Tuesday, February 17, 2009

This is how you race a stage!

That picture of Indonesian Samai decked in Le Tua Cycling Team's kit runs through my mind each morning since the team delivered what was a nail-biting, heart-stopping, awe-awakening ride in Stage Four of Le Tour de Langkawi last Thursday.
Picture this. That was LTdL's longest stage at 221km from Malacca to Bangi, with two categorised climbs in succession, ending just 50km from the finish. Their Kiwi climber Jeremy Yates was first to go in an almost decisive attack that went away before the second intermediate sprint in Port Dickson, 150km from the finish. There were eight in the attack, including Amir Mustafa Rusli from the MNCF team.
Then came the two successive categorised climbs at Bukit Tangga and Genting Peres. Jeremy took them both. At the summit of Peres, the other seven thought of allowing themselves to be gobbled up by the surging peloton, but Jeremy had other ideas. He wanted the win, and pushed on solo, joined shortly by South Africa's Christoff Van Heerden. The duo pushed on through undulating and punishing terrain and looked as if the time gap was brought down by the peloton driven by the powerful Diquigiovanni team. It was 1 minute and 30 seconds. What did Le Tua do? They sent Tonton Susanto in pursuit, tagging along with Ag2r's Julien Loubet. They caught up with Jeremy and Van Heerden and Tonton's sole purpose was to help his Kiwi teammate push on for the stage win. They went all the way until two kilometres to go before they were caught.
What did Le Tua have as plan B? The remainder of the team, Razif Salleh and Ng Yong Li, with domestique Lim Yew Meng dropped after hard work of pushing back and forth from the peloton to the team car and back in the two climbs just to bring water bottles to his teammates, drove Samai to near the front.
Inside 1km to go, Samai wasn't visible from where I was standing after the finish line. Inside 200m to go, we still couldn't see him. I thought it was another Mattia Gavazzi win for sure, as the Italian battled South Africa's Nolan Hoffman and Ag2r's Aurelien Clerc.
Inside 100m to go, no sight of Samai. Near 50m to go, I saw a Le Tua jersey clearly coming up from the left side of my view, right of the bunch surging at breakneck speed. In side 20m to go, I couldn't believe my eyes. He was side-by-side with Gavazzi. 10m to go, Samai was in front. He looked left, he looked right, he jerked. Then clenched his right fists in the air. He won!! HE WON!! HE WON!!
Just imagine, this was a sprinter that was written off two years ago. His last competitive race was on the track at the World 'B' Championships in Cape Town, South Africa two years ago. He won the 1km time trial there with a sub-1:08s time, nothing great. Laters that year, he was kicked out of the Indonesian national squad, bike taken away, he had nothing.
Just six months ago, Tonton took Samai under his wing and began training him back into form. A month prior to LTdL, both Tonton and Samai moved camp to Subang, where they trained intensively under Le Tua coach Johari Nayan. Look at what he's done now. Only the fifth ever stage win by an Asian in LTdL. Better still, he did it in style, winning a bunch sprint, something never ever done before by an Asian.
In earnest, it was all down to pure planning. And Le Tua had a plan. They didn't, like the Malaysian national team and MNCF, enter this race without any idea of what they wanted to achieve. They entered the race to win. And they started the race with a plan to win.
And that plan was carefully charted out, with an all-out but realistic attack of Stage Four. And it seemed on that day, this tiny team from Subang, could have taken on the world. They swept the stage win that day, along with the polka dot jersey for Jeremy and the blue jersey for Samai, which would eventually find its eternal owner in Tonton the very next day.
For me, as an ardent follower of Malaysian cycling, that Stage Four of LTdL will go down in my memory as one of the greatest performances in one stage, by any team in the history of LTdL. Bravo Le Tua. LUAR BIASA!!