By Anthony Tan in Vevey, Switzerland
If the field currently riding the Dauphiné Libéré looks deep, the 2005 Tour de Suisse provisional line-up is also one of the strongest in years, in no small part due to the advent of the ProTour.
Expected to be on the start line this Saturday, June 11, is a former Tour de France winner and the defending TdS champion (Jan Ullrich), a two-time winner of the Giro d'Italia (Gilberto Simoni), a two-time winner of the points competition at the Tour (Robbie McEwen), this year's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix champ (Tom Boonen), and a host of contenders for the general classification at the world's biggest bike race.
Sure, most, if not all these drawcards are using the Tour de Suisse as their final race prep. for July - no argument there. But being so close to the Tour, these riders will want to test themselves, and the only way to do that is to ride hard and race hard, at least for a few stages.
"Defending my title is not on my mind, this is all about a measured build-up to the Tour de France," said Ullrich. "These stages will give me a chance to test my climbing form. I want to show myself at the head of affairs on at least one or two stages."
Double Vuelta a España champion Roberto Heras, who is riding the Dauphiné Libéré, also inadvertently praised the quality of field at the Tour de Suisse, saying before his race was about to begin: "many will be absent [from the Dauphiné] this year because they preferred to go to the Tour de Suisse".
In fact, the race has always attracted a top-quality field, and reading out the list of past winners reads like a list of delegates at a UN summit, with no less than 13 nationalities represented. Interestingly, apart from four-time winner Pasquale Fornara (1952, '54, '57-58), there's been no dominant winner at the TdS in its 72-year history; no-one has won the race three times, and only eight riders have done the double, including Italian Fornara.
Last year's race went down to the wire, as Ullrich won the race by less than a second from local favourite Fabian Jeker on the final day's time trial in Lugano. This year, however, the format has changed, almost representing a mini-Giro d'Italia of sorts, but could prove equally thrilling, with arguably the hardest stage reserved for last.
Click here to read the rest of the preview.