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Bike racing is not just about the Tour de France, Paris–Roubaix and world championships. Also of great importance to the sport’s fabric are distant races like the Tour de Langkawi, which started Wednesday and continues with eight stages through next Wednesday. Now in its 23rd year, the Malaysian stage race—named after the island of Langkawi where it originated—has contributed to the expansion of cycling in southeast Asia, helped with the development of riders and teams from all over the world, and given Western racers a different perspective of their sport.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: Yuzuru Sunada
One of the most important aspects of “new” races such as Langkawi is bringing publicity to a country and its tourist attractions by showing off its scenery, culture and facilities. That’s why the globalization of cycling has been a priority for the Union Cycliste Internationale for the past two decades. That was something that Irish race promoter Pat McQuaid understood well before he became the UCI president in 2005.
“Cycling is a sport that is one of the best to portray countryside from the tourism point of view,” McQuaid said, “and the Tour de France is the best example of it. So I think a lot of countries are opening up to that view. I remember well Dr. Mahathir, the prime minister of Malaysia back in the early ’90s; he wanted a Tour de France in Malaysia [which led to the Tour de Langkawi] for the very same tourism reasons. I think that in all the countries I visit, the ministers tell me there’s a huge potential for our sport in their country.”
This year, several sports events in Malaysia have had to be postponed or given vastly reduced budgets because the country is hosting the South East Asian Games in August. But the Minister of Youth & Sports said when announcing a smaller budget for the race: “Seeing the popularity of the Tour de Langkawi and its importance as a sports tourism event for the nation, we decided it has to continue….”
Besides the positive effects on a county like Malaysia hosting a major international race, many of the teams get great benefit from competing in a new country. That was the case in the early years of the Tour de Langkawi, when the world’s No. 1-ranked team, Mapei, was a regular starter. After the fourth edition of the race, Giorgio Squinzi, the CEO of Mapei, a building industry products manufacturer, told Italian-based journalist Stephen Farrand: “Cycling is ideal for Mapei because we can get worldwide exposure with just one sport. For example, we recently had a team at the Tour de Langkawi. It’s only a small race on the international calendar, but it was very important for Mapei, because we have factories there, and the Malaysian and southeast Asian markets are important for our products. The race receives a lot of local media attention so we always send a good team.”
Similarly, former American pro cyclist Craig Lewis told me a couple of years ago about the benefits of racing in new countries: “It’s great for the growth of the sport. China could be the next world power…so they need to have riders in big races and get that support from the fans. And it’s happening in smaller countries too. In Malaysia, they love cycling; they’ve had the Tour de Langkawi for a long time. And we’ve taken a couple of Malaysians into our team and brought them to Europe…. It’s just gonna continue from there. There’s no reason for cycling to be locked up in Europe.”
Other riders see other benefits. Team Sky’s Ian Boswell has blossomed since 2015, when he said that among his bigger goals that year were the Tour de Langkawi, where he placed 10th overall, and the Amgen Tour of California, where his improved climbing strength saw him take seventh overall. “Reaching the performance goals, training, recovering, preparing for a race and racing…that’s helped me to always have something to work for,” he said.
Lasting eight days instead of the traditional 10, the most decisive stage of this week’s Langkawi is on Day 4, with a finish at Cameron Highlands. It starts on the coast at Seri Manjung and heads east, with gradual climbing in the last third of the 174.4-kilometer stage—with the Cat. 1 Ringlet climb coming with 15 kilometers to go, and the Hors-Cat Tanah Rata climb climb at the finish in Cameron Highlands at an elevation of 1,412 meters (4,632 feet).