Defending champion Jan Ullrich spearheads the T-Mobile roster in the 69th edition of the Tour de Suisse, starting this Saturday. As planned, the team captain will use the nine-day race through the Alpine nation as the penultimate competitive warm-up before his last chance to beat Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France in July.
"Defending my title is not on my mind, this is all about a measured build-up to the Tour de France," the 31 year-old said. Lining up alongside Ullrich in Switzerland are fellow Germans Tobias Steinhauser, Stephan Schreck, Steffen Wesemann and Rolf Aldag, as well as the Italian duo of Giuseppe Guerini and Daniele Nardello, with the latter's form and fitness back on track after recovering from the back injury that forced him to abandon the Giro d'Italia. Russian Sergey Ivanov rounds out the eight-man roster.
The Italian climber Guerini finished eighth overall in 2004, and was runner-up to teammate Alexandre Vinokourov on GC in 2003. "We are using this race first and foremost as part of our Tour preparations. But maybe Giuseppe can also etch out a good overall placing," said T-Mobile directeur sportif Mario Kummer on the team's plans at the Tour de Suisse.
The competition in Switzerland will be tough, with a number of top class riders using the ProTour race as part of their build-up to the Tour. They include Paris-Nice winner Bobby Julich (CSC), Spanish rising star Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), Austrian climber Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), mystery man Joseba Beloki (Liberty Seguros), Giro star Gilberto Simoni (Lampre) and German young gun Patrik Sinkewitz (Quick.Step). The event kicks-off on Saturday, June 11, with a 170 km-long stage starting in Schaffhausen, in the north of the country. The first GC selection is expected as soon as Sunday, when the riders tackle a 36 km-time trial in and around Weinfelden.
While stages one, four and five will offer the sprinters a chance to flex their muscles, stage three, which finishes atop St. Anton (in Austria), and the summit finishes in Arosa (stage six) and Verbier (stage eight) will certainly test the climbing legs in the peloton. "These stages will give me a chance to test my climbing form. I want to showing myself in front on at least one or two stages," said an ambitious Ullrich before the race.
The ninth and final stage, starting and finishing in Ulrichen, will certainly be interesting, even if the final classification may already be determined: 50 km of climbing, and 50 km of descending, taking in the leg-breaking Nufenen, Gotthard and Furka passes. The severity of Sunday's crunch final stage should rule out any repeat of last year's freakish one second winning margin and keep the race leader on his guard.
Stage 1 - Saturday, June 11: Schaffhausen - Weinfelden, 170 km
Stage 2 - Sunday, June 12: Weinfelden - Weinfelden (ITT), 36 km
Stage 3 - Monday, June 13: Abtwil/Säntispark - St. Anton a.A., 160 km
Stage 4 - Tuesday, June 14: Vaduz FL - Bad Zurzach, 205 km
Stage 5 - Wednesday, June 15: Bad Zurzach - Altdorf UR, 176 km
Stage 6 - Thursday, June 16: Bürglen UR - Arosa, 156 km
Stage 7 - Friday, June 17: Einsiedeln - Lenk, 182 km
Stage 8 - Saturday, June 18: Lenk - Verbier, 165 km
Stage 9 - Sunday, June 19: Ulrichen - Ulrichen, 100 km
Total distance: 1,354 km