By Arnaz M. Khairul
SCOPING through archived images of Le Tour de Langkawi, the 25 years since its inception seemed to pass like a breeze when contrasted against the time between its annual editions in recent seasons.
Not that the race itself had grown into what it should have, but the simple fact that apart from the grumbling voices around social media from those who lost out on the biggest pie in Malaysian cycling, Le Tour de Langkawi’s recent editions ran without much else in terms of drama. And that is a good thing. Trust me.
From the epic glory years between 1996 and 2004, where the race cemented its spot as the biggest cycling event outside of the Grand Tours and Monuments, the financial tragedy of the 2005 and 2006 editions which brought government intervention, turned into a continuous tussle for control of the race, more so the plush government funding available to carry out the event at the full expense of the taxpayer, until last year. But believe me, that still keeps LTdL on a positive standing.
For the purists, long dilluted by the continuous bickering and power struggles for the distribution of the LTdL pie, is the lustre that once dominated its memorable editions prior to the 2006 chaos.
In the earlier years, an edition of LTdL was a spectacle and hive of cycling stories feeding ever insufficient media space and airtime. There were interesting stories to seek from the front to the back of the peloton.
WHEN THE CYCLISTS TOOK CENTRESTAGE
From the young Tom Danielson who rose to stardom with a surprise victory in the 2003 edition after an epic battle all the way up Genting Highlands to stay on the wheel of the then defending champion Hernan Dario Munoz, it was scenes such as these which captivated live TV audiences across the continent if not the world.
Hell, even 18 years on from being glued to the big screen at the finish line as the pair approached the line, Munoz taking the stage win but a young Danielson doing just enough to retain the yellow jersey for what remains the biggest win of his career, I still remember those scenes like it was yesterday.
Even a little down the line, a rider who would later become a dear friend, Indonesia’s Tonton Susanto, was caught in a feisty battle for the Asian riders’ jersey, which he’d eventually just lose out to Japan’s Tomoya Kano.
Staying with the 2003 edition, it was awash with stories not just from the podium, but with tales that began prior to and lasted well beyond that edition.
The confirmation of Italian outfit Domina Vacanze for the race made all the news pre-race headlines, not less for the team’s famous zebra-striped, apparently a tribute to the success of its African safari tour packages for the Italian market, but more for the fact that the greatest of all Italian sprinters, Mario Cipollini was about to sign for the team in the off-season and Le Tour de Langkawi would be their first race that season.
Well, Cipollini was not on the startline in Langkawi and Domina Vacanze had a largely uneventful race, much like the entire career of Filippo Simeone, who did make the startline of LTdL in Domina Vacanze stripes that year and merely finished in the group on every stage.
Back in those days, when we followed the progress of the Tour de France, Giro, Vuelta and the Monuments via live text on the Eurosport website, one thing I was fond of doing was to spot which riders had come to Le Tour de Langkawi. And there were many.
Simeone was one of them, but his unillustrious career apart from being remembered as a loyal domestique, a worker who would burn himself for the team, would take a sharp turn on the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France, when his name appeared on the live text on a breakaway attempt, but was later the subject of the famous Lance Armstrong “zip your mouth” gesture that would be the defining moment of his life as a cyclist, or rather among the whistleblowers to the biggest doping scandal in the history of sport.
Such was the stock of data to feed cycling literature from just one edition of a race in its prime.
Subsequent to the 2006 LTdL financial tragedy and government bail-out, yes, there were some interesting editions, even more for the local fans who saw the likes of Anuar Manan and Adiq Husainie Othman rise to challenge the upper echelons of the hierarchy in the LTdL peloton.
But the lustre of big game cycling had evidently disappeared. There had been some interesting spectacles, but nothing of major impact that pushed the limits of the global hierarchy of cycling events, as even LTdL stature among Asian cycling’s elite events had been challenged by more stable, equally well funded and far less controversial new races in Qatar, UAE, China and even Indonesia.
