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Tour de Suisse preview: The ‘other’ Tour dress rehearsal

The Tour de Suisse begins on Saturday with a deep field including Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, and defending champion Rui Costa

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While most of the Tour de France top guns duke it out over the French Alps at the Critérium du Dauphiné, the venerable Tour de Suisse provides an alternative road to the sport’s biggest race.

Nearly every Tour winner is testing his legs at the Dauphiné this year, yet the Swiss tour retains its unique draw.

Starting Saturday with an opening prologue in Bellinzona, a challenging route features nine days of racing, with one individual time trial and three summit finales. With a solid field, the 78th edition of the Swiss tour should provide plenty of fireworks.

“I know the Tour de Suisse is an important appointment on the road to the Tour de France,” said Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), winner of the past two editions. “It’s an honor to be a captain of a World Tour team … I know I will have a very strong team to support me.”

Several big names are joining Costa, including 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp), and Bauke Mollema (Belkin), all riders who will be fighting for outright victory at the Swiss tour, as well as high placings at the Tour next month.

Dating back to 1933, the Swiss race has long been considered cycling’s “fourth grand tour.” It seems immune to the budget struggles of other races of its size and scope, and is one of the most expertly organized races on the calendar.

Much like the Vuelta a España, which can serve as a proving ground for up-and-coming stage racers, the Swiss tour acts as a launching pad for larger ambitions.

This year’s race, however, comes packed with imminent implications, with more than a handful of riders anxious to confirm their Tour pedigree.

Wiggins, Cav, Sagan among top names

The GC may well come down to a fight between Costa, Kreuziger, a winner in 2008, and Wiggins, who will want to prove he deserves a spot on Team Sky’s Tour squad.

Mollema, second last year, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) should also be within reach of the podium.

“The Tour de Suisse is a good preparation race toward the Tour, but it’s too important to see it only as a training race,” said Belkin sport director Nico Verhoeven. “Hopefully, we can match Mollema’s result from last year. After his second place, a podium finish is a nice goal this time.”

The individual time trial on stage 7 could prove decisive, but heavy climbs on the second day, and two major climbing stages to round out the race mean the GC will be decided when the road tilts uphill.

While Switzerland is synonymous with mountains, the parcours provides plenty of chances for sprinters, especially in contrast to the explosive, uneven route at this year’s Dauphiné, so it’s no surprise that most of the top sprinters are lining up here instead of in France this month.

Among the fast men in the pack are Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida), Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge), Gerard Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling).

Sagan, who was recently training in Boulder, Colorado, said he’s ready to click back into racing mode.

“I feel good and ready to be back in competition,” Sagan said. “I know how hard and important the next few months will be, and that’s why I chose to stay in the United States to recharge the batteries. I needed a few weeks for specific training, and to relax my mind. Now it’s time to focus on the races, and I am really motivated.”

Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) is back much to the delight of race organizers, but likely will not be a GC factor as he was when he won on a TT-friendly route in 2009. The Swiss tour will also provide a vital snapshot of where the Schleck brothers stand just weeks before the start of the Tour.

Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) will be looking to pick up another TT victory.

Other notable names include Sergio Henao (Sky), who is back after a team-imposed break to examine the effects of thin air on what it characterized “altitude natives.”

Veterans, such as Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and 42-year-old Davide Rebellin (CCC Polstat), are in sharp contrast to youngsters, like Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing), 20, and Bryan Coquard (Europcar), 22.

A handful of Americans will be in the field, including Joe Dombrowski (Sky), Amgen Tour of California podium finisher Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano), Tour-bound Ted King (Cannondale), Matthew Busche (Trek Factory Racing), Larry Warbasse (BMC Racing), and Tom Danielson, Nathan Brown and Ben King, all part of a solid Garmin-Sharp crew that also includes Tom-Jelte Slagter.

Challenging, with emphasis in the mountains

The race opens with an explosive, 9.4km prologue in Bellinzona in the Italian-speaking zone of southern Switzerland. A short, but steep 150-meter climb midway through the route, with a sharp descent, should see more than a few seconds open up between the contenders.

The 181km second stage to Sarnen will see a race-defining selection, with two HC-climbs midway through the stage, the Gotthardpass and Furkapass, that will shed anyone off the top of their game, quickly followed by two second-category climbs, with the last one 22km from the finish line.

For many, including Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Belisol), the opening two stages will dictate how the remainder of the race shakes out.

“Like every year, the course is pretty tough,” said Lotto-Belisol sport director Kurt Van den Wouwer. “We will wait for the opening [prologue] and mountain stage on Sunday. If [Monfort] has lost too much time, we can change our tactics, and Maxime can go for a stage win. For those who rode the Giro, we’ll see how it goes.”

The 202km third stage to Heiden is a bumpy profile, riddled with three rated climbs, with a rising kicker that is ideal for Sagan and Degenkolb.

Stages 4 and 5 are the easiest of the race, where Cavendish and the pure sprinters will have their best chances. Stage 6 is another rolling affair, good for a breakaway, or another shot for Sagan if the peloton decides to control the race.

The undulating profile of the 24.7km time trial in stage 7 is perfect for Martin, who will be keen to add to his two TT victories so far in 2014. If Wiggins is on form, he could take gains against the clock that could prove decisive into the final mountain stages.

Stages 8 and 9 will decide everything. Stage 8 climbs straight up to Verbier, while the Swiss finale will take place on the HC steeps to Saas Fe.

Anyone who can take gains in the time trial can ride defensively over the final stages, meaning that everyone else will have to attack, and attack hard.