Put under pressure by his compatriot Victor Niño, José Serpa has been forced to step into José Rujano’s role as captain of Androni-Venezuela at Le Tour de Langkawi but the queen stage saw even greater domination than ever by Gianni Savio’s South American riders. Atop Genting Highlands, his team seem to have secured the overall classification with four days to go, with no fewer than three riders in the top 5 – Serpa is first overall, Rujano second, while Jackson Rodriguez lies in fifth. Nobody seems to threatening them anymore after ephemeral race leader Darren Lapthorne of Drapac and favourite Tom Danielson failed to meet their own expectations on the slopes of Malaysia’s most gruelling climb.
Savio is on his way to bagging his sixth individual overall win in twelve participations in Le Tour de Langkawi after doing so with Hernan Dario Muñoz in 2002, Freddy Gonzalez in 2004, Ruslan Ivanov in 2008, Serpa in 2009 and Yonattha Monsalve last year.
“We have seriously prepared for this race,” Savio told Cyclingnews. “We always go to a race to honour the event but in our own way. After the Giro d’Italia, which is our number 1 goal of the year, the race closest to my heart is Le Tour de Langkawi. We’ve had a lot of satisfactions in this race before, that’s why we have put together a strong team again this year. We gave up on the idea of bringing a sprinter even though there were eight possibilities of a bunch sprint finish because we wanted to win both the individual overall classification and the team classification.”
The main surprise of the Genting stage was Rujano’s incapacity to stay with Serpa and Niño with 5km to go. From the beginning of the 18km long ascent, Androni had three riders – Serpa, Rujano and Carlos Ochoa – in the front group of four, alongside the lone Niño, representing Iranian continental team Azad University. Rujano was the highest ranked of them. “We attacked Niño one after another but he was strong,” Serpa explained. “It wasn’t my intention to attack Rujano but he went into a bit of a crisis. Once I was left in the front with Niño, I stuck to his wheel for the last four or five kilometres.”
Serpa remains unbeaten at the top of Genting Highlands as he claimed his fourth win after 2006, 2007 and 2009. He’s now on his way to winning Le Tour de Langkawi overall for the second time after his previous triumph in 2009. The four remaining stages are flat, where Andrea Guardini is expected to win more bunch sprints.
Now in his seventh year as a pro with Savio, the 32-year-old Colombian is the team’s longest-serving rider. Interestingly, Niño, who is now 38, also rode for Savio but only for one season, in 1996 with Glacial-Selle Italia.
Savio recalled Serpa’s arrival to the then Diquigiovanni team: “José wasn’t in high demand in Colombia, where he was only seen as a track rider, so he went to Venezuela to race on the road. I met him there in July 2005 and he asked me if there was an opportunity for him to join my team. But he was fat. I told him that he had to lose five kilos before we’d even consider it. In October that year, I met him at another race, Banfoandes. He had lost a lot of weight but I said that he was still two kilos overweight. In January 2006, I found him absolutely fit at the Vuelta Tachira, so I gave him a contract just before his first race with us and that was Le Tour de Langkawi. On stage 1, he let the breakaway go and lost any chance on GC. I remember well that evening when I told him: ‘You have to sleep during the night but not during the day in the peloton.’ He eventually won two stages after that comment.”
Serpa is now a key player in the Androni-Venezuela team. “We’re here in Malaysia with the core of the team that is going to race the Giro d’Italia,” said Savio citing Serpa, Rujano, Ochoa, Rodriguez and Alessandro De Marchi. “We want to arrive in condition for the Giro in May. That means not racing too much beforehand. I’d like to take my climbers to all three Grand Tours but I don’t have the budget for it.” Savio is currently working on tighter relationships with the Venezuelan authorities for an increased budget to remain competitive on the worldwide scene alongside the super rich WorldTour teams.