PETALING JAYA: Can Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang defy the odds and slay the giants of Europe when he rides the keirin at the World Track Cycling Championships in Berlin, Germany?
Azizul and teammate Mohd Shah Firdaus Sahrom will ride in their pet event today, hoping to pick up precious qualifying points for the Tokyo Olympics.
The world meet, the last chance for riders to collect qualifying points for the Olympics, started last night with the team sprint and team pursuit but Malaysia are not represented in both.
Berlin will be a vital stage for the back-from-injury Azizulhasni after what has been a challenging run-up to the Olympics. The final list of qualifiers will be announced next week.
Still, Malaysians will be hoping that the former world keirin champion is back in good shape after two unfortunate accidents late last year.
He almost severed a finger in a training mishap in September and then suffered a heavy crash at the Brisbane leg of the World Cup in December.
On the riders to look out for today, Azizul said the strongest threat should come from Holland, Germany, New Zealand, Britain and Japan.
Holland dominated the sprint disciplines in last year’s edition in Poland and Matthijs Buchli, the defending champion in the keirin and the Rio Olympic silver medallist, should be in the mix.
The Dutch also have Harrie Lavreysen, the defending champion in the individual sprint, and Jeffrey Hoogland to rely on.
“Riders like Lavreysen and Hoogland are tactically good and are naturally very strong. If you look at their thighs, they are almost double the size of mine and they are much, much taller than me. They will be the favourites again.
“Germany have one or two good riders who are also former world champions while Japan have improved so much in the last two years because of their focus on the Olympics they are hosting.
“As for Britain, they have always kept a low profile going into the Olympics but we cannot count them out. It’s going to be an interesting battle, ” said the 32-year-old.
After the training mishap six months ago, he lost valuable momentum in his training but was still able to bounce back strongly to win the gold (individual sprint) and silver (keirin) at the Asian Cycling Championships in South Korea in October.
Azizul looked to be back in top form when he romped to victory in the keirin at the Cambridge, New Zealand leg of the World Cup in November but then, disaster struck again.
His crash in Brisbane saw him out of action for another two weeks.
“I am still sore but I think I am getting better and better. Hopefully, both Firdaus and I can negotiate the early rounds well and get into the final for the first time.
“If both of us get in, we have a very good chance to get on the podium and it will boost our chances to get both of us in Tokyo.
“Tactically, it will be good as I hope to get on the podium at the very least, ” he said.
Azizul, Shah Firdaus and teammate Mohd Fadhil Zonis have made significant gains in physical strength over the past 18 months and could be more competitive against their bigger and taller European rivals.
It will be interesting to see what kind of improvement Azizul can produce after putting in extensive work on aerodynamics and bike technology.
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