It was a banner day for Le Tour de Langkawi’s lone UCI WorldTour team, Dimension Data, on stage 4 on Saturday.
Not only did Eritrean Mekseb Debesay take the 174.4km queen stage atop the Cameron Highlands over Australian Cameron Bayley (IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness), the team also managed to keep the yellow jersey on sprinter Ryan Gibbons, who finished a highly respectable third on the day.
The stage highlight featured two categorised climbs, including a Cat 1 at the 160.8km mark and a hors catégorie (HC) two kilometres from the finish.
“Super, super happy for him,” said Gibbons of his team-mate’s win. “He was definitely a lot stronger than me today. A few times riders got away and both he and Ben O’Connor were a part of it and they didn’t roll on. They both saw that I was coming, so they hung back.
“He was definitely head and shoulders above everyone today and I’m really chuffed for him to get the win and chuffed I could keep the jersey.”
Mekseb Debesey (Dimension Data) wins stage 4 atop the Cameron Highlands at Le Tour de Langkawi on Saturday, February 25, 2017. Photo: Daebong Kim
Image credit: Eurosport
Prior to the start, Gibbons told Eurosport it was “most likely” his last day in yellow after first taking the overall lead following stage 2. However, the 22-year-old South African, who was primarily viewed as a sprinter leading into the race, is quickly being seen as an all-rounder as the event progresses – something he claims is a double-edged sword.
“I’m from South Africa and in the domestic scene there you have to be able to climb, sprint and time trial pretty competitively,” explained Gibbons. “It’s not like the rest of Europe and the rest of the world where you have pure sprinters and pure climbers. In South Africa you have to be a bit of everything.
The problem with that is I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none … I’m just trying to do the best I can and be as competitive as possible.
According to mountains classification leader John Ebsen (Infinite AIS), the 28-year-old Dane may have inadvertently motivated Gibbons over the final climb.
“I told the yellow jersey yesterday that the climb was not hard enough and that he would keep the lead,” said the Tour of Singkarak (2.2) stage winner and two-time Taiwan KOM champion. “He told me when he passed me on the climb in the last 5km and I yelled ‘you are still here, see I told you so’ that it kind of kept him going.”
Even with the strong podium finish, Gibbons reassured Eurosport he had no expectations to remain the leader following the stage, but he hopes to hold on it despite turning his focus on a stage win of own.
“We had a discussion last night and even this morning with the managers and they said no pressure … they don’t expect much,” he shared. “I think there is probably more pressure now, definitely people are going to be watching me, but I’ve got a great team around me and hopefully we can hold on.”
“I really want a stage win,” Gibbons continued. “That is definitely a priority. Obviously, the biggest priority would be to keep the jersey, but I would be disappointed not to have a stage win, so I am going to definitely go all out for a stage win.”
Dimension Data teammates Ryan Gibbons (left) and Mekseb Debesey talk to media after DeBesey's queen stage win. Photo: Daebong Kim
Image credit: Eurosport
Shortly after the start, five riders escaped from the field, including Afiq Othman (Infinite AIS), Kota Sumiyoshi (Aisan Racing), Eiman Firdaus Mohd Zamri (Malaysia National), Joon Yong Seo (KSPO-Bianchi Asia) and the day’s most combative rider Thurakit Boonratanathanakorn (Thailand Continental).
The break set a blistering pace covering 85.7km in just two hours of racing before being reeled in on the ascent.
Korea’s Seo, who won all three intermediate sprints on the day and earned best Malaysian rider, is the last Asian stage winner at Langkawi two years ago in Kuantan.
While the remaining stages favour the sprinters, thus giving Gibbons ample opportunity for both his highly sought after stage win – and valuable time bonuses, team sports director Oli Cookson is not ready to celebrate just yet.
“There are some very good teams here,” said Cookson. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, there already was, but even more now after winning the queen stage and keeping the yellow.
“Ryan is a young rider and we are already ahead of expectations and we need to bide our time. We respect our rivals and also it’s an eight-day race in hot, humid conditions, so we need to keep our team strong and not get sick.
“We take it day by day because you never know in cycling,” he concluded. “Not going to count our chickens before they’re hatched.”
Stage 4 Classification
1. Mekseb Debesay, ERI, Dimension Data, 4:37:49
2. Cameron Bayley, AUS, IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness, s.t.
3. Ryan Gibbons, RSA, Dimension Data, +0:04
1. Ryan Gibbons, RSA, Dimension Data, 7:59:13
2. Cameron Bayley, AUS, IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness, +0:11
3. Alberto Cecchin, ITA, Wilier Triestina, +0:17
Race Leader (Yellow Jersey): Ryan Gibbons, RSA, Dimension Data
Points Leader (Teal Jersey): Scott Sunderland, IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness
Mountains leader (Red Jersey): John Ebsen, DEN, Infinite AIS Cycling Team
Best Asian Rider (White Jersey): Yevgeniy Gidich, KAZ, Vino-Astana Motors
Best Malaysian Rider: Sea Keong Loh, MAS, Thailand Continental Cycling Team
Best Malaysian Rider Overall: Mohd Shahrul Mat Amin, MAS, Terengganu Cycling Team
Combativity Award: T Boonratanathanakorn, THA, Thailand Continental Cycling Team
Teams Classification: IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness, 46:18:49