By Jean-François Quénet in Kuala Lumpur
Venezuela-registered team Diquigiovanni-Androni is again the hot favourite in Le Tour de Langkawi (February 9-15). The race's decisive stage is considered the Genting Highland stage 5 on February 13. Diquigiovanni's José Serpa won that stage twice, in 2006 and 2007, making him the big favourite for the 2009 overall title.
"But we have a major problem," team manager Gianni Savio explained. "As defending champions, we have the first numbers on the start list, and that means everybody will watch us. The question for us is: how to control the race? With a six-man team, it's not an easy task, and many of our rivals are highly motivated to beat us. It will be very difficult. Even though the Genting stage suits the characteristics of our riders, before that there will be breakaways, counter attacks, etc."
Previously known as Colombia-Selle Italia, Savio's team is almost unbeaten at the City of Entertainment. Only in 2005 Venezuelan climber José Rujano missed the stage win by a few centimetres. That win was taken by the late Ryan Cox from South Africa. Colombians Hernan Dario Munoz, Ruber Marin and José Serpa have captured five trophies out of the six most recent Genting Highlands uphill finishes. The climb also helped their compatriot Freddy Gonzalez to claim the overall win in 2004.
"Of course, for us, the return to Genting is something positive," Savio said. "This is the queen stage of Le Tour de Langkawi. The race is identified world-wide because of this high altitude stage finish. We like Genting but not only for technical reasons. It's obvious that it suits our South American climbers, but we won the race last year - both team and individual overall classifications [with Ruslan Ivanov from Moldova, - ed.] - without Genting on the course. And we lost the race two years ago [to Frenchman Anthony Charteau, - ed.] with Genting on the course."
Serpa is on form after winning stage four in last week's seven-day Tour of San Luis in Argentina, in which he placed third on GC ahead of Andriy Grivko (fourth) and Ivan Basso (fifth). Savio enjoyed seeing his two Venezuelans, Carlos Ochoa and Jackson Rodriguez, finish seventh and 10th, respectively. The same South American trio will combine forces at Langkawi with the help of three Italians, Manuel Belletti, Luca Celli and Mattia Gavazzi.
The latter is the team's sprinter. Last week, the Italian Gavazzi started his season with a win in stage one of the Tour of San Luis in Argentina. "Gavazzi has got a great capacity for accelerating in the finale," Savio said. "Normally I would have lined up Alberto Loddo again in Langkawi, but he was diagnosed with two kidney stones. He's fine now but he couldn't train properly, so Gavazzi is his replacement." Loddo has been the most successful sprinter at Le Tour de Langkawi in the past two years with six stage wins - five in 2007 with Diquigiovanni, one in 2008 with Tinkoff, prior to returning to Savio's team.