By Shane Stokes
A year after it won a staggering seven out of the ten stages in the race, the return of the Ceramica Panaria-Navigare team has been confirmed for the 2006 Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi.
With Australian fastman Graeme Brown now a member of the Rabobank team, the responsibility of leading the orange-clad squad in the sprints will pass to the Argentinean rider Guillermo Ruben Bongiorno. The 27 year old won stages two and six last time round, finished second to teammate Brown on two other legs of the race and placed third in the final points classification. The performance proved to be something of a breakthrough for him, with Bongiorno returning north and going on to take his first European wins with a succession of good victories. He topped the podium on stages of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, Settimana Lombarda, Brixia Tour, Regio Tour and in both the GP Citta Di Misano Adriatico-Integra S plus the Giro della Prov. Reggio-Calabria.
Bongiorno's bid to take up where Brown left off will be enhanced by a strong leadout team. Italians Mirko Allegrini, Matteo Priamo and Maximiliano Richeze plus the Ukrainian Sergiy Matveyev will do what they can to help the Argentinean fastman shine on the flatter stages of the race.
First Cartel managing director Imran Abdullah welcomed the news and saluted the team's performance last time round, particularly the showing by Graeme Brown in winning five stages. "We are proud to have been associated with the rise in Brown's career," he said. "He's another rider who's moved on to better things and earned a big contract with Rabobank, after establishing himself with some astonishing records in the Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi."
"Now, I think it will be time for Bongiorno to move out of Brown's shadow and take his place as the team's top sprinter. It will be interesting to see how this Argentine, who is his country's top professional, fits into this new role.
"I for one, will expect to see Bongiorno right up there, challenging for wins in every sprint stage finish."
The Ceramica Panaria-Navigare team are however looking beyond the bunch gallops. Mindful that the hilly nature of this year's race is going to play a crucial part in determining the overall classification, the squad will head to Malaysia with another string to its bow.
Mexican climber Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio finished an excellent third behind Ryan Cox (Team Barloworld) and José Rujano (Colombia Selle Italia) at the top of the sadistic climb of Genting Highlands last February. The then-26 year old lost time on the flatter stages of the race but, confidence boosted by his overall win in the 2005 Tour de Trentin plus the tougher profile of this year's Tour de Langkawi, he should feature amongst the list of favourites when the 2.HC race gets underway in on February 3rd.
Mirko Allegrini, Guillermo Bongiorno, Sergiy Matveyev, Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio, Matteo Priamo, Maximiliano Richeze; Reserves: Fortunato Baliani, Luis Felipe Laverde, Aitor Galdos; Team manager: Roberto Reverberi.