Asian riders showed their improving strength Wednesday when riders from that continent took the top spots on the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour de Langkawi, putting Japan’s Takeaki Ayabe into the overall lead.
Ayabe climbed well on the tough slopes leading up to the Cameron Highlands, then timed his finishing burst perfectly to blaze to victory ahead of the veteran Colombian Libardo Nino Corredor (Le Tua) and 18 others.
Americans Alex Howes (Chipotle) and Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare) finished with the lead group and now both sit in the top ten on GC.
Iranian rider Amir Zargari (Azad University) came in third while France’s Thomas Bonnin (Skil-Shimano) was best of the European competitors in fourth place.
“I really prefer climbing in the mountains,” said Ayabe, who had the chance to make the most of that talent today. “I am really happy to get the first stage win today.
“I was in about 10th position going to down the descent (towards the finish). The road was really slippery because of the rain, it was really dangerous. There was some distance between the front riders, but when I chased them, I could ride very well, then I made a finishing sprint and won. I am very, very happy with this victory.”
Ayabe had to take risks to win, pushing things on the downhill. Fortunately he stayed upright, and said afterwards that he had to put caution aside. “Sometimes you think about risks as well, but today I didn’t think about that. I only thought that I would win, and this is why I was so happy to succeed today.”
His victory also earned him the yellow jersey, which he took by four seconds from Nino Corredor. Zargari is two seconds further back. A total of 25 riders remain within one minute; so there are still quite a number of contenders.
One who has slipped back though is the overnight race leader Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini – Netta Sottoli). He said beforehand that he full expected to lost time as he is a sprinter and not a climber, and so it turned out. He crossed the line in a group 17 minutes 25 seconds back, and drops right down to 88th overall.
“On a mountain like today, I can manage to get over it,” he said. “But tomorrow will be harder because it is a shorter stage and a tougher climb.”
The pressure went on from the very start of the stage, with numerous attacks being fired off. A break of 18 riders clipped away prior to the first sprint at Seri Iskandar (km 21.6) and from this, Christoff Van Heerden (MTN Qhubeka) beat teammate Arran Brown for the points.
The peloton came back together at km 29 and a subsequent break was also reeled in prior to the second sprint. This went to Boris Shpilevsky (Tabriz Petrochemical) ahead of Van Heerden. Ten riders then clipped away and pulled well ahead before the third and final intermediate sprint of the day; from this group, Chan Jane Jang (Korea National Team) edged out Hui Zhang (Max Success Sports Cycling). The others involved in the move were Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), Damien Gaudin and Guillaume le Floch (Europcar), Shpilevsky, Van Heerden, Takashi Miyazava (Farneze Vini-NeriSottoli), Christopher Jones (UnitedHealthcare) and Floris Goesinnen (Drapac).
The break continued onwards and had an advantage of one minute 55 seconds at the start of the first category Kampung Raja climb. Albert Timmer, who had earlier taken top points on the third category Pos Slim climb (km 69.7), rocketed away and took the prime. He was caught after the top and Jang pushed on ahead with over 20 kilometers to go. However he too was reeled in by many riders before the prime of the hors category Bukit Brinchang, which came just 8.3 kilometers from the finish.
Rahim Emami (Azad University) beat Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago CSF Inox Pro) and others there, following which the 20-man group began the slight descent down to the finish. Ayabe played things perfectly to ensure he hit the line first, grabbing the biggest win of his career at 30 years of age.
Nino Corredor is a full 12 years older again and went close to taking what would have been a sensational victory. “In the last kilometer I was hoping for a win, but unfortunately for me the Japanese rider was faster than me,” he said. “I have lost an opportunity to win the stage, but I am still happy because second on the stage is a good result for the team. I hope I will ride well tomorrow for the general classification.”
Emami’s efforts on the final climb were enough to see him take over the lead in thecking of the mountains classification. “We are good climbers (on the team) and our tactic was to win on the hors category KOM,” he said. “I didn’t try on the little hills before. This climb was steep enough for me to go away, so I attacked and I was alone on that part.”
He and the other riders will have plenty of scope to test their climbing legs again Thursday. So too race leader Ayabe, who is also the best Asian rider after Wednesday.
Ayabe and the other GC contenders will be fully aware that Thursday’s leg to the Genting Highlands is likely to be the most important of the whole Tour. The gruellingly-steep slopes will go a huge way towards determining the final general classification, and strong performances will be necessary for all who want to target yellow or even a top ten on GC.