UnitedHealthcare sprinter Jake Keough believes it is only a matter of time before he gets one up on Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia), who has dominated the first half of Le Tour de Langkawi, to claim three stages.
Keough, runner-up on the US National Racing Calendar standings for 2011, has not been too far off the mark with second placings on stages 2 and 4. For all but two members of the UnitedHealthcare team in Langkawi (Hilton Clarke and Karl Menzies), the Malaysian race is their second stop of the season, following on from the Tour de San Luis in late January.
"Our main goals here were to win stages and to work on our lead-out," Eric Greene, UnitedHealthcare director, told Cyclingnews on Wednesday.
After two days for the climbers, including the queen stage to Genting on Wednesday, the race returns to a battle of the fast men, with four sprint stages to close out the race. While the ProConti outfit's primary objective has been stage wins, an added bonus is that heading into stage 7, Keough is also just four points off Guardini in the points classification, with bonuses picked up on intermediates on stage 5.
"The sprint competition's never really been our focus," admitted Greene. "If he [Keough] gets on the podium with that, it's a plus."
For Keough, the opportunity on Tuesday to close the gap on Guardini was too good to pass up.
"We raced for the first two hours; there was no breakaway that went early," he told Cyclingnews. "We had a few opportunities to go for a couple of the sprints. For me it's more important just to do a few sprints and to get the speed going. I haven't raced since Argentina three weeks ago so the first half of the race has been about just trying to get the speed back into the legs. If the points come, they come. Our focus is still on the stage wins."
According to the 24-year-old, stage 4 was the first time that the blue train delivered "a proper lead-out" despite the fact that the team races the bulk of their season together in the US and Europe.
"It just takes a few days to get everything dialled in," Keough explained. "We've been trying really hard and then on stage 4 we kind of nailed it. We can still get better, but it was really good.
"Second was at least a result where we could say there was just one guy who was better on the day. We'll get there for sure. We were third on one of the days in Argentina and there's been a couple of seconds here – the confidence is coming and once we get that first win, that will kick us into high gear."
Greene is also of the belief that a perfect lead-out will get the better of a Farnese-Vini team which has been supremely committed to the cause of Guardini, with the benefits of this early-season hit out to pay off throughout the year.
"Over the course of the year, the bigger goal is to hone that blue train as we call it," he said. "It's a really difficult thing to do; some teams make it look very easy."
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