To borrow from the old bus cliché, such is the nature of the cycling calendar that you can go a couple of weeks without seeing a race and the next thing you know three turn up at once. Having two WorldTour races – Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico – running concurrently is a significant enough clash in itself but in Asia a third stage race, starting Sunday, is vying for attention – the Tour de Langkawi.
It may not boast the marquee names of its European counterparts but there’s plenty of anticipation nonetheless, particularly since Team Sky have decided to make a debut here, joining fellow WorldTour outfits Astana, Tinkoff-Saxo and Orica-GreenEdge.
The race has traditionally been a good proving ground for up-and-coming talent and this year looks set to be no exception. The 21-year-old Sebastián Henao will lead Team Sky and will be challenged in the GC by the likes of Miguel Angel López (Astana), the reigning Tour de l’Avenir champion, and 20-year-old Merhawi Kudus (MTN-Qhubeka), who was second here last year.
Rising sprint star Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) will look to build on the two victories he has to his name this year, while 20-year-old Jakub Mareckzo (Southeast) has the chance to enhance his burgeoning reputation. The man they’ll be looking to outpace can is hardly an old-timer; 25-year-old Andrea Guardini (Astana) has won a record 14 stages at the race.
With such a raft of young talent looking to make an impact on the race, it seemed slightly incongruous to see the figure of 41-year-old Alessandro Petacchi (Southest) at the pre-race press conference sitting next to riders literally half his age. Indeed Ewan remembers seeing the Italian in his pomp. “The first Tour de France that I really took notice of, I think he won five stages in 2003. It’s pretty funny - if you told me I’d be racing with him in 12 years’ time I probably wouldn’t have believed you.”
But Petacchi’s presence was perfectly fitting; he won his first professional race at the Tour de Langkawi back in 1998. 183 wins have followed but the sprinter probably won’t be adding to his tally here, working instead as a lead-out man for Mareckzo.
“I have experience, this is my 20th year as a pro, and my experience is important for Mareckzo,” said Petacchi. “A win here can be the same for these guys as it was for me but the level here is much higher now, with four WorldTour teams.”
The race may take its name from the archipelago that lies off the north west of Malaysia, but it’s a misleading one. From the second stage onwards the riders are on the mainland, with two stages in the north of Peninsular Malaysia before two that shoot them down the east coast. Then it’s inland and over to the west where the race finishes in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The big news as far as the route is concerned is the decision to move the finish of the penultimate stage from Genting Highlands to Fraser’s Hill, officially due to safety concerns arising from the heavy machinery and construction work there.
The climb to the Genting Highlands has become a marquee feature of the Malaysian race, serving up high-mountain drama in generally sprint-orientated affair. In its traditional place on the penultimate day it has often been decisive in terms of the general classification. Fraser’s hill is shorter and gentler and won’t force such a selection.
It is a move that alters the complexion of the race considerably, giving all-rounders a chance and scuppering the designs of the pure climbers. The trade-off for losing the drama on Genting, according to technical director Geoff Kronenburg, is that we’ll see much more open racing as far as GC is concerned on the other days.