A star rider in Malaysia, Italian sprinter Andrea Guardini (Bardiani-CSF) will be back hunting for a 25th victory – and more – at the 24th Tour de Langkawi, from April 6 to 13, on a course from the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur, to the paradisiacal island of Langkawi. The iconic climb of Genting Highlands returns to the route, too, after a four-year hiatus due to roadworks.
Usually held between the end of January and March, depending on the dates of Chinese New Year, the Tour de Langkawi has never taken place so late in the season. Initially scheduled at the end of March, the race was postponed to avoid clashing with the LIMA air show in Langkawi.
This year, the event returns to its roots due to political changes in the Southeast Asian country. On May 10 last year, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, returned to power after winning the general election against his former party. At the age of 93, he's the world's oldest leader. He was the founder of the Tour de Langkawi after he accidently discovered the Tour de France on a trip to Europe.
The first edition took place in 1996 with a start and finish on the island where he spent his honeymoon and served as a doctor in the army after completing his studies. Once a cursed territory because of a local legend, Langkawi became Malaysia's primary holiday destination, with the international bike race – as well as the LIMA air show – becoming an important tool in tourism promotion.
The history of the Tour de Langkawi features the names of Paolo Bettini, Thomas Voeckler, Floyd Landis, Rob Hayles, Andrea Tafi, Levi Leipheimer, Alessandro Petacchi, Jens Voigt, Gianni Bugno, Rinaldo Nocentini, Robbie Hunter, Stuart O'Grady, Tom Danielson, Jose Rujano, Jose Serpa, Mark Cavendish, Anthony Charteau, Richie Porte, Michael Matthews, Marcel Kittel, David Zabriskie, Bryan Coquard and, more recently, Steven Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves, Caleb Ewan, Egan Bernal and Miguel Angel Lopez.
Many top riders have kept fond memories of racing on the hot and humid peninsula. Porte talks about the Tour de Langkawi as "the most enjoyable race" he has ever taken part in.
The 226 stages contested to date have a 60 per cent ratio of bunch-sprint finishes. This is where it all started for Guardini, who claimed five stage wins in Malaysia at his first pro race in 2011, while rival Kittel – also a neo pro at the time – took only one victory, but went on to have the more successful career after his Asian debut.
Guardini holds the race's record for stage wins, with 24 in seven participations – way ahead of Australia's Graeme Brown, with nine – and has only missed the race once since 2011, which was the year he rode for UAE Team Emirates, in 2017.
The Italian has 42 pro wins to his name, with the most high-profile victory being stage 17 of the 2012 Giro d'Italia. The Bardiani-CSF rider returned to winning form last month, when he claimed stage 3 of the Istrian Trophy in Croatia, and the Tour de Langkawi is now his big goal ahead of the Giro d'Italia.
Due to its late change of dates, the race hasn't attracted as many WorldTour and Pro Continental teams as usual, with only Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, Neri-Selle Italia-KTM, Bardiani-CSF and Gazprom-RusVelo from the top leagues. Matteo Pelucchi and Marco Benfatto (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec), Moreno Marchetti (Neri-Selle Italia-KTM), Travis McCabe (Floyd's Pro Cycling), Maris Bogdanovis (Interpro Cycling Academy) and Raymond Kreder (Ukyo) are set to challenge Guardini in the bunch sprint finishes.
The overall classification is likely to be determined by the result of stage 4, which marks the big return of the race to Genting Highlands. The mountain that hosts the Malaysian Las Vegas at an altitude of 1,865m was already on the route of the inaugural race in 1996. With the exception of 2008, it tended to be the race's highlight – until roadworks prevented the race from reaching the top from 2015 to 2018.
Since 2002, there have even been a few editions of the Tour de Langkawi that haven't visited the island, or have only held the teams presentation below the island's famous eagle statue of Dataran Lang.
The return of Genting Highlands and the race start at the bottom of the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur – another legacy of Dr. Mahathir's first period of leadership – indicate that the Tour de Langkawi is in revival mode.
Colombian stars Egan Bernal and Miguel Angel Lopez have perhaps missed out on winning Langkawi due to Genting Highlands having been missing from the menu in recent years, while Fraser Hill or Cameron Highlands featuring as the race's 'queen stage' has favoured African fast all-rounders for the overall victory in 2015, 2016 and 2017: Youcef Reguigui, Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg and Ryan Gibbons, all riding for Dimension Data.
The seventh and last South American winner was Colombian Julian Arredondo in 2013, and this year Costa Rica's Kevin Rivera (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) and Colombians Hernan Aguirre (Interpro Cycling Academy), Alvaro Duarte (Brunei Continental Team) and Mitchelton-BikeExchange's Bryan Chaves – the latter being Esteban's younger brother – will be up against the recently crowned Oceania road race and time trial champion Ben Dyball (Sapura), defending champion Artem Ovechkin (Terengganu TSG) and Tour of Fuzhou winner Ilya Davidenok (Shenzhen).
Stage 1: Kuala Lumpur to Tampin, 176.9km
Stage 2: Senawang to Melaka, 200km
Stage 3: Muar to Putrajaya, 192.9km
Stage 4: Shah Alam to Genting Highlands, 114.2km
Stage 5: Tanjung Malim to Taiping, 200.1km
Stage 6: Bagan to Alor Setar, 130.8km
Stage 7: Langkawi round island/Pantai Cenang, 106.8km
Stage 8: Dataran Lang to Kuah, 103.8km