Once one of the most prestigious, Malaysia’s biggest cycling race holds a special place in Anthony Tan’s heart. However in order for it to survive it must accept its need to change, he writes.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

As the rain teems down on Malaysia yet again (by the way, what's up with these crazy weather patterns all over the world?) I find myself sitting in a café in Jasin, the finish town of the eighth stage, eating roti canai (basically, a pancake with egg and cheese) and nasi goreng (fried rice) with lashings of curry on top, two staples of this cuisine that make you sweat like a pig and grin with utter delight, all at the same time.

In the nine editions I've covered the Tour de Langkawi this journey has been the wettest by far.

It bothers me little; unlike the photographers I'm not out on the motorbike all day but comfortably housed in the confines of a media car or bus, and being soggy simply means doing a little more washing than normal.

I'm used to it.

After all, my suitcase has been packed and unpacked almost every single day since I arrived the Friday before the Tour Down Under began – almost three weeks ago.

There's also an emotional connection I have to Malaysia.
It's a stone's throw from Singapore, where my dad was born and raised till he was 17, when, with just a few dollars to his name and no bank account to speak of, he boldly decided to leave the family unit behind and seek a new, less austere, life in Australia.

Thanks, Dad.

Of course, there's also the fact that a significant proportion of the population are Chinese (Malays, Chinese and Indians comprise the majority of its people), where my parents find their roots.

I have a stinking ocker accent but when people ask me where I'm from or who I am, I'm still not sure what to say; "both my parents are Chinese but my sister and I were born in Australia and I have strong cultural attachments to both so I'm, um, er…" always sounds more than a tad verbose.

Anyway, I digress.

What I did want to say is that it's a cryin' shame the Tour de Langkawi has, since its heyday in the early 2000s, slid from at one stage going toe-to-toe with the TDU to be the first ProTour race outside Europe four years ago – and in terms of prize-money, the fourth-richest behind the triplet of Grand Tours – to this 2011 edition, where not a single ProTeam has bothered to show up, along with close to a hundred riders I've never heard of before.

According to my sources, at least seven – seven! – ProTeams were interested in coming.

But the clash of dates with the TDU, coupled with the Malaysian Sports Ministry (who fund its existence but seem to know little about running a successful bike race) and their stubborn refusal to shorten the race to a more manageable six or seven days like the TDU or the Tours of Romandie and Suisse, ultimately left the organisers with not one ProTeam at all fronting the start on January 23 on the isle of Langkawi.

Still, despite such recalcitrance, and childish political infighting that has seen more changes of management than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands, the Tour de Langkawi has an uncanny knack of showcasing – and in many cases, discovering – many of cycling's next-big-things: rough diamonds that once polished by the resources usually only available within top-tier professional teams, become world-beaters on contracts worth upwards of one million Euros.

Aussie Damian McDonald had the honour of winning the inaugural edition in 1996.

A trio of classy Italians won the next three years before Chris Horner was victorious in 2000. In 2003 another American by the name of Tom Danielson, whose preternatural climbing ability led him to overall victory, was touted as cycling's heir apparent to Lance Armstrong – even though that never eventuated.

Last year Michael 'Bling' Matthews, still an amateur with the Jayco-Skins Australian national team, won two stages and as he admits, the race was "the foundation of a great season", which of course reached its zenith at the under-23 road world championships in Geelong.

Speaking of those with a fast finish, in 2006 Mark Cavendish showed a glimpse of his present self by finishing second to Sébastian Hinault; we all know what happened after that…

This year, we've been witness to perhaps the next 'Super Mario' Cipollini, an Italian by the name of Andrea Guardini who, as an amateur last year, apparently won 19 races.

He's won four stages so far.

A couple of days ago, I interviewed the best-placed Australian, Lachlan Morton, who only discovered he was doing this race in December but is currently sixth overall and come the finish Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, will probably end there.

At all these races in Asia including the Tour of Qinghai Lake and this one, I hear talk of "the growth of Asian cycling" and how races such as these have increased the level of the best Asian riders, leading to historic firsts by landing contracts with what we now call ProTeams.

That may be true. However, if the level of competition drops because the best teams aren't coming, races like the Tour de Langkawi no longer act as a shop window to provide the stepping stone to Europe and ultimately, races like the Tour de France.

Instead, as many of them are now doing, the best Asian riders will go to race on amateur teams in France or Italy in the hope of landing a contract at either Pro Continental or ProTeam level.

I still believe in this race, but if it is to be what it used to be or better than it was, the Tour de Langkawi must change, both in terms of its length and holding a fixed position on the calendar.
And the change should happen by the next time I come.