By Shane Stokes
The race organisers of the Tour de Langkawi have taken a brave step with the 2008 edition of the race, moving the traditional - and always decisive - stage to the summit finish of Genting Highlands to the second day of competition.
The wall-like climb normally features close to the end of the Malaysian tour, setting things up for a suspenseful finale but also potentially blunting early-race aggression by the big favourites. The aim of moving the stage far closer to the start of the race is clearly to provoke more open racing in the subsequent stages. In order to ensure that the final outcome remains unknown for as long as possible, the traditional last-day criterium has been replaced by an undulating road stage to Kuala Lumpur which includes two third category and one second category climbs.
The 1,381.5 kilometre event begins in the north of the mainland on February 9. The opening stage takes the riders along mainly flat roads from Alor Star to Kulim, venue for the second stage finish in 2007.
A bunch finish is the most likely outcome but if a sprinter holds the first yellow jersey of the race, he will know that his time at the top of the leaderboard is limited. Stage two is the shortest of the 2.HC ranked tour but arguably the hardest; the 125.4 kilometre stage begins near the guava orchards of Tapah and passes the World War II battlefield at Slim River before heading for the high mountains.
The Hors Categorie climb of Genting Highlands will be on view from a long way out and once onto the steep ramps near the bottom, the peloton will fragment into many pieces as the lightweight climbers do their thing. Time gaps at the top will be considerable, upending the general classification and ruling many out of contention for the final victory.
A number of stages then follow which seem destined for sprint finishes or, perhaps, a small breakaway. Day three is the longest, taking the riders 195 kilometres from Lanchang to Cukai and passing over some undulating terrain en route to the finish.
Stage four is the second-shortest at 128 kilometres and skirts the coastal roads in the east en route to the finish at Kuala Rompin. The roads are mainly flat and a bunch gallop is once again the most likely outcome. Day five extends further along the coast, the 185.7 kilometre route from Kuala Rompin to Bandar Penawar being the first of three located in the province of Johor, and passing tropical forest reserves en route to the finish near Singapore.
The 183.2 kilometre sixth stage starts in Bandar Penawar, home to one of Malaysia's elite sports schools, and later crosses a Category Four climb just before Ulu Tiram. The mixture of flat and hilly terrain will take the riders towards a finish in Johor Baru, which last appeared in the race in 2004.
The same city is also the venue for the start of stage seven, a 128 kilometre leg to Batu Pahat. This features just one category four climb but the short distance is likely to result in some very fast racing en route to the finish.
A transfer then follows to Melaka, the start venue for the penultimate stage of the race. The route crosses a second category climb during the 150 kilometre distance to the finish in Seremban, providing a springboard for attacks on the yellow jersey.
However the final day seems a tougher prospect, with two third category and one second cat climbs dotted along the 153.8 kilometre ride to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The race will conclude with three circuits in Kuala Lumpur before the final gallop to the line at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Building in Dataran Merdeka.
A record total of 25 teams have been forecast for the 2008 tour. Five of these will be ProTour outfits, while 10 others will come from Asia. The identities of the teams and riders will be revealed closer to the race.
13th Tour de Langkawi (2.HC), Malaysia, February 9-17, 2008
Stage 1 - February 9: Alor Star - Kulim, 132.4 km
Stage 2 - February 10: Tapah - Genting Highlands, 125.4km
Stage 3 - February 11: Lanchang - Cukai, 195 km
Stage 4 - February 12: Kuantan - Kuala Rompin, 128 km
Stage 5 - February 13: Kuala Rompin - Bandar Penawar, 185.7 km
Stage 6 - February 14: Bandar Penawar - Johor Baru, 183.2 km
Stage 7 - February 15: Johor Baru - Batu Pahat, 128 km
Stage 8 - February 16: Melaka - Seremban, 150 km
Stage 9 - February 17: Seremban - Kuala Lumpur, 153.8 km