Tour de Langkawi Preview Part 2
The Stages:The route is far bolder geographically than in 2006, stretching from
west to east coasts and back again. Totalling 1,374km (853 miles), the route is
also some 10% longer than the 2006 edition.
By Mark Sharon
In keeping with its UCI 2.HC classification the route of the race packs a big
punch. The route is far bolder geographically than in 2006, stretching from west
to east coasts and back again. Totalling 1,374km (853 miles), the route is also
some 10% longer than the 2006 edition.
2007 Tour of Langkawi courtesy
Stage 1: Pulau Langkawi
The first test is that opening stage on Pulau Langkawi. To vary the
format not every edition has started on Langkawi, to the dismay of many
journalists who, after a few days, find tearing themselves away from the
island’s attractions – beaches, bars and tropical-isle landscape - takes a great
deal of effort. When it has started on Langkawi, the opening stage has
alternated between a road stage and a traditional prologue time-trial.
This year, the organisation has opted for a road-stage. At 82km (50 miles)
long, the scope for the race to break up is limited, but at least teams will
know whether their equipment is working properly after the being at the mercy of
Starting from Dataran Lang (literally Eagle Square) next to the Kuah ferry
port the course is an anti-clockwise loop of the Island to end at Underwater
World Langkawi in Pantai Cenang.
The route heads north skirting the island’s hilly centre and runs alongside
Beach of Black Sand (by which time some riders will wish they could get off for
a dip) before heading south. After a quick inland circuit passing by Padang Mat
Sirat (the Field of Burnt Rice), the race passes the white sand beaches of
Pantai Cenang before reaching Underwater World.
Unfortunately, unless they’ve taken time out before the race, participants
will have no chance to savour the attractions of Underwater World. After a quick
shower and change the teams will be back at Dataran Lang to pick up the ferry to
the mainland for the start of stage two.
The peloton in Langkawi Photo c. Mark Sharon
Stage 2: First Mainland Stage
After an hour and quarter ferry ride to the mainland, and a good
nights sleep, riders tackle the 166km (103 miles) stage two from Kangar to Kulim.
This is Malaysia proper, and after the start on Kangar’s Jalan Kolam the route
follows a southerly course past vast paddy fields. In the distance riders will
view some of the striking limestone pillars which rise from the landscape.
Limestone Pillars in the distance... Photo c. Mark Sharon
The first half of the race is essentially flat with three sprints coming in
this section. The second half of the days course sees riders crossing a much
more undulating landscape with the “major“ climb of the day a Cat. 4 at the
116km mark, the last opportunity to gain points ahead of the finish in Kulim.
With the next day being a mountain stage this is the sprinters’ day, though
the sprinters’ teams in the peloton will find themselves having to clamp down on
breaks all day from those with low ambitions for the big hills, while the
climbers will let them do all hard work knowing full well a bunch sprint is a
Stage 3: Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands are one of Malaysia’s true gems. A mix between lush
tropical rainforest inhabited by tribes of aboriginal people, and tea
plantations dotted with colonial buildings which would not be out of place in an
English village. At the foot of the highlands you can be sweltering in shorts
and sandals, while at the top damp cold mists will have you wishing for a
souwester and gloves.
In fact the British connection with the region reaches back to William
Cameron a British surveyor who “discovered” it in 1885. Shortly thereafter the
Highlands became a place for wealthy English to come to escape the oppressive
heat of the plains, and it is no coincidence that here Malaysia’s tea industry
blossomed as a rival to India.
Cameron Highlands tea plantation. Photo c. Mark Sharon
The finish of Stage 3 at Brinchang is a scant 133 km (85 miles) from the
start in Kuala Kangsar, but the devil lies not in the distance but in the final
climb. In fact make that the climb. The stage is split into halves which could
not be more distinct. The first leg of nearly 60km comprises three sprints, of
interest only to those teams with designs on the sprint jersey. For those with
climbers it is a delivery leg, and in fact unless someone up the road in a break
is a climber, the emphasis will be on guarding reserves. There is plenty of time
to reel any escapees.
The feedstop at 58km (36miles) marks the gateway to the Cameron Highlands.
Ahead lies 47km of ascent, virtually without a break, up the Cat.1 climb to
Pahang at 1409m. The opening section of the climb takes the peloton through
dense rain-forest, punctuated by clearing filled with villages, some which perch
precariously over sheer drops with the house supported by the thinnest of
stilts. The inhabitants are aborigines who have inhabited these hills for
hundreds of years with hardly a concession to the modern world. Talking of
technology this is not the place to have a dodgy race radio as the road twists
and turns through a forest so dense that to walk 50 metres off it is to be lost.
Apart from the terrain, the striking aspect of this leg is the change in
temperature with altitude. All things are relative, but when you start the climb
in 35 degree heat, and finish it at 10 degrees the contrast is stark, and to
make things even more interesting if it is raining the road becomes slick with
the red mud washed off the hillsides.
There is a short descent with about 25 km to go, before another Cat.1 climb
to the Equatorial Hotel. From there it is downhill into Brinchang, a
particularly technical descent with plenty of time for a last minute spill if
the conditions are foul.
Stages 4 to 6: Traveling the East Coast
The next three days see the race head sharply north for 178.2km (111
miles) to the coastal city of Kota Bahru (stage 4) before spending two stages
making its way south down the north-east coast. If conditions mirror those of
past events, the first of these coastal legs, stage 5 to Kuala Terengganu, sees
the riders battling headwinds for much of the day, especially near the coast.
