By Shane Stokes
With a week to go until the start of the 2006 Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi, it has been announced that Giro d'Italia climbing sensation Jose Rujano has withdrawn from the race. The Venezuelan finished a close second to Ryan Cox last year but is said to have suffered an injury while preparing for the Vuelta a Tachira.
His place on the Colombia Selle Italia team will be filled by Colombian climber Jose Serpa. Another change sees former Domina Vacanze sprinter Angelo Furlan replacing Alexander Giraldo. Furlan will team up with Alberto Loddo on the flatter stages, while 1998 TMLTdL winner Gabriele Missaglia, Wladimir Belli, Walter Pedraza and Serpa could show strongly in the mountains.
According to organizers First Cartel (M) Sdn Bhd, directeur sportif Gianni Savio's plans to replace Rujano with 2004 TMLTdL winner Freddy Gonzalez were foiled when the Colombian suffered a broken collarbone in a crash during the Vuelta a Tachira. However managing director Imran Abdullah is confident that Savio's men will continue their strong showing in the race.
"I believe that Gianni will have something up his sleeves," he said. "As was the case with an unknown Rujano in 2003, we still might see something similar in the shape of an unknown Pedraza. Then again, you've got seasoned campaigners like Missaglia, who is a proven leader, alongside an unpredictable Serpa. I think with two sprinters, they'll also stand a good chance to go for stage wins as well."
Rujano's absence boosts the chances for other GC contenders such as Cox, Panaria Navigare's Julio Alberto Perez Cuapio and Navigators Insurance's Cesar Grajales. The latter has been named to lead the US squad in the 2.HC ranked event and, provided he is on form, has the ability to win overall. Last year a strong ride on the Genting Highland stage saw Grajales place fifth and move up to his final finishing position of fourth in the general classification.
The Colombian returns to lead the cosmopolitan New Jersey-based team. He will be joined by riders such as Italian Siro Camponogara, fast-finishing Russian Oleg Grishkine, multiple Canadian national champion Mark Walters and American Burke Swindlehurst. The Irishman Ciarán Power is also listed to ride, although the double FBD Milk Rás winner was scheduled for surgery this month to correct a long-running nerve problem. Confirmation of that final place on the team is expected soon.
Abdullah feels that Navigators can surprise. "We've seen the likes of Saturn, who not only came here to put up a challenge, but won the yellow jersey through Tom Danielson in 2003. Now, we hope Navigators will be able to do the same. They were just unlucky last year. It was the first time they came here last year, and probably they weren't really sure what to expect. Still, they managed to place Grajales in the top five and Grishkine was almost able to break the dominance of Panaria in the flat stages."
Meanwhile, the national team for the Tour de Langkawi has been showing well in the Tour of Thailand. Young rider Fauzan Ahmad Lutfi was holding the Asian riders' jersey after three stages of the race.
The 10-stage Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi begins on February 3 and runs until February 12th.