By Jean-François Quénet in Kuala Lumpur
The Crédit Agricole team is set to return to Malaysia to defend its title in Le Tour de Langkawi, but without last year's winner Anthony Charteau. Although French teams have been regular participants in Le Tour de Langkawi since its inception on the world's cycling calendar in 1996, Charteau became the first French winner under the colours of Crédit Agricole in 2007.
The Frenchman was also the first member of a ProTour to take the crown of the Malaysian race, which used to suit South Americans and South Africans better due to the weather conditions and the different scales of motivation among the professional cyclists in the early part of the season.
Having moved to Caisse d'Epargne, Charteau himself will not return to Malaysia next month, neither will his main helper in the mountains last year, Italy's Francesco Bellotti, who finished second in the 2006 Tour de Langkawi and has since signed for Barloworld. However, Crédit Agricole, which has only missed one edition of the race since 2001, will once again approach the Tour de Langkawi (February 9 - 17) with high motivation; its team manager Roger Legeay is a strong supporter of globalisation of cycling. He does not see a problem in sending his team overseas, whether it's in Asia, Oceania (Tour Down Under), America (Tour of California) or Africa (Tour of Gabon).
"It's fabulous to travel the world for cycling and experience new racing conditions," said Nicholas Roche who will discover Malaysia for the first time while starting his fourth professional season.
"I'm very excited about starting my 2008 season with the Tour de Langkawi, although I'm always a bit scared of the first race of the year. This is an event I would have liked to take part in with the Irish national team in the past, but I never had the opportunity to do it. I've heard a lot of anecdotes about Malaysia from other riders. I visited the race web site since our coach Jean-Jacques Henry sent a link to all the Crédit Agricole riders selected for the race."
Besides Roche, the lineup is made of Simon Gerrans from Australia, Great Britain's Jeremy Hunt and Frenchmen Maxime Médérel, Jean-Marc Marino and Sébastien Hinault. The latter is no stranger to the Tour de Langkawi since he won stage eight to Segamat in 2006, by out-sprinting Mark Cavendish.
Hunt also rode the Tour de Langkawi in the past with MrBookmaker.com, and Crédit Agricole will count on its English-speaking contingent for performing this year. This environment has attracted Gerrans after his three successful first professional seasons with Ag2r. The winner of the Tour du Finistère and GP Carnagho in 2005, the 2006 Tour Down Under and the 2007 GP of Plumelec might be the team's most interesting coup on the transfer market. Known for performing well in January and February, as he was second to Filippo Pozzato in the Tour du Haut-Var last year, the Victorian will fly directly from Australia and go for his first attempt in Malaysia.
"Since our team won the GC last year, it'll be difficult for us to do better but we'll have a very competitive team again and I hope that one of us will be able to win a stage or GC," Roche explained. "Personally, winning the Tour de Langkawi is one of my goals, but I know I'm not the only rider in the bunch with this idea in mind, and the grueling stage to Genting Highlands might be a little too difficult for me.
"Shall I be able to win a stage, it would be super. I'll come with a good motivation, but in the end, it'll be the legs to do the talking and decide whether I'll be up for winning something. I want to do well in the early part of the season, then I target a good performance at the Giro [d'Italia] and I dream of starting the Tour de France for the first time, but who wouldn't? There are many good riders at CA though, so I'm not sure if I'll make the team for the Tour. After that, the Olympics would be a wonderful experience."
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