The 17th edition of the Tour de Langkawi – which never actually visited the island of Langkawi itself – marked my first race of the year and my first time to Malaysia. Malaysia's tagline of being "Truly Asia" left a lot to the imagination, but I was pleasantly surprised with how western, or even American the country seemed. Waking up in our big hotel rooms, and eating in the large dining halls, this race could've easily been mistaken for any race in the U.S. The roads followed down that same path, smooth and wide-open. A fine way to ease into the year, versus racing on the overly congested roads that I grew accustomed to in Europe.
The level of the field in Malaysia was about a diverse as you can find. From WorldTour riders to guys that you'd think just jumped right off of the sidewalk and into the race. One constant thought running through my head was "how is it possible that some of these guys are so sketchy?" You know that every race – even their training rides at home – have been just as tricky or even more so, yet they are still horrible at handling their bikes. Doesn't practice make perfect? There are more than a few rides here that are evidence to the contrary.
I came out of the staring block with a surprisingly good 15th place in the opening time trial. I wasn't expecting to be that far up there at all, but I'll take it! It's always nice to consider the race a success after just the first day. The next few stages were far more controlled than I would have imagined. With small teams of just six riders, it's hard to predict and control a race. I think that more than a few riders were nervous about the heat and the many days ahead. Garmin-Barracuda also rode perfectly to keep Dave Zabriskie in the lead and set things up for the sprinters in stages 2-4.
The hills and mountains followed for the next two stages and the race switched hands from Garmin-Barracuda, to Drapac and finally found its home with Jose Serpa and his Androni Giocattoli team. I hated to see Dave lose the jersey, but he did so in a fine fashion. He certainly made good on the motto of "if you ain't first, you're last."
The sixth stage up Genting Highlands lived up to everything I had heard. If there is one part of the sport that is nearly impossible to replicate in training, it's sprinting for the first few kilometers of a twenty-kilometer climb and holding on for dear life. Genting Highlands starts with a u-turn after a 70-kph descent and shoots straight up into a double-digit grade. It just gets steeper as the top approaches over an hour later. With its unrelenting grades paired with the blazing heat and humidity, there's nothing else quite like it.
The race rounded out with more days for the sprinters, or I should say Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini). Guardini proved time and again that he rules the sprints in Malaysia. Our fast-man, Anuar Manan, gave it nudge a few of the days but always came up a bike length short. Anuar is from Malaysia and has been dubbed the "Asian Mark Cavendish." He is very quick and to sprint here in Langkawi, you have to be crafty, so I see a few similarities. I also can't seem to understand much of anything that either of them says. I'll leave the comparisons at that.
There is one other observation that I'd like to share; it's on an issue that is very important to me, course safety. Here in Malaysia the risks are as they should be, left up to the riders. There are a few obstructions that you must navigate from time to time, but for the most part the roads are free and clear of dangers. I realize that it's impossible to replicate this in the more crowed parts of the world, namely Europe, but here a marshal's whistle actually carries meaning. When you hear it, you pay attention and are alert; its sound is not lost in an endless succession. It's been refreshing to not have to worry so much about what we are charging into.
I couldn't be more satisfied with how I came out of the race. I began with the goal of just getting through the 10 stages, but I left knowing that I can still go as far as I want to in the sport. I felt a bit like my old self, and after almost a year of feeling useless, life on the bike couldn't be better. I'm also leaving with a fresh tan, but it's now time to re-adjust again to the freezing temperatures of Colorado until the next adventure.
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In his eighth professional season, American Craig Lewis is transitioning from four years in a support role at Highroad to more of a leadership position with the new Professional Continental squad Champion System. Riding for an Asian team will take Lewis to exotic places in the far reaches of the globe and back home again, and he will describe his adventures for our readers throughout the season.
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