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Chasing Milestones

Special Features
Writer
Jamal Raslan
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A return to form for Asia’s biggest and oldest cycling competition

One of the oldest professional cycling competitions in Asia, Le Tour de Langkawi is a two-wheeled trailblazer that brought professional cycling into prominence in the region. Celebrating its silver jubilee later this February, Le Tour de Langkawi has gone through plenty in its 25-year history. From promotional to logistics gaffes, and organisational changes entailing demotion in race class and back, Le Tour de Langkawi has grown from a quaint event in 1996 to one of the largest continental professional cycling tours of its level in Asia. In light of former title sponsor Petronas returning to the fold for the 2020 edition along with the announcements of its 2020 routes and programmes, it’s safe to say that Le Tour de Langkawi won’t be leaving the track any time soon.

imgMinister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq initiated the race.

A milestone in Asian professional cycling, Le Tour de Langkawi was conceived by Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his first tenure as Prime Minister. From the get go, Le Tour de Langkawi was intended to place Malaysia on the world sporting and tourism map, as Tun Mahathir observed the inherent economic potential of his home town of Langkawi and its archipelago in promoting tourism in the region. Since then, it can be said that the cycling event must have surpassed Tun Mahathir’s own vision and expectations since then.

imgNovember 23,2019 - Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad launched the 25th anniversary of Le Tour de Langkawi at Petronas Twin Tower.

Launching the Petronas Le Tour De Langkawi 2020 last November, Tun Mahathir mentioned how a total of 232 stages of the competition have been organised throughout Malaysia since its inception 24 years ago. As a result, not only are Malaysia and Langkawi now firmly placed in the world's map as a must-go destination, other districts in Malaysia that the cyclists pedalled through benefited as well. “The world sees the Malaysian countryside as much as the well-known towns and cities," Tun Mahathir had remarked.

A LONG CLIMB

Starting out as a novelty, Le Tour de Langkawi was the first of its kind in Asia. It was the richest bicycle race in Asia at the time, with a total prize money of RM1.1 million (about USD269, 190). However, despite the huge sum, it actually began as a humble 2.6 classification by the International Cycling Union (UCI) in 1996 and was eventually awarded the Hors Category (HC) classification in 2004. It became a 2.HC race, which is only one level down from the highest classification: the World Tour (WT). Eight years in, Le Tour de Langkawi had become a race that is just one degree below the likes of Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.

In cycling speak, it was a sprint win. But as any racer would point out, a race is more than just a sprint. There are stages, climbs, and chases.

There were also falls.

After a brilliant start, Le Tour de Langkawi slowly dropped back into the chasing pack. The Youth and Sports Ministry (KBS) took the seat after controversies surrounding the original organiser came to the fore. These included debts and unpaid dues that eventually wound up in the courts.

There was also disgruntlement over how bicycles and luggage were delayed during the Sabah and Sarawak leg of the tour in 1997, leading to teams Mapei and MG from Italy and team Casino from France refusing to race. The years 2003 and 2006 saw the final stage of the tour cancelled because of heavy rain, while in 2004, the police had allowed civilian vehicles onto the course by mistake.

These challenges may have slowed the race down, with competitive participation by world leading pro cycling teams affected, but nobody even considered backpedalling or calling it quits. There was always a reason to ride.

RETURN TO FORM

After a plateau, KBS launched an initiative to privatise the organising of Le Tour de Langkawi by providing a fixed grant of about RM10 million, with the rest of the estimated RM15-20 million race cost to be generated by the organisers themselves.

This was how Petronas eventually came back as title sponsor. After various assistance from many corporations and organizations - like Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN) - Petronas’ return signified a moral triumph for Le Tour de Langkawi, especially since Petronas is no stranger to the Malaysian sports scene.

At the same time, the 2020 edition also sees the UCI sanctioning Le Tour de Langkawi back as ProSeries under its three-tier race structure.

imgPetronas is back as main sponsor for Le Tour de Langkawi.

MILESTONES

On par with other cycling races in Europe, Le Tour de Langkawi has attracted many top riders as well as World Tour and Pro Continental teams throughout the years. The likes of Jens Voigt, Alessandro Petacchi, Juan Antonio Flecha and Marco Pinotti have ridden the Langkawi breeze at least once. Even the ‘Manx Missile’, Mark Cavendish had a tough time up Cameron Highlands back in 2006.

Le Tour de Langkawi has also witnessed top class World Tour racing over the years, especially in 2014 when six World Tour teams competed. It remains a record that every subsequent edition aspires to break.

All the above has produced a domino effect on Malaysian cycling. Anuar Manan became the first Malaysian to win a stage from the race in 2010, taking the green jersey as Sprint King. He was emulated by Mohd Harrif Salleh, currently riding for the Malaysian-based continental team; Terengganu Cycling (TSG), who started out as an eager fan hunting for autographs from riders at the starting line. These two locals have made the podium eight times thus far. They’re proof that our cyclists can race wheel-to-wheel with the likes of Marcel Kittel and Caleb Ewan.

imgMohd Harrif Saleh (middle), winner of stage 2 (Senawang-Melaka), out of 8 stages altogether, of Le Tour de Langkawi 2019.

"I believe these success stories have served as an inspiration for many Malaysians,” Tun Dr. Mahathir enthused in his launch speech. “Cycling has become more popular now in Malaysia. In this context, I would like to urge the organizers to tap into this huge interest in Le Tour de Langkawi by taking the relevant initiatives to develop cycling as the preferred sport amongst the young," he implored, proudly.

imgThe Petronas Le Tour de Langkawi 2020 race route.

SPORTS UNITE, CYCLING CONTRIBUTES

The Petronas Le Tour de Langkawi 2020 seeks to emphasise the importance of unity via the sport of cycling. It is much more than just a race. The theme promotes unity through sports regardless of their ideologies, race and background.

Of course, as per its original purpose, the race also aims to promote Langkawi and Malaysia as a must-visit destination. Typically, Le Tour de Langkawi begins in Langkawi and focuses on Peninsula Malaysia, with Sabah and Sarawak only appearing in the first edition. It often passes major landmarks such as Genting Highlands and Dataran Merdeka, with the majestic Petronas KLCC Twin Towers included in routes in recent years. However, the 2020 edition will make a long overdue return to Borneo, starting off at Kota Kinabalu and going down the coast all the way to Kuching before returning to Peninsula Malaysia via the East Coast and eventually making its way to culminate in Langkawi.

imgTwo additional races as part of silver jubilee celebration.

The Petronas Le Tour de Langkawi 2020 will also introduce two additional races as part of their silver jubilee celebration and developmental efforts, namely the Criterium International and Malaysia Classic – two new one-day races debuting in the UCI calendar.

The Criterium International is meant for the Under-23 (U23) category of riders with a UCI elite-racing license. The intent is to make Malaysia a platform to discover future cycling champions. Meanwhile, the Malaysia Classic, dubbed the "Race of the Champions," would feature national champions within the last two years from all over the world.

These new races have been warmly welcomed all around, not least by the Prime Minister himself. "This is a 'one of a kind' competition; it has never been organised anywhere else. I trust that both events would strengthen Malaysia's position as one of the cycling powerhouses in Southeast Asia and provide wider international publicity to Malaysia beyond Le Tour de Langkawi," he said.

The Petronas Le Tour de Langkawi 2020 is scheduled to run from 7 until 14 February, covering over 1000km across East and West Malaysia in a momentous year for the country and its tourism industry. Malaysia Airports would like to wish the best of luck to all cyclists taking part in the event this year.

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