Can the Tour de Langkawi regain its former glory, and can anAustralian repeat the feat of inaugural winner Damian McDonald? AsksAnthony Tan from Malaysia.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

It's fair to say the Le Tour de Langkawi has been through a rough patch. And it's still not out of the woods.

Political
infighting, a change of Prime Minister, missing prize money, reduced
budgets, lack of big names, its place in the calendar – elements that
separately or in unison, have all contributed to an ebb and flow of
interest in what was once the fourth richest stage race in the world.

That's right: in terms of prize money awarded, the Tour de Langkawi was once second to only the three Grand Tours.

Little
wonder '90s super team Mapei used to like coming so much, and after
Australian Damian McDonald's win in the inaugural edition staged in
1996, the Aussie national team has continued to send a squad each year,
team manager Brian Stephens now part of the Langkawi furniture after 14
editions. Tragically, three years ago on March 23, Damian was killed in
a collision in Melbourne's Burnley Tunnel.

Like all races, first and foremost, it is the quality of teams and depth of those squads that create interest.

This
year, among 20 participating teams, just one ProTour squad,
Footon-Servetto-Fuji, has decided to come, and they only arrived the
day before the race started – given them next to nil time to
acclimatise to the sweltering heat of the tropics.

The biggest
name, though, does not come from this Spanish-backed squad, but a rider
from one of two participating ProContinental outfits: ISD-Neri's
flyweight Venezuelan, José Rujano.

However, since his
breakthrough season in 2005, where he finished second overall in
Langkawi before going onto third overall in the Giro d'Italia including
a magnificent stage win to the French ski village of Sestrière, the
28-year-old has been lost in the wilderness, and never realised his
true potential.

Time is fast running out for Rujano, so this
race is a solid litmus test for his major season objective, the 2010
Giro – provided his team is granted a wildcard start. There, he could
be one of Cadel Evans' biggest adversaries.

With the Malaysian
Sports Ministry now in control and 7.5 million Malaysian Ringgit worth
of government funding and a further RM1.5 million from sponsors, the
Tour de Langkawi has a shot at rebuilding itself.

Yet if its
desire is return to its former glory and be among the world's top
races, there needs to be a lot more moolah from where that came from.

Two Australian squads are here: Jayco-Skins and Drapac-Porsche.

In
2009, the national team had Jumpin' Jai Crawford at their disposal,
where he rode brilliantly to finish second overall to José Serpa. With
one stage win already under the belt courtesy of Michael Matthews, does
Stephens possess as good a team this time round?

"I think
potentially. We knew Jai was a top-flight climber and was going to be
up there on the GC. This year, we've got a few… one, Pat[rick] Lane, is
a good climber and potentially as good but he's a bit untried,"
Stephens told me on the race's opening day, before Matthews won the
stage to Kuala Berang.

"All these flat stages, we've got some
pretty fast guys as well, so I think we'll concentrate on the stage
finishes for the early part, and Pat's just going to make sure he keeps
himself up in the mix. And as we get closer to Genting, we'll
concentrate more on [helping] Pat.

"Richard [Lang]'s more of the
sprinter type and Pat's more of a climber, but the rest of them are
pretty much all in the mix for fast finishes and breaks. So that's sort
of the team we wanted to come here with, that sort of style of racing,
because that's how it will turn out."

Drapac-Porsche has also
tasted success in Malaysia, with Mitchell Docker taking the leader's
jersey two years ago and climbing well enough to finish sxith overall.
"We've come here with an equally good team," their team manager,
Agostino Giramondo, assured me.

"Hopefully, the race [for GC]
will form into a breakaway situation. We've noticed this year there's a
lack of good sprinters, and for us not having a designated sprinter, we
don't think it will be a problem this year because we believe the race
will be won at Genting Highlands."

So who are they banking on?

"We've
brought two out this year – Lachlan Norris and Peter McDonald,"
Agostino said. "Peter McDonald went really well here two years ago, but
he was assigned to work for Mitchell Docker.

"This year,
without a designated sprinter, Peter and Lachlan have free reign to
have a go during the week and also on Saturday [Stage 6] to Genting
Highlands."

Auspiciously, their rider David Pell made the
winning break on Tuesday's second leg. Although he finished last in the
sprint, the stage won by South African Jay Thomson, he's one of three
riders now three minutes in front of the rest of the field; five
seconds off the lead in second overall, Pell's got a great chance of
taking the race lead.

Still, for an Aussie to stand a chance
against what looks like a rejuvenated and in-form Rujano, they'll
probably need a few more minutes than that.