After the opening team time trial and three relatively sprinter-friendly stages, the profile and landscape at the Tour de Suisse change dramatically on Wednesday with stage 5 from Gstaad to Leukerbad.
Just 155km in length, the stage comprises three climbs and a long valley section that comes before the final two ascents, and ultimately the first summit finish in this year’s race. The overall lead, currently held by Stefan Kung (BMC Racing), is likely to change hands but calling the next leader of the race is a difficult task. Unlike the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France, riders arrive at the Tour de Suisse with varying degrees of form. For example, Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) arrives with his form on the up as the Tour approaches, while the likes of Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb), Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) and potential breakaway star Hugh Carthy (EF Education First-Drapac) are seeking the last drops of form after the Giro d’Italia.
The GC standings going into stage 5 are hard to read. BMC Racing stack the top 10 courtesy of their win in the opening TTT and both Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen are well placed. Wilco Kelderman’s Sunweb and Enric Mas’ Quick-Step Floors both put in respectable performances on the opening day of racing and sit 23 and 30 seconds off the lead.
The Movistar duo of Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana sit at 36 seconds, and are also within touching distance, while strong rides from Ion Izagirre, defending champion Simon Spilak (Katusha-Alpecin), and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) could all vault them up the standings. Mollema is just over a minute down but Jakob Fuglsang sits at 1:21 after his Astana team put in a less than stellar ride on the opening day in Frauenfeld. However, the Tour de Romandie stage winner cannot be ruled out of contention just yet.
“It’s the Queen stage so it’s going to be an important moment in the race,” Sunweb’s directeur sportif, Marc Reef told Cyclingnews after stage 4. “I don’t know how decisive it will be because we’ve got more hard days and the 35km time trial but stage 5 will show where everyone is.
“It will be between our team, BMC, and Movistar. I think BMC have a strong team and they will control the race. We will see how Wilco is doing because, of course, he did not race for three months. He did some good training and a good camp but that intensity is not the same as racing. Also, as we’ve seen with Porte, he makes his attacks on the final climb and then it’s about whether you have the legs to follow. I think that if Wilco has the legs then he can try. Then there’s Kruijswijk and Fuglsang, and also Bjorg Lambrecht was up there yesterday and still a rider to watch.”
Bunch v breakaway
While BMC Racing have certainly controlled the race thus far, they’ve also had the support of the sprinters’ teams. Bora-Hansgrohe, Quick-Step, Bahrain Merida and, to an extent, Sunweb are unlikely to be as willing to cooperate on the stiffer terrain. This factor could lend itself to helping a breakaway forge clear and decide the stage.
“The first climb I know from the Tour de Romandie and isn’t super hard but it’s tricky and then we have a really tricky long downhill to Aigle,” said Switzerland's Michael Albasini.
“The valley is really long before the next climb. It’s hard to know if a break will survive. BMC have spent a lot of energy bringing back riders and from now on the sprinters won’t help anymore. If the right guys get together then the break has a chance, but you can quickly lose a lot of time on the final climb. BMC look strong, and so do Movistar.”
One team that will not be responsible for controlling the bunch are Team Sky. They put in a subdued ride in the TTT and are without many of their more experienced GC riders. Instead, they will focus their efforts on supporting young rider Pavel Sivakov who has been the team’s protected interest so far. The 20-year-old has never held such responsibility in a WorldTour stage race, but at just 1:05 off the lead he could be in the perfect position to showcase his undoubted talent.
“It’s going to be the first GC stage and possibly the hardest one. We need to be ready,” Team Sky’s Gabriel Rasch told Cyclingnews.
“We have Sivakov and he’s a young and talented rider, so we’re going to try and do everything that we can to do a GC. We’re also looking at the stage win but Sivakov is the priority. We missed the break on stage 4 and then it was all about getting Pavel to the finish without any problems. The final TT will be important but he’s a good TT rider. We have a young group here and we want to give them experience. Stage 5 is about learning.”
While all eyes will be on Porte, and Movistar’s leading lights, Enric Mas. The 23-year-old is Quick-Step’s GC contender although he played down his chances on Tuesday evening, explaining that the cold and wet conditions were not to his liking. He is unlikely to be the only rider to hold those sentiments.
“It’s a good test for me. The cold is never good for me but we’ll see how I feel after two hours of racing. I don’t know the final climb, but it’s an important summit finish. Tomorrow isn’t about the team, it’s more about the legs. I know that if I have the legs then I can be there,” Mas told Cyclingnews.
As for the route, the stage starts in Gstaad but in a different location to where Christopher Juul-Jensen won on Tuesday. Conditions are set to be clear at the start with rain to follow but hours before the official start the rain was still falling on the start town with no sign of a let-up. From Gstaad, the race heads south and towards the first climb of the Col du Pillon. The climb comes after just 8.3km of racing and should act as the perfect Launchpad for early moves. Roughly seven kilometres in length, the first category ascent starts off with shallow pitches but does hold straights of around nine per cent before a short false-flat and another kick towards the top.
From the summit, the route swings by Aigle, home of the UCI before heading further south towards Martigny, where a stage start took place in 2014, and Rui Costa went on to take the victory and the overall in Saas-Fee. Wednesday’s stage then heads north, along the valley and towards the final two climbs of the day. Wind direction could be crucial in the valley and determine how much time the break can establish before the races climbs the Montana at 106km.
At 13km in length, this is the toughest test of the race so far, and the varying gradient of between 4 and 9% in the opening half will put serious pressure on some already tired legs. There is a short descent halfway up the climb before the road once again kicks up with sections of between 2 and 6%. The race then descends at speed before the last ascent of almost 20km into Leukerbad.
This is where stage 5 ended in 2006, and for those with excellent memories or part of the Steve Morabito fan club, they will remember that the then Phonak rider – riding as a neo-pro - came out on top having made the early break. It was a long time ago, and Albasini couldn’t recall making it to the summit that day but he did, in 78th place. Simon Gerrans, Daniele Bennati, and Gregory Rast were also racing back then and make the return this time around.
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