The coast itself is beautiful with white sand beaches facing the South China
Sea, punctuated by inlets crowded with brightly coloured fishing craft.
Colorful fishing boats.
Photo c. Mark Sharon
Kuala Terengganu is a major producer of batik fabrics. The results are made
into scarves, skirts, trousers and shirts. Only the most world weary rider or
journalist, or one without a wife or girlfriend back home, could avoid buying
even one item if not of batik perhaps of songket, a hand-woven gold and silver
brocade much loved by royalty.
Stage 6 provides more of the same as the
race heads further south along the coast to Cukai. This is probably a good time
to talk about podium girls.
The highlight of any winner’s day is receiving not the stage winner’s medal
but a kiss from the podium girls, except perhaps when the podium girl is a bloke
carrying a large keris, a traditional ceremonial dagger.
The charm of the Tour de Langkawi lies in the breadth of culture encountered
on route. It can vary strongly from state to state (the race passes through some
eight of the thirteen states) together with the strictness with which religious
laws are applied. The East Coast states are strongly Muslim in culture which
means not just an absence of podium girls, but also a scarcity of post-race
beer, the latter a major shock to the system.
Wincor/Nixdorf rider shares some of his drink with an elephant.
Photo c. Mark Sharon
Stage 7: Heading back West
At Kuantan, the race says goodbye to the South China Sea and heads
due west towards Kuala Lumpur with Stage 7 presenting a 170.2km (106 miles)
sprinters dream to Karak. The only thing likely to slow down the peloton, apart
from one of the regions wild elephants, are two Cat.4 blips in the centre
section measuring a scarcely noticeable 92m and 70m respectively. The thing
lurking at the back of everyone’s mind will be the next day’s nightmare stage 8
to the Genting Highlands.
Stage 8: Finish in the Clouds
The Genting Highlands
There can be no greater contrast between the genteel old-colonial atmosphere of
the Cameron highlands, and the bold brash futuristic feel of the Genting
Highlands. How to describe it? Take one mountain, slice the top off, and stick a
Chinese version of Disneyland on the top of it. On a clear day you can see the
brightly coloured complex of the Genting Highlands Resort from Kuala Lumpur, and
vice versa. KL looks like toy town, the twin towers of the Petronas complex
resembling like two pieces of baby sweetcorn sticking out of the heat haze.
At 1629m high (more than a vertical mile), the Genting Highlands are also
higher, and colder than the Cameron Highlands. The resort is frequently shrouded
in mist, which swirls around the various enormous hotel blocks. How enormous?
Genting’s First World Hotel with its 6118 rooms is now the world’s largest
The stage itself is only 83.4km (52 miles) long, but from the stage start at
the Proton Factory in Shah Alam lying at 4.7m above sea level the entire stage
comprises one big climb and nothing else. The average grade is not particularly
steep at 2 percent (there are three sprints en route) but that is a deceptive
characteristic. Just after the last sprint at the 50km mark the road kicks up
viciously, rearing up to 14% gradient in places.
Photo c. Mark Sharon
If the peloton hasn’t already been so, from this point on it is destined to
be decimated over and over again. Positions on GC carefully guarded for the last
week will be wrecked contemptuously, dreams of a podium place trampled. In the
past leaders have gone from first to last and been eliminated entirely in the
space of 20 km.
With 10 km to go the resort buildings will be visible in the clouds. To
accompany the creaking and groaning of bicycles and the rumble of motorcycle
outriders will be the squeal of brakes on the cars of people descending. The air
will be filled with the stink of super-heated brake pads.
Those following in cars will be confronted by another phenomenon. The
majority of cars in Malaysia are built to cope with heat. Consequently they lack
some of the things those living further north take for granted – like windscreen
demisters. You don’t notice such things, until you are near the summit of
Genting with the temperature dipping to 5 or 6 degrees centigrade. It’s just
another thing which makes life interesting on the race.
Stage 9: Almost There - Not
Stage 9, the penultimate stage, takes the riders 173km (108 miles) between
Putrajaya and Seramban. Theoretically, the race will have been decided by the
previous day’s bloodletting on Genting, but the second half of the stage might
have something to say about it.
A series of hills, starting just after the feed zone at 80km (50 miles)
provide the perfect launch pad for breaks of all types. If nothing else, those
with podium places at stake will be spending the whole day fending off attacks
or chasing them down, made all the more arduous by the previous day’s efforts to
get in that position in the first place.
Stage 10: Victory, but for Whom?
For those in the peloton who have never seen Kuala Lumpur close up the 12 laps
comprising the 80km (50 miles) of Stage 10 are a lesson in modern day
architecture. The traditional shot of the peloton is taken when the riders pass
beneath the twin towers of the Petronas centre, so tall that to include both the
towers and the peloton in the same shot requires a very wide wide-angle lens.
Last day under the Petrona Towers Photo c. Mark Sharon
For all the spectacular, if somewhat phallic, nature of the setting this
stage is more than a parade for some riders. The desperation to win can push
riders to compete against even their own team-mate for the win, as happened when
Ruben Bongiorno not only beat his Ceramica Panaria teammate Graeme Brown in a
shoulder-to-shoulder sprint, but almost crashed him on the line. Bongiorno
claimed he was trying to avoid photographers.
So there you have it – a perfect ten days in paradise for someone, an “I’m a
bike rider - get me out of here” for those at the back. They only thing to find
out now is who they end up being and how they got there.
Monkey Crossing Ahead! Photo c. Mark Sharon