ADDED GLAMOUR: Boonen and Cavendish could join LTdL fray
THE scene is set for either 2005 world champion Tom Boonen or Mark Cavendish to put an end to Le Tour de Langkawi's (LTdL) record stage winner Andrea Guardini's dominance of the sprints.
Italian Guardini will likely return this time with Kazakhstan's Pro Team Astana, having agreed to join them from Italy's Farnese Vini team next season.
If Belgian Boonen makes his debut or Briton Cavendish returns for the first time since he began his professional career at this race in 2005, that would mark a giant step up for the race with two of the biggest sprinters in the pro peloton on show.
LTdL turns 18 on Feb 20-March 2 with a return to its birthplace and a promise of undoubtedly one of its toughest editions yet.
Both major hilltop finishes available in the peninsula have been included with the Cameron Highlands stage coming on the third stage and Genting coming on Stage Five, on Feb 25.
By the time the peloton are done with the treacherous hills and are ready to begin the longest stage of the Tour, the 212.8km Stage Six from Mentakab to Kuantan would effectively be the seventh day of racing.
This is because the race opens with a non-classified 8.8-kilometre criterium in Kuah, Langkawi on Feb 20, held as a prelude to the race, which effectively begins with Stage One from Kangar to Kulim on Feb 21.
Results from the prelude, held to coincide with the presentation of teams at Dataran Lang, will not count towards the overall classifications of the race and holds a separate prize package.
The race ends in Terengganu, whose state government again maintain its venue sponsorship deal with the organiser, the Sports Ministry.
The seventh stage begins in Kuantan and ends in Dungun, after which the following day begins in Kuala Terengganu and ends in Tanah Merah, Kelantan, then ends with a 114.8km stage that starts in Tasik Kenyir and ends in Dataran Shahbandar, Kuala Terengganu.
Upon officiating the official launch of the race in Putrajaya yesterday, Sports Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek stated the two top tier UCI pro teams that debuted in this year's race -- Kazakhstan's Pro Team Astana and Garmin-Sharp of the United States -- are set to return.
Both teams are under a three-year memorandum of understanding to compete in the race, a deal which began this year.
"We are also in the midst of negotiations to bring in one or two more UCI Pro Teams," said Ahmad Shabery. "We are looking forward to seeing Olympic champion Alexandre Vinokourov here again with Astana."
Vinokourov, 39, has however announced that he will retire at the end of the current season, although he has indicated that he might choose to extend his career by another season.
Belgian outfit Omega Pharma-Quickstep are understood to be another UCI Pro Team in the midst of negotiations to make their debut in the race, with Cavendish already agreed to join them from Team Sky for next season.
Sources reveal that the deal is close to being sealed but it is as yet uncertain whether Cavendish or Boonen would be kicking off their season here.
On another note, LTdL chief operating officer Emir Abdul Jalal described the decision to run the non-classified prelude in Langkawi as a way to provide foreign teams and press a more relaxed setting before they begin the arduous journey towards Kuala Terengganu.
"It provides them some time to appreciate Langkawi and also gives us a chance to add some prestige to the start of the race by having the team presentation and a short race in more scenic surroundings in Langkawi," said Emir.
"Although it doesn't count towards the overall classifications, it does offer prize money."
LTdL 2013 stages -- Special Stage (Feb 20): Langkawi Prelude; Stage One (Feb 21): 163.7km Kangar to Kulim; Stage Two (Feb 22): 116km Serdang to Kuala Kangsar; Stage Three (Feb 23): 145.4km Sungai Siput to Cameron Highlands; Stage Four (Feb 24): 168km Tapah to Kapar; Stage Five (Feb 25): 108km Proton, USJ Subang Jaya to Genting Highlands; Stage Six (Feb 26): 212.8km Mentakab to Kuantan; Stage Seven (Feb 27): 149.8km Kuantan to Dungun; Stage Eight (Feb 28): 164.5km Kuala Terengganu to Tanah Merah; Stage Nine (March 1): 123.6km Pasir Puteh to Kuala Berang; Stage 10 (March 2): 114.8km Tasik Kenyir to Kuala Terengganu -- Total distance: 1,466.6km.