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Tour de Suisse Preview: Much to learn about July with no clear favorite

Gesink and Valverde are among the Tour hopefuls taking aim at top form in Switzerland starting Saturday


Considered the season’s “fourth” grand tour, the Tour de Suisse provides the last true testing ground before the Tour de France. Despite the star power lining up at this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné, the 76th edition of the Swiss tour sees a quality field of GC riders and sprinters honing their form before July’s big dance.

Defending champion Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) headlines the overall contenders that also include the likes of Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Fränk Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), last year’s runner-up Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda).

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Once running for as many as 12 days, the race has recently been reduced to nine stages, this year from June 9 to June 17. As per usual, the Swiss tour runs on a challenging, mountainous course that should see climbers step to the fore. Previous winners include Andy Hampsten, twice, Lance Armstrong, and in 2009, even Fabian Cancellara.

Three summit finishes and two time trials provide the backdrop for the GC battle this year, while a mix of transition stages will provide chances for the stage hunters and sprinters to take a shot at glory.

The field includes the 18 WorldTour teams, with North American Pro Continental squads Team Type 1-Sanofi and SpiderTech-C10 both earning invitations to line up in Lugano, important milestones in their respective development.

For SpiderTech, a month off of racing at the Amgen Tour of California, the Swiss tour will represent the team’s most important European start to date. Directed by 1988 runner-up Steve Bauer, the team will bring Brian Vandborg, but will be looking to sneak into breakaways and to try and win a stage.

“It is our first opportunity on the WorldTour in Europe,” said Bauer. “It gives our team a focus for early summer and pushes our team on all fronts to reach to this higher level of competition and prestige. After (the) Tour of California, the Tour de Suisse is perfectly positioned for us on the calendar.”

Team Type 1 will also be looking to build on solid results all season, with Alexander Efimkin and Julien El Fares hoping to punch into the top-10 or more.

Editor’s Note: American Chris Horner is a scratch from RadioShack-Nissan’s final roster for the Tour de Suisse.

The course

Starting in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, in Ticino, the race opens in Lugano with a 7.3km time trial that features a short, punchy climb midway through the route.

The GC picture could well be decided by just the second stage, as organizers have placed a difficult climbing stage right out of the gate. The longest stage of the race features the hors categorie Simplonpass in the opening two hours of racing, in what’s a brutal start to the week. The stage ends atop the HC summit at Verbier, where the pure climbers could take decisive gains against the all-rounders.

The third stage features a third-category and fourth-category climb in the final hour of racing that will present a major hurdle for the pure sprinters in the field, such as Renshaw, Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) and Allan Davis (Orica-GreenEdge), but opening the door to the likes of Oscar Freire (Katusha) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), who can get over the climbs to contend for a reduced-bunch sprint.

Stage 4 is another challenging day in the saddle, with a first-category ascent midway through the day and two more steep, punchy climbs in the final hour. Stage 5 is not much easier, with six third-category climbs in a hilly route to Gansinger. It’s more of the same in stage 6, with five third- and fourth-category climbs livening things up during the course of the race.

Specialists will not have much of an advantage in the 34.5km individual time trial, with nearly a 1,000-foot climb in the first 10km of the course. The stage 7 individual test will likely confirm the GC picture that the early stages have painted a week earlier.

The hors categorie summit finish at Arosa in stage 8 and two more HC climbs en route to the second-category summit finale at Sorenberg on the race’s final day all but assure victory for the fleet-footed climbers in the pack.

The stages
Stage 1, June 9: Lugano, 7.3km (ITT)
Stage 2, June 10: Verbania to Verbier, 218km
Stage 3, June 11: Martigny to Aarberg, 195km
Stage 4, June 12: Aarberg to Trimbach 189km
Stage 5, June 13: Trimbach to Gansinger, 193km
Stage 6, June 14: Wittnau to Bischofszell, 199km
Stage 7, June 15: Gossau to Gossau, 34km (ITT)
Stage 8, June 16: Bischofszell to Arosa, 148km
Stage 9, June 17: Nafels-Lintharena to Sorenberg, 216km

The Favorites

Last year, Levi Leipheimer ★★★ snatched overall victory in a dramatic, final-day time trial duel against race leader Cunego, taking nearly four seconds per kilometer out of the Italian to become just the third American to ever win.

