Natnael Berhane's latest win comes in the Tropical Amissa Bongo race in Gabon in January. – AFP Photo
LANGKAWI: The 19th edition of Le Tour de Langkawi (LTdL) opens Thursday with a 101.1km loop around the island of Langkawi before ending in Kuala Terengganu on March 8.
In the past few editions, the race was dominated by diminutive Latin American climbers. Colombian rider Jose Serpa, now riding with Lampre Merida, won his first LTdL title in 2009. He then repeated his feat in 2012.
In between, Venezuelans Jose Rujano (2010) and Yonathan Monsalve (2011) clinched the overall title after dominating the Genting Highlands climb. And last year, Colombian rider Julian Arredondo of Team Nippo won the title, which led to him to being courted by Trek Factory Racing team this year.
Colombia will have nine representatives this year, with the bulk coming from team Colombia. Three riders outside of team Colombia are Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge), Isaac Bolivar and Carlos Escobar (both UnitedHealthcare).
Venezuela, meanwhile, will only have two riders this year with Monsalve (Yellow Fluo) and Carlos Ochoa (Androni Giocattoli).
But young Eritrean rider Natnael Berhane of Europcar hopes to break the domination of the Latin climbers this year. Berhane comes to LTdL with an impressive resume for a 23-year-old.
With four overall wins to date since 2010, Berhane’s latest win comes in the Tropical Amissa Bongo race in Gabon in January.
“I trained hard for this race but as a professional, we train hard whenever we are not racing anyway. The weather is hot here and I like it like this,” he said.
But before even scaling the arduous Genting climb which he would tackle on Sunday, Berhane faced other difficulties when he arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) on Monday. Due to some miscommunication with his team, Berhane didn’t have his visa.
“It almost made me go crazy. I was really tired from 15 hours on the plane from France and I then was forced to spend the whole day at the airport,” said Berhane, who went for a training ride slightly later than his team-mates on Wednesday, probably after some extra rest.
“Luckily, they managed to settle the matter because it was really tiring. I really have my eye on the race and I hope I can win it.”
Another contender capable of improving on his second place finish last year is Pieter Weening of Orica GreenEdge. Weening, who will have the Amstel Gold Race (Holland) in April and Giro d’Italia (Italy) in May as his major objectives this year, said it would be hard to predict the contenders this year.
“It’s very difficult to say because I don’t see a lot of the (strong) guys here. It’s still early in the season and it would be very difficult to know who has the form to win. If you have the legs at Genting, then you could win.
“As for me, I don’t have any pressure. I was good last year when I finished second but we will see how the race goes for me,” said the Dutchman.