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71st Tour de Suisse - PT
Switzerland, June 16-24, 2007
By Shane Stokes in Olten
While battle is raging on the other side of the Alps, the Tour de France contenders who are not participating in the Dauphiné Libéré will scrap it out instead in the Tour de Suisse, testing their form while taking note of the condition of their rivals.
They will be joined by several other big names who plan to miss the Tour, all of them searching for stage wins and perhaps the final overall victory on Sunday week in Bern.
As befits such an important event, the lineup features many prominent riders. T-Mobile big guns Michael Rogers, Patrik Sinkewitz and Linus Gerdemann will hope to take a magenta jersey to the top of the podium for the second year in a row, albeit without the uncertainty and unease left after Jan Ullrich's final career win. Former team-mates Andreas Klöden and Mattias Kessler spearhead Astana's hopes, while Carlos Sastre, Frank Schleck, Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady and world TT champ Fabian Cancellara feature in a very strong CSC team.
Tour of California winner Janez Brajkovic (Discovery Channel) was fifth overall last year and is one of the most promising young riders in the sport. His continued progression makes him a possible winner here, and so too Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), who this season landed the overall win in Switzerland's other big stage race, the Tour de Romandie.
Criterium International TT victor and general classification runner-up Thomas Lovkvist could perform well for Française des Jeux, while Amstel Gold victor Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) is certainly capable of something big.
Hairy Russian all-rounder Vladimir Karpets won the recent Volta a Catalunya and on that form, will be both the leader of the Caisse d'Epargne squad and a protagonist in the Tour de Suisse. So too climbers such as AG2R's John Gadret and Rinaldo Nocentini, plus Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto), who won a stage and finished fifth overall two years ago. He'll look for a pre-Tour confidence boost here.
2006 runner-up Koldo Gill was on the provisional start list for Saunier Duval but has withdrawn from the squad, due perhaps to his connection to the everlasting Operacion Puerto investigation and pressure from the recent AIGCP meeting on this matter. However the team has Giro d'Italia star Gilberto Simoni in its lineup and if he has some legs left after his exertions in Italy, he may try to repeat his previous success in the race. He was second in 2001 and third in 1999.
Arch-rival and another former Giro winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) is also going to be at the start in Olten. The Italian confirmed this week that he will not be riding the Tour de France, due to fatigue; it consequently remains to be seen if he will be a factor in the race. If not, team-mate and Tour of Flanders winner Alessandro Ballan can gain some column inches if his form is good.
The Unibet.com team have missed out on several ProTour events this season but now they have a green light, they will try to prove a point here. Former Tour de France Maillot Jaune Victor Hugo Pena is a strong all rounder and like his team-mates, will welcome the chance to achieve a good result.
Others who could be lighting up the roads in search of a stage win are Filippo Pozzato and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Michael Boogerd, Mauricio Ardila and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Simon Gerrans (AG2R Prévoyance) and Maxime Monfort (Cofidis). Roger Hammond (T-Mobile) will be determined to do something big and thus secure his place on the team for the Tour de France, which begins in London next month.
Of course, the Tour de Suisse is also a valuable form-pointer for the big sprinters. Robbie McEwen (Predictor Lotto) took just one stage in the Giro [compared to three in 2005 and 2006] and will be looking for a confidence booster here. Triple world champ Oscar Freire (Rabobank) landed a stage win in 2006 and would doubtlessly relish another, while Erik Zabel (Milram) and Daniele Bennati (Lampre Fondital) will also be fighting it out at the head of any bunch finishes. Bennati took the points jersey in 2006 and certainly has the horsepower to do so again.
1252.4 kilometre in length, the 2007 Tour de Suisse gets underway on Saturday afternoon with a short, mainly flat 3.8 kilometre prologue in Olten. Day two takes the riders 157.2 kilometres from Olten to Luzern and features two intermediate sprints plus a category three and a category four climb inside the final 31.2 kilometres.
Stage three continues in an easterly direction, beginning in Brunnen and ending 228.7 kilometres later in the Austrian town of Nauders. Shortly after the start the peloton will climb approximately 500 metres on a non-classified hill; later on they will fight it out on the Hors Categorie Flüelapass, which tops out at 2383 metres some 60 kilometres from the finish. Following a fast descent two intermediate sprints feature before the third category hill of Norbertshöhe; the summit is just two kilometres from the finish, making this a possible springboard for a late attack.
Stage four also finishes outside Switzerland, with the lumpy 167.2 kilometre stage heading from Nauders to Triesenberg-Malbun in Liechtenstein. The profile has two intermediate sprints [at 115.4 and 152 km], plus a pair of second category climbs. Arlberg Passhöhe is the first, 83.2 km after the drop of the flag, and then the Steg/Malbun ascent takes the riders to within 1.6 kilometres of the line.
The following day brings the peloton back across the Swiss border. After an intermediate sprint at kilometre 33.5, the riders will hit the summit of the category three ascent at Hotel des Alpes [58.5 km], then continue on to the top of the first category Lukmanierpass, 78.3 clicks from the stage end. A fast descent speeds the field towards a couple of intermediate sprints plus the final climb of the day, the fourth category hill between Gorduno and Galbisio [17.3 km from the line]. Despite the earlier first cat mountain, a bunch gallop seems the most likely outcome here.
Day six from Giubiasco to Crans Montana also sees a big peak in the middle of the stage, but with the Hors Categorie Nufenenpass coming 108.4 kilometres from the finish, there will most likely be a sizeable regrouping before the final ramp up towards the line. This concluding second category climb to Route du Golf crests out with just under two kilometres to go but as it is approximately ten kilometres long, it could see some gaps open out if the big guns go full gas to the top.
The 125.7 kilometre queen stage takes place on Friday July 22nd and is far harder than any other day in the race. Shortly after the start in Ulrichen the peloton will begin climbing the Hors Categorie Furkapass, with the summit coming 21.3 km after the drop of the flag. The riders then descend for 52 kilometres before beginning the Hors Categorie Sustenpass, which peaks 62.4 kilometres from the line. They will then race down to the first of two intermediate sprints, with the second coming five kilometres later, approximately a quarter of the way up the first category summit finish of the Grimselpass.
The penultimate stage of the 2007 Tour de Suisse is a lumpy affair which has enough unclassified ups and downs to encourage breakaways while also not ruling out a bunch finish. Starting in Innertkirchen, the profile becomes increasingly jagged as it heads towards the first intermediate sprint on the Rue St. Pierre. The field continues onto the fourth category Weissenstein, fifteen kilometres from the finish in Schwarzsee, then encounters the second bonus sprint in Plaffeien. A third category climb goes from there to the line, providing the opportunity for a late attack on what is the final road race stage of the Swiss Tour.
Things conclude on Sunday June 24th with a 33.7 kilometre intermediate time trial. Starting and finishing near Bern's Stade de Suisse, the rolling parcours heads out of the city in a north-easterly direction, then flicks south before heading back in to Bern. The TT is three kilometres longer than last year's race-closer and could certainly see some decisive time gaps being opened.