With six categorised climbs packed into the first 100km of stage 7 at the Tour de Langkawi, the possibility was open for teams to light up the race and test the grip of Artem Ovechkin and his team Terengganu's hold on yellow. For the majority of the 222km stage from Nilai to Muar, it appeared Ovechkin would be losing his lead and Thomas Lebas (Kinan) would be riding into yellow.
At the end of the stage, won via the breakaway by Manuel Belletti, Ovechkin remained in yellow but the other riders behind in the top-ten all had new positions. Harry Sweeny (Mitchelton-BikeExchange) falling from third to fifth with Lukasz Owsian (CCC Sprandi) jumping into second place and Ben Dyball swapping second for third. Stage 7 became one of the most decisive stages, after the successful break in stage 3, and the hilltop Cameron Highlands finish.
Ovechkin missed the original move of 40 riders that broke away from the peloton during the mountainous start to the stage. A mechanical hindering his chances to regain contact. The Russian found himself isolated and in the third group on the road as a result but via teammate Metkel Eyob, who crashed and injured his knee, was able to bridge across and finished in the chase group 1:28 down on the ten rider group that stayed to the line.
"Category mountains, no problem … change wheels, no good time when trying to catch breakaway with 60km to go … thank you to my team for helping me today and all week," Ovechkin said in broken English after the stage finish.
The stage was a major test of TSG's strength and depth and a test the team passed. With one stage to come, the squad managed by VeloToze co-founder Danny Feng with Jeremy Hunt as DS remains on the cusp of delivering a win to a Malaysian team for the first time in the 23-year history of the Tour de Langkawi. Ovenchin with an albeit unassailable 28 second lead over Lukasz Owsian. An instant success story having only signed Ovechkin, who served a doping ban in 2013, earlier this month.
"We will see what tomorrow will bring. We still haven't said our last word and we will continue to fight," said Owsian.
The GC may be all but wrapped up with second and third likely safe but Dyball isn't celebrating what will be his best HC result just yet.
"It was probably the hardest stage of the tour; those climbs were just one after the other just attack after attack," Dyball told Eurosport. "It was just always big groups going off the front just full gas all day. I didn't want to do too much because I was sort of on my limit. I am glad to get through that stage without losing any time … I am hoping it's a bit easier tomorrow, but we'll see."
Sweeny has dropped out of podium contention after stage 7 but the 19-year-old showed little signs of disappointment when speaking to Cyclingnews and Eurosport on the finish line. Even when his overall position is far from safe with three riders within three seconds of his fifth place
"I've been holding in a pee for about five and half hours now. It was just on from the gun," said Sweeny, who needs three seconds to climb into fourth. "I tried to do that as much as I could. At one point there were just attacks going everywhere. I was by myself in that group and had to improvise a little bit.
"I went up the road with a group of about four people and that actually could have gotten me the race lead but then Astana came back across with three riders and I thought I might have gone too deep there for about an hour and a half at least. I was absolutely in the box."
With Astana's Yevgeniy Gidich breathing down his neck on the GC, Sweeny is expecting the WorldTour team to again put him to the limit. Particularly at the three intermediate sprint points where there are three bonus seconds on the line for the winner.
"A WorldTour team is not going to budge an inch for a 19-year-old Conti rider," he added.
Come Sunday afternoon in the shadows of the iconic Sultan Abdul Samad Building, the classification winners and podium finishers of the Tour de Langkawi will be feated after the final 141.km of the race. As this edition of the race has proven, nothing is certain.
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