The cycling world's attention is largely drawn to the Italian Riviera this week, but in Asia the Tour de Langkawi is the main attraction. The 2.HC race is into its 23rd edition and has again drawn a start list that includes Grand Tour stage winners and rising stars.
Initially scheduled for 10 stages over a sprint-friendly parcours, the 2018 Tour de Langkawi route has undergone a late change and will instead be run over eight days of racing. Before the racing gets underway, the team presentation will take place on Langkawi in Dataran Helang (Eagle Square), with stage 1 starting back on the mainland in Kangar.
Dimension Data, the only WorldTour team at the race in 2017, is joined by Astana this year as the top tier teams at the race, with a collection of Pro Continental, Continental and national teams completing the 2018 roster.
Starting in the north of the country in Kangar, a familiar location in the history of the race, the first stage finishes in Kulim. The Tour de Langkawi then tracks east with stage 2 from Gerik to Kota Bharu, the coastal city which also hosts the start of stage 3 across to Kuala Terengganu. From Kuala Terengganu, the host of last year's start, the race reaches its southernmost point on the east coast in Pekan before an inland transfer for the queen stage up Cameron Highlands.
Cameron Highlands is again expected to decide the overall, but with bonus seconds on all stages, victory could go to a consistent sprinter who can limit his losses on the climb. The 169.4km stage from Bentong is the only hilltop finish in the race.
The shortest stage of the race at just over 100km from Tapah to Tanjung Malim follows the day after Cameron Highlands. The longest stage of the race at 222.4km from Nilai to Muar is also the southernmost point of the race. The race concludes with a 141.1km leg from Rembau back north to the capital of Kuala Lumpur, with the champion to be crowned outside Dataran Merdeka.
Mekseb Debesay wins stage 4 to Cameron Highlands at the 2017 Tour de Langkawi. (Bettini Photo)
Riders to watch
Dimension Data will start the Tour de Langkawi as the team to beat, having won the race three years running with three different riders. Defending champion Ryan Gibbons is absent from the start list, but Dimension Data have assembled a team capable of winning stages and the overall.
Mekseb Debesay won the queen stage at Cameron Highlands last year, and his experience will be key in his bid for the win. Scott Davies, the only non-African in the team, and Nik Dlamini, a KOM contender, can also look to impress on Cameron Highlands for the defending champions.
While Dimension Data takes up the mantle as overall favourites, Andrea Guardini's focus is squarely on adding to his 22 previous stage wins at the race. He will start as the man to beat in the bunch sprints. The Italian is back in Malaysia with a new team, Bardiani-CSF, and will be looking to open his 2018 win account. Simply turning up won't be enough for "Mr Langkawi" to add to his tally with a strong and eclectic sprint field to line out at the race.
Marko Kump (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Scott Sunderland (Bennelong SwissWellness), Yevgeniy Gidich (Astana), Kaden Groves (St George), Juan Sebastian Molano (Manzana Postobon) and Jacob Hennessy (Mitchelton-BikeExchange) are some of the names to watch in the bunch sprints. For Malaysia, the duo of Anuar Manan (Forca Amskins) and Harrif Salleh (Terengganu) will carry the hopes of the home nation.
In the battle for the yellow jersey, there is likewise a number of riders who will be pushing hard for victory. With a number of quality riders on the start list, a top-10 finish is no certainty, particularly with the bonus seconds in play.
Along with the Dimension Data riders, Kevin Rivera and Luca Chirico of Androni-Sidermec-Bottecchia, Thomas Lebas (Kinan), Ariya Phounsavath (Thailand), Metkel Eyob (Terengganu), Michal Schlegel (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), and Dylan Sunderland (Bennelong SwissWellness) will be riders to watch in the battle for yellow.
The Tour de Langkawi may have a familiar look and feel in 2018, but the race has the potential to spring a few surprises, with the potential for a number of new riders to announce themselves on the international stage.
Cyclingnews will have race reports, results, photos and news from the 2018 Tour de Langkawi.