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The Climbs of Le Tour de Langkawi
Words by Alan Grant | Images by Christopher Chen
Hills and mountains were put on this earth to be climbed. So when an adventure beckons that involves the classic climbs of an iconic bike race, it’s pretty hard to resist the call. Throw in some intriguing colonial history, a dash of mystery and you have the perfect ingredients for a ride with the Rapha Continental.
The venue for our three-day ride was the highlands of Malaysia, an expanse of lush green peaks and valleys that, around this time of year, plays host to Le Tour de Langkawi (LTDL), a UCI 2.HC event ranked just below a WorldTour race. This year’s race of LTDL, the 18th edition, ran from 21st February to 2nd March. LTDL is most famous for Genting Highlands, a brute of a mountain and one of three long climbs that have featured prominently in the race since its inception in 1996. The other two climbs, Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands, are where the history and mystery enter our story.
Modern Malaysia was once a British colony. The poor old Brits didn’t take to the tropical climate too well, so in order to escape the oppressive heat and humidity of life in the lowlands, they built hill stations where cooler temperatures provided the perfect retreat. Fraser’s Hill was one such stations and takes its name from Louis James Fraser, a pioneering British prospector. Having discovered valuable seams of tin ore in the surrounding hills in the 1890s, it was around 1910 that Fraser mysteriously disappeared from the mining operation he helped establish. The colonial authorities sent an expedition to look for Fraser but though it proved a fruitless search there was an upside; the ridge above Fraser’s camp proved the ideal location for a temperate home away from home. Little did they know that the roads they would build to reach it would be revered among cyclists in years to come.
The Cameron Highlands has its own curious tale of an unexplained disappearance. It was one evening in 1967 that Jim Thompson, a former CIA spy who also played a key role in revitalizing the Thai silk industry, left his cottage in the Cameron Highlands to go for a walk. He was never seen again. Speculation as to the fate of both men continues to this day but no bodies were ever found.
The Tour de Langkawi is, if not quite a mystery, then at least something of an enigma. Named after an island off Malaysia’s west coast, the race hasn’t visited its namesake much in recent years. How it attracts a half-dozen or so WorldTour teams each year is some trick: the tropical conditions are hardly the best preparation for the races that follow; the wet, cold and windy Classics of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. But come they do, along with a bunch of lower-tier teams from the Pro-Continental and Continental ranks. The race, essentially the Tour of Malaysia, usually consists of 10-plus stages and is predominantly a sprinters affair. Except, of course, for its one or two days of climbing.
It’s these mountain roads that have drawn the Rapha Continental and this year’s LTDL visited both the Cameron and Genting Highlands. The plan was to tackle them both, with a transition day to Fraser’s Hill in between. If completed it would mean, over the three days, riding a little under 600km, with 8,500m of elevation.