Time trials loom large in Tour of Switzerland

This Saturday, the modern Merckxes and Gimondis will be contesting a much shorter time trial, over one lap of a hilly circuit on the other side of town, but it could have great significance in the outcome of this Tour de Suisse.

Lugano, the beautiful southern Swiss city sitting on its eponymous lake surrounded by mountains, is a perfect place to start the 74th Tour of Switzerland this weekend. That’s because the nine-day, 1,353.1km national tour opens with a tough little time trial in a place that has a rich tradition of races against the clock.

Cancellara crushed it in the final TT in '09. Photo: <a href=It was at Lugano, in 1968, that a crowd of 50,000 fans saw one of the greatest-ever time trials, contested by two legends of the sport, Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi. The event was the Gran Premio Cynar, first held in 1950 and won three times by Italy’s campionissimo Fausto Coppi and a record seven times by Jacques Anquetil.

Merckx won it just once. But that 1968 victory was pretty special. Over a 77.8km course, five laps of a circuit that contained the nasty cobbled Sorengo hill, the then 23-year-old Belgian fought a race-long duel with the popular 26-year-old Italian. First one, then the other took the lead until Merckx ended his effort with an all-out sprint to win by 12 seconds and better Gimondi’s course record by a minute. It established Merckx as the No. 1 time trialist in the world.

This Saturday, the modern Merckxes and Gimondis will be contesting a much shorter time trial, over one lap of a hilly circuit on the other side of town, but it could have great significance in the outcome of this Tour de Suisse.

The stage favorite is the current Olympic and world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank, who is confident that the defense of his Tour of Switzerland title will start well. “I’m not on the same form as last year,” Cancellara said Thursday, “so I’m just concentrating on the Lugano time trial and the final one in Liestal.”

On the other seven stages, the Swiss champion is more likely to ride for his teammates Andy and Fränk Schleck, who are using the race as their final preparation for next month’s Tour de France. But with no mountaintop finishes in this Tour de Suisse, and only one truly tough mountain stage, the two time trials are likely to decide the final outcome.

The top favorites for the overall include the men who finished one-two-three at the recent Amgen Tour of California: winner Michael Rogers of HTC-Columbia, runner-up Dave Zabriskie of Garmin-Transitions and Levi Leipheimer of Team RadioShack. But those riders’ chief helpers in the Golden State — HTC’s German Tony Martin (last year’s Switzerland runner-up), Garmin’s Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong or Andreas Klöden — could also come through strong, just as Jani Brajkovic has done for the team this week in the Dauphiné.

Others whose performances will be noted in respect to the upcoming Tour de France will be the 2008 Switzerland winner Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas-Doimo, Dutch climber Robert Gesink of Rabobank, Luxembourg veteran Kim Kirchen of Katusha and Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde (returning from a broken collarbone).

CanceBesides the time trials and overall classification, the individual stages will be hard fought especially the mass-sprint finishes, where the hot candidates include Mark Cavendish (HTC), Robbie McEwen (Katusha), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Gerald Ciolek (Milram), Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd (both Cervélo TestTeam), Tom Boonen (Quick Step(, Yauhani Hutarovych (FDJ) and Gert Steegmans (RadioShack).

Here’s a brief look at the nine stages of the 2010 Tour de Suisse:

Saturday, June 12: Stage 1. Lugano TT (7.6km)
After a 1.4km fast sprint along the lake, the riders hit a switchback climb that rises 480 vertical feet in 2km before making a fast, swooshing descent back into town and a finish back by the water. RadioShack’s Armstrong, Klöden and Leipheimer should all challenge Cancellara on this course, as could Martin, Kreuziger and Rogers — who will be fast after returning straight from an altitude camp.

Sunday, June 13: Stage 2. Ascona – Sierre (167.5km)
Although this includes the long, long climb over the Cat. 1, 6,578-foot-elevation Simplon Pass at halfway, the punchy Cat. 3 hill 13km from the finish is likely to have more impact on the outcome; and a field sprinter like Freire can’t be ruled out.

Monday, June 14: Stage 3. Sierre – Schwarzenburg (196.6km)
Again, the Cat. 1 Col des Mosses is too early to really affect the outcome, unlike the very hilly final 30km and an 2.2km uphill finish that has some 11-percent pitches. Not a day for the sprinters. The GC candidates should be on their guard.

Tuesday, June 15: Stage 4. Schwarzenburg – Wettingen (192.2km)
This is the flattest stage of the race, and although the field has to climb a Cat. 3 hill on the two laps of a finishing circuit, it’s a good 20km from the line. Cavendish should be on the top step of the day’s podium.

Wednesday, June 16: Stage 5. Wettingen – Frutigen (172.5km)
This is another lumpy stage, with a Cat. 3 climb 10km from the finish, but a field sprint looks to be on the cards. Perhaps one that suits Haussler or Ciolek.

Thursday, June 17: Stage 6. Meiringen – La Punt (213.3km)
This is by far the hardest stage of the race, not only the longest, but it also includes three giant climbs. The Susten and Oberalp Passes are too early to make a difference, but the hors-cat Albula Pass peaks less than 10km from the finish in the high alpine valley of the Engadine, by which time the field will have climbed through a total 15,620 vertical feet (4,761 meters). This is a day for the Schleck brothers and climbers like Gesink and perhaps Damiano Cunego (Lampre), who will be trying to get the better of the RadioShack and HTC leaders.

Friday, June 18: Stage 7. Savognin – Wetzikon (204.1km)
With all the climbs coming in the second half of this stage after a downhill/flat opening, this has breakaway written all over it, especially as the major mountain day will have left most of the riders out of contention.

Saturday, June 19: Stage 8. Wetzikon – Liestal (172.4km)
This last road stage has another hilly finishing circuit that will break up a lead group and favor aggressive riders, rather than sprinters.

Sunday, June 20: Stage 9. Liestal TT (26.9km)
This final time trial, which will almost certainly decide the outcome of the Tour de Suisse, is a stage for power riders like Cancellara, Armstrong, Leipheimer and Martin. The triangular-shaped course heads out on valley roads to take in the day’s main climb and returns down another valley with a shorter hill right before the finish.

Total distance: 1,353.1km