JELAJAH MALAYSIA: Leading local sprinters set to battle for honours
THE bunch sprints, should they happen, will provide most of the sparks in this edition of Jelajah Malaysia which starts with a stage from Merdeka Stadium to Kampar today.
All the top Malaysian sprinters are lined up to face-off in a battle that could put the established foreign teams out of the picture.
Harrif Salleh has built his season with this race as one of his major targets, but he has been thrown a late challenge by nemesis Anuar Manan, who was roped in to bolster the Malaysia Development Team just in time for the start of the race.
Harrif has a clear picture of who his challengers will be apart from Anuar, but just focusing on the established names could be a mistake, as 21-year-old Zulhilmie Afif Ahmad Zamri of the Terengganu development team is one youngster who is slowly taking steps towards becoming a worthy replacement for Harrif in the state's UCI Continental team, the Terengganu Cycling Team.
Often overlooked, Zulhilmie has been gradually making his presence felt at senior level, having spent his junior career rivalling Adiq Husainie Othman in the SportExcel National Junior Circuit, which the duo dominated three years ago.
Zulhilmie already sounded a warning when he led the bunch sprint that ended the Kencana-SIC Bikeathon in February, only to be pipped at the finish line by Anuar.
Anuar has returned from his European stint with his Champion System team and will have teammate Adiq Husainie to count on in the Malaysia Development Team, but Harrif believes this time he has the edge.
"If it ends in bunch sprints, I will be confident. My only fear is if the race is finished by successful breakaways everyday.
"We have come here with a stronger team this time and I've built up my form by racing in the Tour of Borneo, which was good preparation for me," said Harrif.
The Terengganu Cycling Team start the race with Harrif backed by Tour of Thailand stage winners Shinichi Fukushima and Saufi Mat Senan, Nor Umardi Rosdi, Shahrul Mat Amin and most important to Harrif's cause, his elder brother Zamri, who got married on Saturday but from today will be bent on leading out his sibling for bunch sprint victories.
"It will suit me best when my brother does the lead-out for me.
"He is small in size but he will do everything to get me to the front, so it is important for me to have him here," said Harrif, who has had many close calls but is amazingly yet to score his first stage victory of the year.
The Royal Malaysian Police, meanwhile, start the race aiming to defend their overall Malaysian riders classification victory registered by Amir Mustafa Rusli last year.
Although Amir is not with the team this time around, the team will bank on seasoned national rider Fauzan Ahmad Lutfi to deliver the goods, backed by Pelapis trainee Nik Mohd Azwan Zulkiflee.