Quite possibly one of the most gifted yet largely unsung talents of his generation, Jai Crawford's return to Le Tour de Langkawi this week in Malaysia marks another attempt at a breakthrough he's long desired.
Crawford, racing for RTS-Racing (the carbon manufacturers acquired Giant-Kenda for the 2012 season) at least has a start in this year's Asian Tour opener having been informed before the opening stage in 2011 that he was ineligible to depart due to a registration issue.
Speaking to Cyclingnews on the eve of the 2012 event, Crawford said it would be a positive just to get his back number on for the opening 20.3 kilometre time trial on Friday.
"I've seen a lot of stuff happen in this sport, so you never know," he chuckled, showing he had not lost his sense of humour despite what must seem like an endless run of setbacks.
After four stages, Crawford sits 3:05 back on the yellow jersey of David Zabriskie (Garmin-Barracuda) – a deficit that's well within his striking distance given the reshuffle that will take place on Wednesday's likely-decisive 6th stage to the Genting Highlands.
The long and steep climb to the stage finish at 1679m is one that suits Crawford, who for the last five seasons has been mostly plying his trade on the Asian circuit – and shown his considerable tenacity on the peaks. Such performances have led to top five overall placings not only at Le Tour de Langkawi (2007, 2009), but also Jelajah Malaysia (2009), Tour de Korea (2009), Tour of East Java (2007), Tour of Japan (2008), Tour of Siam (2007) and Tour of the Philippines (2011). In 2010, riding for Fly V Australia, Crawford claimed the biggest win of his career, prevailing in an all-out battle against Levi Leipheimer for the finish line on the fifth and final stage of the Tour of Utah, which resulted in the Tasmanian finishing fourth overall.
"I'm hoping to get a high result on GC," Crawford admitted with the key to his end-game being the mountain-top finish in Genting. "I can't plan to win it [overall] because realistically our team's too small, we don't have the strength across the board to keep the jersey if I was to take it but that's not to say that I won't try and take it. If I do and we lose it, then so be it. High GC and maybe a stage win is a possibility."
The Tasmanian's season began at January's Australian Road Championships where racing without the assistance of a team, he finished top 20 for the second successive year in the highly-aggressive race, dominated by the sheer numbers of GreenEdge and Sky. Moving on to the desert flats of the Tour of Qatar, a race Crawford says he spent his time "hanging around the back and getting dropped a lot," he was able to build on his form ahead of the better-suited Tour of Oman.
"I was better in Oman but I had quite a bad crash there, I ran head-on into a gutter and snapped my fork and came down quite hard on my hip which sort of ruined me for the next couple of days," Crawford explained. He finished 19th overall.
Crawford, reduced to being a spectator in 2011, believes that the group of seven riders which came to the finish line in Genting last year was an anomaly, with seven staking a claim for the stage victory. This year, Crawford believes that the climbing strength within the peloton will result in a different scenario.
"This year, there's a lot of strong climbers here and a lot of previous winners," the 28-year-old told Cyclingnews. "There will be pretty decent time gaps.
"For me to win [overall], I would probably want Genting to be on the second last day because that would mean the team wouldn't have to defend the jersey for very long. They're pretty flat stages after Genting. Whoever has it is going to need a strong team to close it out."
While Crawford cites Astana and Garmin-Barracuda as the strong WorldTour teams that he expects to stamp their authority on the race, the Tasmanian doesn't believe they will provide an overall winner.
"Both will have to be pretty damn good to beat the Androni team with Rujano and Monsalve who won here last year, and Serpa as well," he predicted. "I think Serpa will be going up Genting pretty well so he'll be hard to beat this year. He looks fit."
After Langkawi, Crawford will return home to Hobart in preparation for Tour of the Philippines, and then go onto possibly Tour of Korea, Tour of Japan and Kumano.
"I really like Tour of Japan, it's an awesome race," Crawford said. "They normally have the time trial up Mount Fuji and every day's a circuit so it's pretty tough."
Just as tough is Crawford who despite the year-in, year-out struggle to ply his trade turns up to race and gets results. The mirage-like glimmer of hope offered by Pegasus Sport at the end of 2010 remains the closest Crawford's got to his European dream in recent years.
"Somehow I've managed to keep going," he shrugged. "I just enjoy riding my bike. At the moment I'm not getting a lot out of it at all. It's probably detrimental financially but I still love to ride my bike and I'm not prepared to walk away from it yet. I'm just hoping that I can pull a result somewhere here."
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