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Malaysian government pours $6.12m into Tour de Langkawi for exposure

LANGKAWI, Malaysia (VN) — The Tour de Langkawi starts Thursday on its namesake island on the west side of Malaysia. The peloton will race 101.1 kilometers under forecast sunshine and 85-degree temperatures and race organizers hope to show a welcoming tropical destination to worldwide viewers.

“It’s a sports-tourism event like the Tour de France,” Emir Abdul Jalal, the race’s chief operating officer, told VeloNews. “The government took over the event in 2007 because it’s very important to show off the country as a sporting host.

“The other part is the tourism factor. Cycling is unique in that it can showcase any nation. Any country that wants to show itself goes for cycling. With a Formula One race, for example, you only see the venue.”

That exposure moves the Ministry of Peace and Sport to buy into the race for 20 million Malaysian Ringgit ($6.12 million) annually. (If sponsors back the event, organizers reduce the government backing to correspond.)

Americans Chris Horner and Tom Danielson won the overall in the race that will see its 19th edition run this over the next two weeks. Julian Arredondo took the title last year racing for third-division Nippo-De Rosa and later signed for Trek Factory Racing. The race’s crux, as always, remains the 20km-plus stair-stepping rise to Genting Highlands on the race’s fourth day.

“EuroSport television broadcasts the race so that we can show Malaysia internationally,” said Jalal. “You can show everything from the country: the people, their smiles and traditions, the cyclists. … That’s why the government took over and decided to sponsor the event.”

The 2.HC-ranked event clashes with the opening of the Belgian season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this weekend and immediately follows the Tour of Oman, which is run by Tour de France owner ASO. Six first-division UCI ProTeams will compete this year: Astana, Belkin, Europcar, Katusha, Orica-GreenEdge, and Tinkoff-Saxo. Other top squads prefer to avoid the 12-hour trip and seven hours of time change from Europe.

Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge), Jack Bobridge and Theo Bos (both Belkin), and Leonardo Duque (Colombia) highlight the startlist. Weening and his teammate, Colombian Johan Esteban Chaves, start with realistic shots at the overall.

While cycling’s top dogs are coming off racing blocks in the Middle East and are headed for the classics or training in warm southern Europe, for others, tropical Malaysia fits in perfectly at this point in the season.

Bos told VeloNews he uses Langkawi to prepare for his spring schedule, which includes the sprinters’ classic, GP Scheldeprijs. “The race is perfect for me,” Chaves added. “It eases me into what will be a long season.”

Bos, Chaves, and their WorldTour colleagues are an important piece in Langkawi’s success — and the government’s support for the race.

“Having the ProTour teams is so important. For the broadcast, if the top teams race, then the more fans that will follow on the international broadcast,” Jalal explained. “This year, we limited the number of teams to 50 percent, with the other 50 percent from the Asian Continental teams and Asian countries. … The Tour of Oman focuses on first-division riders, and they go because ASO runs it. Those races don’t provide much for the Asian teams, though. Tour of Langkawi allows the best Asian riders to fight against the top teams.”

Jalal said the first- and second-division teams come for the UCI points and money, but above all, the warm-weather racing brings them to Malaysia. The organization pays teams appearance fees, but “not that much,” he said. That combination seems to have everyone smiling in sunny Langkawi.