With five previous appearances in the race, Jacques Janse van Rensburg is no stranger to the Tour de Langkawi. In 2017, the former South African road race champion is the experienced head in a young Dimension Data team, aiming for its third straight overall victory.
The 29-year-old was sixth on his debut in 2009, sixth again in 2014, and ninth in 2015 when teammate Youcef Reguigui unexpectedly claimed the overall victory. Janse van Rensburg missed the race last year when Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, no relation, won the overall classification for Dimension Data.
In 2017, Jacques Janse van Rensburg believes first-year neo-pro Ryan Gibbons will be the key man for Dimension Data but explained to Cyclingnews the team tactics will largely be decided by the outcome on the Cameron Highlands queen stage.
"Ryan is a really good sprinter from South Africa. He is similar to Reinie, who won last year, so we are going to go for stage victories for him," Janse van Rensburg told Cyclingnews following the official race press conference. "He was assisting the guys really nicely in the Dubai Tour, being part of the last part of the lead-out for Cavendish, and he was really itching because he could actually be one of the great sprinters in the team.
“He is still young, a first year professional, and it's a really great opportunity for him. He wants to see how it goes on the Cameron stage and whether he can fight or not for the GC. It depends on how it goes there. His focus for the moment is just for the stage victories."
Gibbons is one of three neo-pros on the Langkawi squad alongside Australian Ben O'Connor and Eritrean Mekseb Debesay, and Janse van Rensburg is also tipping the latter to make an impression on the race this week.
"Mekseb, you saw last year at Abu Dhabi where he finished third on the climbing stage. He is a bit tired now, coming straight from Oman having to work really hard for Merhawi in the stages, but we are really excited for those two guys," he said of the 25-year-old who finished the Tour of Oman in 20th place. "I think they have a bright future."
As the two-time defending champions and the fact that Dimension Data are the sole WorldTour team on the start list, Janse van Rensburg is under no illusions regarding the pressure he and his teammates will face. However, with the quartet of Italian Pro Continental teams stacked with sprint talent, he expects Dimension Data will be given some aid in controlling the race for the sprint finales.
"Of course, we have a little bit of extra pressure being the only WorldTour team, and we are also here for GC, so it's going to end up being us who does most of the chasing," he said of the expectation. "It depends on the composition of the breakaways, but you can see there are a lot of Italian guys here who are sprinters, so for them the interest is in the stage victories. In Malaysia and Langkawi, there are always breaks that go away, so I am sure there will be a few teams assisting us in riding at the front of the peloton.”
With the ascent of Cameron Highlands the main opportunity for the climbers on the race to take time and set up overall victory, picking up bonus seconds across all eight stages can quickly put a sprinter back into overall contention. Or even see them take yellow as Reinardt Janse van Rensburg demonstrated last year.
"It is going to play out on Cameron Highlands," he said. "Whoever from the sprinters finishes in front, because there is always a group of like 15-20 riders finishing there, he is obviously going to have that advantage of getting bonus seconds. That is why we've also spoken to Ryan, [telling him] that he needs to keep it in his head to fight on Cameron."
Should Gibbons be in touching distance of the overall victory following the stage 4 climb, he will need to be fighting for bonus seconds to keep moving up the general classification. Asked what race advice he would give Gibbons from his previous experiences, Janse van Rensburg explained that timing was everything in the Langkawi sprints.
"We don't have a real train here, we only have three guys here for the sprint so definitely don't be too early in the sprint. That's the advice I would give," he said.