As Harrif Salleh was presented on stage after finishing third of stage 4 at the UCI 2.HC Le Tour de Langkawi in Muar behind sprint aces Andrea Guardini and Jacobe Keough, the Malaysian continental team backed by the state of Terengganu reached their first goal in the country's most important race.
"We knew that Harrif had the potential for such a good result but we had to help him build his confidence and get rid of his inferiority complex towards [Malaysia's cycling super star] Anuar Manan," explained newly-appointed French coach, Sébastien Duclos.
The Terengganu team didn't replace Manan after his transfer to ProContinental outfit Champion System but made a smart move in hiring a world class coach to begin the second season of its existence. Duclos has earned respect in the industry for being an assistant of head coach Michel Thèze at the world cycling centre in Aigle, Switzerland. During his five years at the UCI, he worked with up and coming champions like track sprinter Guo Shang from China, Vuelta a Espana runner-up Chris Froome from Kenya (before he took up British citizenship), 2008 U23 world champion Fabio Duarte from Colombia and GreenEdge African recruit Daniel Teklehaimanot from Eritrea. He helped setting up the African continental centre of Potchefstroom in South Africa before being assigned by the UCI to Asian duties.
"Coaching Guo Shang at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha where she claimed two gold medals opened my eyes to the enormous potential of cycling in Asia," Duclos told Cyclingnews. As the Thai cycling federation asked Pat McQuaid to provide with a coach in order to prepare for the South East Asian Games in Laos in 2009, the UCI asked the Frenchman to take the temporary job but his tenure was extended after the two gold medals delivered by the women in road racing. "Thai cyclists improved quickly", Duclos noted. "It was fantastic for them to come back from the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou with two bronze medals. At the Asian championships, Thailand got four bronze medals in 2010 but fourteen medals including three gold medals in 2011."
Duclos' successes didn't remain unnoticed in Thailand's neighboring country of Malaysia. After a trial at the 2011 Tour of Korea, Terengganu cycling team attracted him on a one-year contract for 2012.
"Terengganu is the hot bed of Malaysian cycling like Brittany is to French cycling or the Basque Country to Spanish cycling," he explained. "Eighty per cent of Malaysian cyclists come from Terengganu, including the three most successful ones: Anuar Manan but also track stars Azizul Hasni Awang and Fatenah Mustapa. The state government is very supportive to cycling, which is one of the three most important sports for them."
For the first time in the Le Tour de Langkawi, which is backed by the Malaysian Ministry of Youth and Sport, a territory has put money (1 million ringgits) on the table to attract the grand finale of the race, previously held in the country's capital Kuala Lumpur since 1998, and it's the state of Terengganu on the East Coast of course.
"There are a lot of young guys who take up cycling," Duclos realized. "We want them to dream to enter the Terengganu cycling team. We'd like to incorporate two or three talented local boys every year. For now, there's not enough in depth to perform at international level without the addition of foreign riders. We need the experience of [Japanese veteran] Shinichi Fukushima who is our road captain [and courageously broke away in stage 3 and stage 4 of Le Tour de Langkawi back to back at the age of 40], and the input of two Korean riders, Jang Chan Jae and Do Hyeong Kim. They all live in Terengganu and have the capacity to bring UCI points to the team."
Ranked second of the whole continent by the UCI fictitious ranking published at the end of January, Terengganu has earned an automatic invitation to all category 1 and 2 races on the Asia Tour.
"It definitely makes our life easier for building a race program," Duclos said. "After Harrif's third place, our short term goal would be to win a stage at Le Tour de Langkawi and our season's goal is to finish in the top 3 of the Asia Tour. The state government seems to be prepared to allocate the budget for a ProContinental team in the coming years but we have to strengthen the team first. The high ambitions of Malaysia make it a great atmosphere for a coach to work. The enthusiasm for cycling in Terengganu is phenomenal but they need to learn the cycling culture to go higher."