- Les Clarke
Popular race an early taste of Tour de France contenders
Like the Tour de Suisse and Dauphiné Libéré, Switzerland's Tour de Romandie is a serving of Grand Tour-style racing in a week-long vignette of mountainous goodness throughout the nation's French-speaking region.
For this reason it traditionally acts as the first race on the path to the Tour de France, and while some of the overall contenders will be eyeing off the Giro d'Italia and others the Tour of California, most of them will want to be at la grande boucle this July, for which Romandie is great preparation.
The prologue and first stage could sort out some early-event shuffling - while the opening day is a dead flat run over 4.3km, the second day could favour a plucky break that may stay away if the ingredients are right.
This year's first stage contained the same number of category one and two climbs as the corresponding day last year and the result was a win for Ricardo Serrano Gonzalez, who prevailed in a three-man escape group. Look for something similar this year; while the overall won't be decided on this day it should make for some interesting machinations in the subsequent stages.
It could be argued that stage two is Mark Cavendish's for the taking, the Brit heading up this year's batch of sprinters which includes the likes of his former teammate Gerald Ciolek (Team Milram), Allan Davis (Astana), Gregory Henderson and Ben Swift (Team Sky) and Robbie Hunter (Garmin-Transitions).
Oscar Freire won the second stage last year and for this reason, Cav goes into this season's edition the favourite to take out the corresponding day of the race. Look out for HTC-Columbia to put the likes of Bernhard Eisel, Bert Grabsch, Adam Hansen and Mark Renshaw to good use in order to get their fast friend to the line first.
The Moudon time trial may only be 23.4km, but it's run on a gnarly little course that rises from about 550m to a peak of 800m as it passes Thierrens. Last season there was a team test against the clock with which to contend; in 2010 it's back to an individual slog, which should favour defending champion Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas).
Should the mercurial Czech make the top of the leaderboard after the third stage, he'll be well-equipped to defend that advantage over the next two days, which are by no means easy and feature five first category ascents.
The 157.9km journey from Vevey to Châtel (Vallée d'Abondance) in France promises to be a GC slug-fest, with the likes of Kreuziger, HTC-Columbia's Michael Rogers, Alejandro Valverde, talented young Belgian Jurgen Van Den Broeck and reigning Giro d'Italia champion Denis Menchov all on the prowl.
With over 2,000m covered vertically that day, it's bound to establish the overall order heading into the final stage, which takes the field back into Swiss territory for a 121.8km run that begins and ends in Sion. The damage is done early, with two successive category 1 climbs to Anzère and and Crans, each poking out at about 1,500m and providing about 1,550 vertical metres of ascending.
The long descent and flat stretch will aid the sprinters' cause, although the sting in the tail comes at the end with another first category climb that will sort out the fast men with fresh legs - fresh enough to remain in contention on a day that could see Cavendish do what Freire did last year and secure a second victory after a tough week of racing.
Names to watch in the general classification
Nicolas Roche (Ag2R-La Mondiale): The Irishman's aggressive and entertaining riding style has garnered him increased respect, visibility in races and good results during the past couple of seasons. Maybe this is the time for him to cash in some general classification chips.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions): The American is on his road to the Tour, via Romandie and the Giro. Has proven his mettle in the past although hasn't been seen much thus far in 2010.
Roman Kreuziger and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo): The defending champion and his Italian teammate will undoubtedly make a great one-two combo for the climbing stages. Kreuziger's strength in the time trial may give him the advantage, however.
Janez Brajkovic and Haimar Zubeldia (Team RadioShack): This pair will be supported by Portuguese sensation Tiago Machado and former Euskaltel-Euskadi climber Markel Irizar, which means the American squad has an wealth of experience and talent, with several cards to play.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne): You can't look past the Spaniard for this type of race. Highlights so far this season for the Vuelta a España champion include two stage wins at the Vuelta Ciclista al País Vasco and the overall at the Tour Méditerranéen.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto): A revelation of last year's Tour de France, Omega Pharma-Lotto's GC guy should thrive in this type of race. He should have the condition to contend as he looks towards July.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank): The metronomic style of Rabobank's Russian can be devastating, and his solid performances against the clock will work in his favour. May not have enough racing in his legs for the win but he's skipping the Giro to focus on the Tour, with the preparations beginning in Romandie.
Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia): The Australian has been in vintage form this season, riding with the maturity and strength that many have been waiting to see after his troubles with illness over recent years. A serious contender for the title.