A little under one month ago, Terengganu signed former Katusha and Gazprom rider Artem Ovechkin to its books for 2018. The signing instantly paid off for the team as the 31-year-old fended off three aggressive days of racing to arrive in Kuala Lumpur as the overall winner of the Tour de Langkawi. The victory is the first for a Malaysian team in the 23 editions of the 2.HC race.
"To win this race with a Malaysian team is the pinnacle. It is awesome," sports director Jeremy Hunt told Cyclingnews at the final podium celebrations in Kuala Lumpur.
Ovechkin, who served a doping ban in 2013, impressed the team with victory at the Tour of Antalya in February and was signed up off the back of the result. Hunt explained to Cyclingnews that the challenge was then to replicate his Turkey victory in Malaysia.
Ovechkin rode into yellow with a win at Cameron Highlands on stage 5, with his 32-second buffer over Benjamin Dyball (St George) on GC all but ensuring his win. The team had yet to plan for such an occasion and suddenly found themselves in uncharted waters. A chaotic stage 7, which saw a major reshuffle of the GC, threatened Ovechkin’s lead but he still finished with the yellow on shoulders - even if Lukasz Owsian (CCC Sprandi Polkowice) had moved into second place at 28 seconds.
On the final stage, Ovechkin and TSG were again put under pressure but weathered the storm to pull off a historic victory in what will surely become a milestone in Malaysian road cycling. Hunt's plan held the WorldTour and Pro Continental teams at bay for an against-the-odds victory.
"We are lucky that we had guys who were going to lose third place and stuff like this, so they came and helped us out. At the same time, we knew what was going to happen but it is always stressful," added Hunt of the day, which saw Arturo Sierra and Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier become virtual race leaders during the stage.
Founded in 2011, TSG has always had strong sprinting stocks, but in the last 24 months they have moved to create a squad that can challenge for the general classification in Asia Tour races. The new approach to recruitment, such as signing Drew Morey and Metkel Eyob, has assisted TSG to plan and deliver on its aspiration of a Langkawi victory.
"Slowly, we have got better and better climbers. Last year, we had Drew and then this year we managed to get three with Artem, Metkel and Drew," said Hunt. "It enables us to ride GC in races, and because all three are strong it gives you more options."
At the conclusion of the race, the TSG riders and team were feted by an enthusiastic crowd, who also could only previously dream of a Malaysian team enjoying such success. As for what the trickle-down effects will be of the win and possibility of a Malaysian winning the race, Hunt suggested that reality is still some way off. A stage win to match that of Anuar Manan in 2010 is the more likely short-term outcome.
"It will be a long process; next generation sort of thing. I can already see the climbers and sprinters coming through. For sure a Malaysian rider can win a stage but the GC that is going to be next generation," said Hunt. "Aiman Mohd Zariff who is at Sapura now and was at TSG last year is the best climber that I have seen in Malaysia."
For team manager Denny Feng, the focus at Terengganu is not simply on Malaysian cycling. As he explained to Cyclingnews the ambition is "to assemble the best possible team". However, there is a commitment from Feng to develop young talent at Terengganu, a balance of Malaysian and international riders like they had in Langkawi.
With a long-term future likely locked in after the win, the Terengganu team was soaking in the historic moment Sunday afternoon. However, the team won't rest on its laurels and with the taste of victory, Hunt explains they are hungry for more and sustained success.
"The pressure is on and we have to go well in the Asia Tour. At the same time, we have managed to win this race and that makes things a lot easier," said Hunt. "We want to be the best team in Asia to start with and then if we can achieve that we will make some new goals. At the moment, we want to be the best team in Asia.”