By Anthony Tan in Vevey, Switzerland
The final lead-up race to the Giro d'Italia, an early indication of who will be where at the Tour de France, and an extremely hard-fought and prestigious race in itself, the Tour de Romandie is significant for a number of reasons.
2005 marks the 59th edition of Romandie, so named because its entire 656 kilometre parcours is held in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, German and Italian being the country's two other secteurs. While distances are not demanding in itself - the longest being the second stage around Fleurier, measuring 171.9 kilometres - the same can't be said of the race profile, which boasts a total 7,985 metres of climbing.
At 1605 Tuesday afternoon (yes, the Swiss are rather precise with their timing), the first of 160 riders from 20 ProTour teams will test himself against the clock in a 3.4km prologue held in the streets of Geneva. Last year, it was no surprise to see previous world individual pursuit champion Bradley McGee do better than the rest, and the 29 year-old Sydneysider will be back to try and do it again on April 26.
Compared to the rest of the race, the first stage held around Avenches in the northern part of Romandy is very tame indeed: just two Cat. 3 climbs in 166.9 kilometres is very much a 'calm before the storm' style stage. Stage 2 is a bit more like it, with two Cat. 2s and the Cat. 1 to Les Sagnettes, but given their placement on the race route, it's likely to be another stage for the escape-artists - maybe one for CSC's Frank Schleck, Iles Baleares' Unai Osa, Quick.Step's José Antonio Pecharroman, Cofidis' David Moncoutie, Rabobank's Thomas Dekker, or Credit Agricole's Nicolas Vogondy.
Stage 3 begins outside the world HQ for the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) in Aigle, and it looks like hard-man Hein Verbruggen's had something to do with it. Three Cat. 1 climbs - all in the space of less than 50 clicks - with the third marking the stage finish atop the ski-town of Anzère, 1,526 metres above sea-level, where high-altitude cow-fighting happens to be a popular pastime for these people of the Canton du Valais.
While less vicious on paper (and maybe high-altitude cow-fighting), the fourth stage which begins in Châtel-St-Denis is in fact the stage with the greatest amount of vertical climbing; the bumpy 146.9km route is again tailor-made for the breakaway specialists - but only if the previous day's sufferfest didn't kill their legs or ambitions.
And if anyone thought the race was over, the final stage in the Olympic capital of Lausanne says it's not. The tough time test measures only 20.4 kilometres in length, but the variation in parcours makes it one for neither that flat or climbing TT specialist.
With 2003/04 champ Tyler Hamilton serving a two-year suspension for blood doping, who will take his place on this year's honour roll?
The American's former team-mates from Phonak, Alexandre Moos and Oscar Pereiro, will certainly give it a go. The rest? Take your pick from: Aïtor Gonzalez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Dario Cioni and recent Vuelta a Aragon winner Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi), 2001/02 winner Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo), Bradley McGee (Française des Jeux), Carlos Sastre (Team CSC), 2000 winner Paolo Savoldelli, Manuel Beltran and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel), Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), José Antonio Pecharroman (Quick.Step), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), last year's runner-up Fabian Jeker (Saunier Duval), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto, 3rd in 2002), 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Cafitta), and Joseba Beloki, Jörg Jaksche & Alberto Contador (Liberty Seguros).
April 26 - Prologue: Genève, 3.4 km
April 27 - Stage 1: Avenches - Avenches, 166.9 km
April 28 - Stage 2: Fleurier - Fleurier, 171.9 km
April 29 - Stage 3: Aigle - Anzère, 146.5 km
April 30 - Stage 4: Châtel-St-Denis - Les Paccots, 146.9 km
May 1 - Stage 5: Lausanne ITT, 20.4 km