter Pedraza] go - he just made it absolutely certain that he'd be there. What a bonus... it just took so many dangerous guys out of this year's race - potentially - and it now means he can really focus on Cox and George as the two most dangerous guys.
Midway through our convo, Swindlehurst flats. The other Navigators car is there in a jiffy to give him a wheel change, but Beamon drops back to make sure their captain's okay and paces him back up through the convoy.
"I'm going to pop the trunk," says Beamon. "Just nod your head if you're okay with that." Burke nods. Now that's clever thinking - an open boot lid will certainly provide a better draft.
Swindlehurst's having a tough time getting back on. "Oleg, I'd like you to drop back to help Burke get back on," says Beamon.
The Russian dutifully drops out of the peloton, and paces his team-mate back into the fold. "Good job, guys," Ed says.
With calm restored in the Navigators camp, I resume my conversation with Beamon.
CN: Today's perhaps not the key stage, but it's one you need to keep your eyes open for, isn't it?
EB: I would think that this is sort of the preamble to the definitive stage. You would expect that all the key players will be sorted at the end of today's stage. And also I think it's a dangerous opportunity for [Julio Alberto] Perez [Ceramica Panaria-Navigare], [Jose] Serpa [Selle Italia Diquigiovanni] and some of the Iranian guys that missed that first stage to potentially launch early and cut back into that deficit, so I think that's a scenario that we have to be careful of.
11:45 Feed zone, km 29.8
The calm didn't last long - a break goes out of the feed zone with apparently four South Africans (!), including GC contender David George.
"Guys, if you're in the field, pay attention to Relax, pay attention to the red guys - I think they might have missed this entirely," says the Navigators DS.
Sure enough, the Relax guys start hitting off the front. "Guys, if you're in the field and you're not following a red jersey, you're doing something wrong right now," comes a stern voice.
Mark Walters, one of the two Navigators riders in the opening stage's break, is in the move, along with Oleg Grishkine. Instructs Beamon: "Mark, you're doing nothing up there - there's four South Africans, so if it goes, it goes, but don't help 'em."
12:10 Approaching third sprint, km 59.8
The lead group gain a maximum lead of around a minute and a half, but with Relax all missing the move, the gap is being kept in check by the Spanish team, with four of their six riders setting a solid tempo up front.
CN: Ed, is this a dangerous move, or are the South Africans playing their cards a little too early?
EB: It's a dangerous move for us... Y'know, I think it's a good play from them, because we sort of anticipated that they would use George to set up the stage for them - it's kind of the advantage having two dangerous guys. I am a little surprised they put him out as early as they did, but to have four guys in a move like this is pretty convenient; worst case scenario is that Cox has something to ride to on that climb.
As the peloton begins a gradual ascent, around 70 km from the finish, the break still have roughly a minute's lead.
Race radio tell us the break is beginning to fragment. So is the peloton, as Beamon leans out to window to offer a few words of encouragement to one of their first dropped riders, Shawn Milne: "Shawn, you just want to find your rhythm - a little gruppetto will form eventually," he says.
CN: Cesar was saying this morning he's not sure whether he's going to the Tour of California, so when will you decide the team?
EB: Most of the team's already selected; we've got one spot now that we're going to decide on basically after this, depending on who comes out of this with good form and not too steamed from it. Cesar would be a good guy; the race is actually a little more climbing selective than originally proposed - it's not a pure climber's race, but I think the race would lend itself well to a guy like Cesar.
Race radio tells us a lead group of 10 riders has formed - numbers are: 3, 114, 46, 5, 122, 15, 55, 76, 131, 193. Looking at the rider list, that's David George and Darren Lill (South Africa), Edward Clancy (Great Britain), Saul Raisin (Credit Agricole), Gene Bates (LPR), Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia Diquigiovanni), Sergiy Matveyev (Ceramica Panaria-Navigare), Mark Walters (Navigators Insurance), Gregory Habeaux (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), and Shinichi Fukushima (Japan). Their advantage is over the two-minute mark.
There's roughly 60 kilometres to go for the lead group, who now have an advantage approaching five minutes. There's no reaction back in the peloton, where we're currently sitting, and South African champion Ryan Cox looks agitated, not attacking, but repeatedly getting out of the saddle, dancing on the pedals.
"This is insane, man!" says Beamon. "We've still got 50k to go and most of it's climbing. I'm perfectly happy in the car today," he jokes.
So am I. We open a packet of sponge cakes. I'd prefer some cheesy-poofs, but who's complaining?
The peloton's shape changes. "It's game on," Beamon informs his lads.
Burke Swindlehurst's on a pretty good day and looking after Nav's main man Cesar Grajales well, giving him plenty of fluids on this hot, hot day in the tropics. Soon after, he peels out of the peloton for the day, a job well done.
13:48 km 116
The South Africans continue the tempo in the lead group, also aided by Gabriele Massaglia (Selle Italia Diquigiovanni) and Geraint Thomas (Great Britain). Violent headwind sections on this exposed climb continue to scatter the peloton, and three Credit Agricole riders - Francesco Bellotti, Saul Raisin and Benoit Poilvet force a definitive split that includes favourites Cox, Matveyev and Grajales plus 10 more.
"Disappear again," Beamon tells Grajales. "Everyone knows you're the marked man, so disappear for a while."
14:28 Kg. Raja, km 122.3
Shortly after the first KOM, a series of violent attacks from the first chase group that includes Grajales splits the bunch again, this time comprised of just eight riders and the notable exception being defending champion Ryan Cox.
With just over 15 kilometres to go, their gap to the lead group is under the two minute mark.
14:33 Brinchang, km 141
It's all happening: the lead group is now down to six riders - Darren Lill and David George (South Africa), Gabriele Missaglia (Selle Italia Diquigiovanni), Saul Raisin (Credit Agricole), Massimo Iannetti (LPR) and David McCann (Giant-Asia) - but Iannetti and McCann are dropped almost immediately after the previous announcement.
"Okay, we're five k from the KOM," comes the call from Beamon. "Mark, you've got to keep a steady rhythm and recover as best as you can, because at some point you can expect Cesar to come across to you."
14:58 Finish - Kraftangan Brinchang, km 150.6
Unfortunately for Beamon, Walters' tank was running on empty by the time the first chase group came past a few kilometres before the top of the climb, and went straight past him. However, Grajales and his eight companions limited their losses to eventual winner Saul Raisin by 2 minutes and 16 seconds, elevating the Colombian to third overall behind George and Massaglia.
"A good day?" I ask Beamon as we're directed to the parking area at the finish.
"Hmm, yeah, not bad," he says, in two minds about the day's events. "It would have been good if Mark could have helped Cesar limit his losses to around a minute, but he's not in top form at the moment."
Suddenly, though, his tone changes: "Still, he's in there with a chance," Beamon says optimistically.
Showing that race ain't over till the fat lady sings, with Cesar Grajales set to realise his dream of a podium finish six days from now.