By Shane Stokes
2005 race winner Ryan Cox will attempt to retain his Telekom Malaysia Tour de Lankgawi crown when he spearheads a determined South African team in the Asian event, which begins on February 3 in Kuala Lumpur.
The 26 year old double national road race champion will be backed by riders who have previously competed with him in the colours of Team Barloworld, namely David George, Rodney Green, Darren Lill and Jeremy Maartens. Konica Minolta’s Jacques Fullard completes the national lineup.
Cox has a fine history in the race, finishing second to Freddy Gonzalez in 2004 and then taking a stage win plus the overall classification twelve months ago. George was third in 2002 plus eighth in both the 2003 and 2004 editions, so he too has strong experience of competing in the 2.HC ranked event.
Cox’s participation in the colours of the South African team comes after a change of management in the Barloworld team, with whom he won the race last year.
Race organisers First Cartel Sdn. Bhd. are expecting big things from the squad. "South Africa always come well prepared," said managing director Imran Abdullah. "You can see that in their results of the past five years. This is basically the Barloworld team, beefed up by Fullard, who is one of Konica Minolta's top riders. So, I won't be surprised to see them challenging for top honours."
He feels that the presence of Giro del Capo winner Lill is also relevant. "It just makes South Africa even more dangerous," he continues. "You've got the likes of Cox and George, big riders who are hungry for wins, then you've got young gun Lill, who will be determined to prove himself on the big stage. I think you might see their riders atop one or two podiums this year."
Also announced for the Malaysian tour are the ProTour AG2R Prévoyance squad. Tour de l’Ain victor and Tour de l’Avenir stage winner Carl Naibo is down to ride, as are the Estonian Erki Putstep and the Lithuanian Tomas Vaitkus, both of whom have been their countries’ national champions. Julien Loubet took the French under 23 title in 2005 and will be hoping to perform well in the Malaysian heat, as will Laurent Mangel and Renaud Dion.
"We know what Ag2r are capable of," said Abdullah. "Although it is early in the season, I expect Ag2r to put in a strong challenge for honours in the Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi."
Already confirmed are the Colombia Selle Italia team of Jose Rujano, a Credit Agricole squad fronted by up and coming US rider Saul Raisin and Bouygues Telecom. The latter is due to be led by Sebastien Chavanel in the race.
The 10-stage Tour de Langkawi runs from February 3rd until 12th and this year will be 1,161.7 kilometres in length.