A glance over the favourites for the 2017 Tour de Langkawi reveals a start list divided into Italian sprinters and Colombian climbers. While the fast men have numerous opportunities to press their claims for stage success, the climbers will have to scrap over just the one stage up Cameron Highlands.
Egan Bernal, the eighth youngest rider in the race at 20, is one of those riders aiming for success on the stage 4 summit. The Colombian is into the second of his four-year deal with Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and makes his Asian racing debut this week at the eight-stage 2.HC event in Malaysia.
"My preparation for the race has gone pretty well. I have trained a lot ahead of the season, as I want to have a very good year," Bernal said via a translator at the pre-race press conference.
Asia's premier stage race is Bernal's second outing for the season after his ninth place and best young rider victory at last month's Vuelta a San Juan.
"The Tour de Langkawi seems to be a good race for me. I have already raced before in Argentina at the Vuelta a San Juan and I felt good. I want to do well here," said Bernal.
Prior to commencing his road career, the lithe climber displayed his potential on the dirt with silver and bronze in the junior men's mountain bike at the 2014 and 2015 world championships. In 2016, Bernal's first season on the road brought immediate success as he won the best young rider classifications at the Coppi e Bartali, Giro del Trentino and Tour of Slovenia. He also won the UCI 2.2 Tour of Bihor and finished fourth overall at the Tour de l'Avenir.
He is aiming to continue his upward trajectory in 2017, starting by adding his name to the list of Colombians to impress at the Tour de Langkawi.
"This is an important race for me. Many Colombians have done well here before and I want to do well also," he said.
Colombians have shined at the race since Hernán Darío Muñoz won the overall title in 2002. The following year Colombia–Selle Italia won the team classification. Fredy González continued Colombia's winning streak when he won the yellow jersey in 2004. A hiatus followed before José Serpa won the first of his two titles in 2009, doubling up in 2012. Julián Arredondo became the fourth Colombian winner in 2013.
Since Arredondo, Issac Bolivar finished on the podium in 2014, as did Sebastián Henao the following year. While Daniel Jaramillo and Miguel Ángel López were second and third respectively last year. Aware of his compatriot's success in Malaysia, Bernal expressed his desire to also make a mark on the race. However, he is aware the Tour de Langkawi won't make or break his season.
"We have a good team here with a lot of sprinters who can do well here on the flat stages, and my focus will be on the climber's stage, Cameron Highlands. I have been told it is not too difficult but if we climb rapidly, I can do something," he said.
"I am still very young. I don't have the experience yet to say 'I will win this race or that race'. I am here for learning first and my main goal for the season might well be the Tour de l’Avenir."