Things are really starting to hot up for the new pro season. Just a few weeks back I reported in from China and the last race of the 2006 season in Asia – Tour of South China Sea. From there many of the riders continued with the seasonal Asian calendar and moved on to Malaysia for the Jelayah Malaysia – otherwise known as the Tour of Malaysia. This race is the original national tour, and although it doesn’t carry the same international clout of its bigger but younger brother, the Tour de Langkawi, it’s no walkover, and ended up being dominated by new local sprinter Anuar Manan (Le Tua) and on GC by the Iranians Ashkari and Mehdi Sohari, who finished in top spot.
Most of the riders from the race then moved on to Thailand for the Tour of Siam, which ended up in overall victory for Australian rider Jai Crawfrord (Giant Asia). While the Asian action was still bubbling the Tour Down Under was taking place around Adelaide, and many of the top Europe-based pro’s were to be found opening their lungs for the first time this year, including Robbie McEwen, who took a stage and AG2R rider Martin Elminger, who ended up taking the overall honours from the rising young AIS-South Australia rider Gene Bates.
No sooner had the mud settled from an unusually wet TDU than more top European pros hit the sands of Qatar for the annual Tour of Qatar, a flat and windswept race which saw some fast finishes from Tom Boonen, a nasty crash for Tom Steels, and overall victory for Quick-Step rider Wilfred Crekstens.
Meantime back here in Asia and we’re in the middle of the Tour de Langkawi, a race where the best of the Asian teams get their annual chance to test their abilities against some of the top Pro Tour Teams. This year’s race is the 11th edition, and due to well publicised past difficulties it was a little uncertain whether the race would happen or not. Thankfully the situation has been smoothed over some and we’re back to the business of bike racing and not politics.
A number of Pro Tour squads turned out this year, including: La Francaise des Jeux with Sandy Casar, Bouygues Telecom with Thomas Voeckler, Credit Agricole with Julian Dean, Tinkoff with Salvatore Commesso, Unibet with Jose Rujano, AG2R with Sylvain Calzati, plus a whole host of lower-ranked Continental teams.
The action got underway on Langkawi island, with Alberto Loddo of the Selle Italia team taking first blood in a tight bunch finish. Loddo also went on to take stages 4 and 5. Sandwiched between the sprint stages was the Cameron Highlands stage, which ends with a 50 kilometre climb, the longest in pro bike racing. Usually this stage rattles the cage and gives some indication as to who is likely to contend for overall honours. This tends to be decided on the cruel 25 kilometre finish to Genting Highlands, which will be on Friday. But this year things took a different slant when Credit Agricole sent Anthony Chareau out on his own for a clean 4 minute win on the stage. As it stands the Frenchman looks hard to beat, but Genting is evil. With some of the best Colombian climbers lying in wait and on top form, plus the defending South African climber David George out for victory, it will be a very close call, so log on over the weekend for the latest news from Langkawi.