As the last rays of the daylight were extinguished in the Straits of Malacca, the 22 teams readied and assembled in Langkawi’s Dataran Helang started to make their way onto the stage for the Tour de Langkawi team presentation.
Absent from the race last year, the Tour de Langkawi returned to the ‘Jewel of Kedah' for the 23rd edition of the race but only as the host of the team presentation. Racing once again will take place solely on the Malaysian mainland.
Of the 22 teams for the 2018 edition, just two are from the WorldTour, with Dimension Data and Astana making the trip to Malaysia. The clash with Milan-San Remo and cobbled Classics complicates schedules and rosters for a number of teams. Joining the duo is a selection of Pro Continental and Continental teams, with a Malaysian national team rounding out the start list.
At the team presentation, lead out by Dimension Data and Astana, there were cheers for Andrea "Mr Langkawi" Guardini and his Bardiani-CSF teammates. Guardini is back at the race and aiming to add to his 22 stage wins, but he expects a tough battle, as he explained.
"I know really well Anuar Manan and Mohd Hariff Saleh as Malaysian riders. There are a lot of young sprinters like Riccardo Minali of Astana and Scott Sunderland also are big opponents," he said of his rivals. "Marko Kump last year was my teammate at UAE and I know him really well. He is a really good sprinter and we know we need to fight for the victories."
At the pre race conference, it was Kump's teammate Szymon Sajnok fronting the media. Guardini later suggested the recently crowded omnium world champion should be added to the list of sprinters to watch not only in the race but on CCC. The 20-year-old, though, has limited experienced on the road thus far in his career and is in Malaysia to learn.
"I hope to do a good job for my team. I hope me, Alan, Marko Kump win some stages," Sajnok said.
Another debutant in the race is South African Nich Dlamini of Dimension Data. The South African team has won the last three editions of the race with three different riders who are yet to return to the race. Dlamini, the KOM winner at the Tour Down Under, explained to Cyclingnews the team is committed to winning a fourth straight yellow jersey, but will keep their options open.
"Obviously I am not a pure sprinter. I can sprint from a small bunch, but that doesn't really suit that kind of rider at this race," he said. "Hopefully on the queen stage I can do something and get the result for the team. We have a lot of cards to play so it could be anyone of us."
With a young squad in Langkawi, Dlamini added that Jaco Venter and Johan van Zyl will likely call the shots on the road in place of the absent Nic Dougall. The South African rode in all three winning teams but will miss that race in 2018.
"Jaco has done this race around six times so it is really nice to have him. He will probably be the captain and Johan is super experienced. They will be the ones guiding us at the race," Dlamini said. "We are here to make the race hard and get whatever we can from the race."
For the locals in Langkawi, Anuar Manan remains a national hero as the only Malaysian stage winner in the race. Starting his 11th Tour de Langkawi with his new Forca Amskins Racing Continental team, Manan is aiming high.
"In our first race we try to do the best and take at least one stage as a team," Manan said of the team that came together late last year. "For the GC we try with our good Colombian climber Alvaro Duarte, and we also have John Ebsen and me as well as a fast and experienced rider."
With only artificial lightening illuminating Dataran Helang, the final teams were presented to the crowds before the curtains were drawn and preparation for the ferry transfer to the mainland got underway. Stage 1 will take place Monday over 147.9km from Kangar to Kulim.