By Jean-Francois Quénet
For the first time since 1998, an Australian team will feature in Le Tour de Langkawi from February 2-11, in the form of a promising bunch from the SouthAustralia.com-AIS continental team, which is sponsored by Mapei, a name synonymous with cycling.
With the inclusion of the start list of Southaustralia.com-AIS, Le Tour de Langkawi goes back to its roots, since the early success of the Malaysian event had been set internationally by Australian riders and the Singapore-based Italian chemical brand Mapei, whose name appeared on the team of the 1990s which raised the level of the Tour back then.
Australia produced the first winner ever of Le Tour de Langkawi with Damian McDonald in 1996, the first sprinting star in the record books being Jay Sweet who later became a Tour de France rider and a Commonwealth Games champion, beating Malaysia's Nor Effandy Rosli in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
It was also 11 years ago, in 1996 the year of the inaugural Le Tour de Langkawi, that the winning team Giant was the first internationally recognised professional cycling team from Australia. It wasn’t a private business. The squad was backed by the government and founded by the famous Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
Although road cycling wasn’t really existing Down Under 15 years ago, apart from the presence in Europe of pioneers such as Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper, Neil Stephens and Scott Sunderland, the AIS has produced many champions since. The likes of Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady, Henk Vogels, Bradley McGee, Baden Cooke and Cadel Evans, just to name a few, have all come from the different cycling sections (road, track, MTB) of the AIS.
Under the name of Southaustralia.com-AIS, Australia makes its return to Le Tour de Langkawi with riders in their development program for the first time since 1998. This squad has raced in the Tour Down Under and now Le Tour de Langkawi will be their final race before heading to Europe where they will set up base for the whole season.
"We didn’t want to come back until we had the team capable of doing it well," coach Brian Stephens explained. "This year, our young guys have the level for getting results in Malaysia. Having done the Tour Down Under, they are in good shape for Le Tour de Langkawi. We also want to give them more exposure by racing against the ProTour teams. For that reason we are happy to come back."
Southaustralia.com-AIS will be led by Gene Bates, who came close to winning a stage in Tampin last year while he rode for Italian team LPR, but he came second in the sprint behind his breakaway companion Laurent Mangel from AG2R. It will be interesting to see the spectacular improvement of the recently crowned U23 Australian champion Wesley Sulzberger. "Our sprinter will be Nic Sanderson," Stephens announced.
Sanderson, a silver medalist at the World Junior Championships in Zolder, Belgium, in 2002, has shared the experience of racing with Malaysian Ng Yong Li in the under-23 team of Liberty Seguros in Spain in 2005. "We spent three months together and became good friends," Sanderson said. "I was impressed to see how much he improved during that time. He lost a lot of weight as well. I’ll be happy to see him in the same bunch again at Le Tour de Langkawi." Southaustralia.com/AIS line up for Le Tour de Langkawi (Feb. 2-11): Gene Bates, Jonathan Clarke, William Ford, Shaun Higgerson, Nic Sanderson and Wesley Sulzberger (all Australians).