The fact that the latter, more recent editions of LTdL became the source of tussles between organisers with or without political clout and a federation responsible for the sport which was simply more interested in its portion of the pie in those moments, rather than the future sustainability of the race itself had almost piled the nails to its coffin.
I personally do admit to advising those in power to simply put the race to bed as it no longer served a significant purpose to cycling or to the nation’s image other than the annual bonus to sustain those who manage to gain their parts in the organisational structure of it.
What would cycling be without Le Tour de Langkawi? That was the question I’d asked in the past three years.
From the flagship event it once was not just for Malaysia, but Asian cycling itself, LTdL has become the saving grace not for the cyclists but the mere human trait of responsibility.
The past four editions, though significantly still bankrolled by the taxpayer, simply managed to settle bills. And that, in the state of affair in Malaysian cycling event organisation, has become a big thing!
For four years, the nation’s image had suffered a battering internationally due to irresponsible organisation of cycling stage races.
Beginning with the 2016 Tour de Sarawak, which saw riders from across the globe arrive in Miri for the start only to find no welcoming party, no hotel rooms, no organiser and nothing related to the race prepared! Eventually, there was no race but a peloton of red faced cyclists on an unplanned holiday in Sarawak!
The trail of bungling cycling event organisers was not to end there as the organiser of that year’s edition of the Jelajah Malaysia sought to outdo the Tour de Sarawak, by actually getting the planned 6-stage race to start, only for riders to return to locked hotel rooms after the opening stage due to breach of agreement that opened a can of worms.
That organiser was found out to be without money and fans tuned in to the local sports channel to watch highlight of the race were treated to scenes of a crying event organiser instead!
The next stages were carried out with teams and volunteers actually footing the bill to cover costs to simply carry out the race. Evidently, prizemoney was not paid.
If that would have been a lesson for the Malaysian National Cycling Federation (MNCF) to be wary and protect the sport from unscrupulous organisers, it had no effect.
The same organiser was allowed to carry out the next edition of the race in 2017 and managed to achieve and even bigger embarrasment on behalf of the country.
Unpaid prizemoney began to become a certainty. Locked hotel rooms due to unpaid deposits too. Drivers of race entourage vehicles covering fed up with covering the fuel costs was another. But this time, the organiser was left with a fleet of driverless vehicles at the finish town of Kuala Terengganu, as an unpaid workforce simply paid their own way home through means other than delivering the vehicles back to the secretariat in Kuala Lumpur.
Right up to the beginning of last year, another new race the Tour of Iskandar Johor, seemingly promising to carry out a race without similar controversy, went quiet after carrying out the race. This left a failure for anyone to answer questions being posed to Malaysian cyclists by their counterparts in UCI Asia Tour races abroad. Where is the Tour of Iskandar Johor prizemoney?
As embarassing as such incidents may seem, even worse is the fact that all those apart from notes of unpaid dues, go about unpunished, with no action from the authorities or the bodies responsible for safeguarding the sport, who instead were found on the pages of local media criticising the organiser of Le Tour de Langkawi and reminding them to adhere to regulations. Well, to be blunt, there simply was no concern with LTdL not being able to meet its financial responsilities, especially with the backing of government funding. Just that the pie this time did not include a sufficient portion for certain characters.
Hence, rather than the excitement that once loomed with an impending new edition of LTdL for strictly sporting reasons, the 25th edition of the race set to begin on the 6th of February brings more a sigh of relief than anything.
The organisers needed not to convince me with promises of big name riders or fantastic stages where epic battles could be expected. Nor does its new status as part of the UCI’s revamped second tier Pro Series have any severe pleasing effect on my craving for the “real” cycling season to start, but that won’t happen for another month after LTdL’s silver jubilee ends.
It is simply the knowledge that their funding is secured, albeit against the backdrop of some envious voices feeling robbed of the spoils, that promises more than the rest of cycling. Some may hate this fact, many may hate the political connections at play, but the harsh reality is that this provides relief to us who just want no more harm to be caused to the sport or the country’s image.
The concerns over LTdL are no longer sporting ones, but for it to provide some evidence to the world that Malaysia can simply settle bills.