Tour de Suisse, June 20, 2008
This season has seen Team High Road's Kim Kirchen step up to a new level in the sport, with victories in Flèche Wallonne and two stage wins in the Vuelta al País Vasco being added to on Thursday by his triumph on stage six of the Tour de Suisse.
Kirchen timed his effort to perfection on the day's final climb up to the village of Verbier, out-sprinting Andreas Klöden (Astana) to the line and taking time out of all of the other main contenders. Significantly, he gained 29 seconds over Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and wrested the yellow jersey from his shoulders. He is now 27 seconds ahead of Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), with Antón a further six seconds back.
"I felt good at the end today," he said after the stage. "The riders went up the climb very strongly, with the group going very quickly due to early attacks. I kept my own rhythm. I had a little bit of a problem early on on the climb [due to the pace] but my morale went up when I saw some other riders being dropped. I remained calm. I knew I could do something today, especially as the yellow jersey Antón was in difficulty. My aim was to go for the yellow jersey but finally, the stage win came too."
"It's 25 kilometres. It is fairly long, it won't be easy, but I'll go flat out and I hope it goes well." - Kirchen on Saturday's mountain time trial
He was keen to thank those who helped him. "The team were very, very strong with the young riders, and very motivated. My co-captain [Thomas Lövkvist] helped me and I also have to thank my team-mates and the directeur sportif. This year we have seen a very, very strong High Road team and I think that all the work done in the winter and at the beginning of the season has paid off. The morale is very good."
Kirchen has had a very solid career, with his results last season including seventh overall in the Tour de France and second to Le Louron (this was later upgraded to first when Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) tested positive - ed.).
While Kirchen has netted several professional victories, including wins in the Luxembourg national championship and on stages of the Tours of Luxembourg, Poland and the Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi-Bartali, he's jumped up a level this year and become more adept at winning.
Thursday's performance is an example of that. "I have been trying for a victory in the Tour de Suisse for a while," he said. "I have been second several times, third several times, and so I am happy this year to get the stage win and also to take my first yellow jersey in this race."
Three stages remain in the Tour de Suisse, with days seven and nine being ones that could potentially be settled in bunch gallops. Saturday's 25-kilometre mountain time trial is likely to decide the race, though, and so High Road will need to do what it can to help Kirchen.
"We have to control the race tomorrow, that is the first thing," he said on Thursday. "There may be a sprint at the end, we will need a strong team but I don't think that will be a problem. Gerald Ciolek is strong and if there is a sprint, I don't see why we shouldn't aim for another stage victory.
"We have to stay calm. As regards the time trial, it's 25 kilometres. It is fairly long, it won't be easy, but I'll go flat out and I hope it goes well. I have a bit of an advantage. This [leading a race into a time trial] is new for me but I hope the jersey gives me strength."
Schleck, Devolder and Lövkvist
Speaking to reporters at the post-race press conference, Kirchen was also asked specifically about three riders. His reaction was sought to the dramatic crash by Fränk Schleck on stage five, something which he said scared a lot of people in the bunch.
"I was shocked when I saw the bike at the barriers," he said. "We didn't know how it happened but it was shocking. We heard quite quickly that everything was okay and could then concentrate on the race. He was lucky but when something like that happens in the peloton, everyone suffers. We hope that nobody gets badly hurt [in situations like that]."
One of those who was riding very strongly on the final climb of stage six was Belgian road race champion Stijn Devolder. He attacked hard, caught Fränk Schleck and then pushed on ahead alone. He was finally reeled in by Kirchen's group before the last kilometre and finished twenty seconds back in fifth.
"We could see that he was riding very well since the start of the race," Kirchen said. "He was climbing well on the second stage and we could see that he was very focussed on this Tour de Suisse, that he wanted to win. He did a big attack today and got a gap, but came back eventually. The legs have to make the difference. Devolder is still a candidate for the final victory."
As for Lövkvist, the High Road rider has also been performing well and this takes the pressure off Kirchen. "It helps me be relaxed this week, to have a rider like that with me," he said. "And if I wasn't going that well, knowing that Thomas is there and can race too is a boost."
Kirchen came to the race with the main goal of preparing for the Tour de France. Now that he's in the yellow jersey, he and High Road will do what they can to chase the final victory. Three days remain, but morale is very high. He is hoping that the momentum will continue into the Tour and beyond.
"We will change the sponsor soon, and hope that we will soon have victories for Columbia as well," he said with a smile.