Leipheimer, however, is still recovering from his crash back in early April caused when a Spanish motorist struck him while training near Bilbao. Despite fracturing his fibula, Leipheimer was able to not only start the Tour of California, but finished sixth overall. The veteran Omega Pharma rider is hoping to use the Swiss tour to regain full fitness just in time for the Tour and is thus downplaying his GC ambitions for defending the title he called the biggest win of his career.

“I am hoping what I can do is race Suisse without any pressure and allow my leg and body some more time to recover and hopefully it all works out for the Tour,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “I will be fresh, because I had such a big break. I will be coming close to 100 percent (for the Tour). The Swiss tour will be an important step.”

Somewhat surprising, Cunego ★★★ will be back in the saddle after a strong Giro ahead of what’s expected to be a start at the Tour. The “Little Prince” was consistent throughout the Giro, riding to a steady sixth place overall behind teammate and captain Michele Scarponi. How much he has left in the tank after a grueling home tour remains to be seen.

The man to watch will be Tour of California champion Robert Gesink (Rabobank) ★★★★. A proven climber, Gesink’s big advances against the clock will be put to the test in Switzerland. Rabobank brings perhaps the strongest team in the race, with Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk also looking to make an impression ahead of a charge into the Tour. Mark Renshaw and the injury-plagued Matti Breschel will be there for the sprints.

The team to watch, however, will be RadioShack-Nissan, which comes loaded with talent, but short on consistency in what’s been a season of mixed fortunes for the squad. Schleck ★★★, winner of the Swiss tour in 2010, will be racing for the first time since abandoning the Giro with a shoulder injury. Also lining up Andreas Klöden ★★, who’s suffered through illness through much of the spring and Jakob Fuglsang ★★★, who won the Tour of Luxembourg last month after scratching from the Giro at the last minute with a broken hand.

Any one of those four RadioShack riders could step up to take control of the GC. With a near-winless spring and Andy Schleck suffering at the Critérium du Dauphiné this week, they will certainly be under pressure to do so.

Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda) ★★★ will be searching for a pre-Tour confirmation, with a strong GC performance going a long way toward assuring him a chance to return to the Tour to try to improve on his top-10 debut last year. Danielson hasn’t raced since he was disappointed at Mount Baldy when Gesink’s early attack dislodged him and ended his hopes for the Amgen Tour overall.

Chris-Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank) ★★ has been training at altitude on Mount Etna in Italy to get ready for his big chance to take on the Tour. With Alberto Contador serving his racing ban, Sorensen is helping to fill the void as best he can.

“There are three good mountain stages where I hope I can do well,” Sorensen told VeloNews earlier this year. “It’s a climber’s course this year, so of course I want to have some chances to win a stage or maybe do well overall.”

Finally, there’s Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) ★★★★, who is hoping to regain the momentum he carried into the opening months of the 2012 season. He won several races in quick succession in returning from this controversial Operacion Puerto ban, only to get stuck in the mud during the spring classics with less-than-stellar results. With the Tour being Valverde’s ultimate goal, he will be trying to make an impression in both the time trials and climbing stages to prove he could become a contender for the podium come July.

Others to Watch

Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi): The Basque climber is skipping the Tour de France, so he will be looking to try to win a stage before preparing for a run at the Vuelta a España.

Vladimir Karpets (Movistar): The best mullet east of the Rhine won the race in 2007 when his star was on the rise. A move back to Movistar after a few unproductive seasons at Katusha will motivate him to prove his fortunes are not on the wane.

Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): With Leipheimer talking down his chances, Velits will have a free run to stake his claim as a legitimate stage race contender. Third in the 2010 Vuelta a España, Velits will also share leadership duties with Leipheimer at the Tour.

Lars Peter Nordhaugh (Team Sky): The Norwegian climber enjoyed a strong spring and will be looking to punch his ticket for a spot on the team’s Tour squad with a top-10 overall finish.

Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM): The promising Dutch climber rode well through last year’s Vuelta, and won a stage and finished second overall at the Tour of Luxembourg last week.

North Americans

Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing)
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Barracuda)
Tom Peterson (Garmin-Barracuda)
Ted King (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan)
Michael Barry (Team Sky)
Ryan Anderson (SpiderTech-C10)
David Boily (SpiderTech-C10)
Guillaume Boivin (SpiderTech-C10)
Lucas Euser (SpiderTech-C10)
Caley Fairly (SpiderTech-C10)
Will Routley (SpiderTech-C10)
Kiel Reijnen (Team Type 1-Sanofi)