Stage win sees German overhaul Gil and Jaksche
Jan Ullrich received a morale-stirring boost prior to the Tour de France thanks to his victory today in the Tour de Suisse. The T-Mobile rider started the final day's time trial third overall, but he was able to overtake race leader Koldo Gil Perez (Saunier Duval) and compatriot Jörg Jaksche (Würth Team) after literally a storming ride in the 30.7 kilometre test, averaging over 47 kilometres per hour on the demanding, rain-splattered roads between Kerzers and Bern.
Despite holding back slightly on the corners and slippery cobblestone sections, Ullrich was comfortably quickest, overhauling the provisional best time which had been posted by Cadel Evans (Davitamon – Lotto) in dry conditions.
Ullrich had started the day 50 seconds behind Gil and 20 off the overall time of Jaksche. The Spanish race leader dug deep to try to hang on to his yellow jersey and at the first time check, 14 kilometres into the 30.7 kilometre race, he was only 12 seconds back. However Ullrich drew further and further ahead after that point, extending the gap to 35 seconds by the second time check (21.4 km) and then becoming race leader on the road very soon afterwards.
Much as he did in the Giro d'Italia, he continued to accelerate as the stage went on. He ultimately finished 1 minute and 14 seconds ahead of a disappointed Gil, who was ninth in the test, and beat Australian rider Evans by 23 seconds to secure the TT win. Stage 4 winner Angel Vicioso was a further eight seconds back in third, while Jörg Jaksche, who had started the day second overall and was tipped by many as being in with a chance of winning the ProTour race, was only tenth.
Ullrich was very happy to take the TT victory and, especially, to repeat his 2004 victory in the Tour de Suisse. When asked at the post race press conference if he was confident going into the time trial that he would be successful, he stated that nothing is guaranteed. "No, with cycling it's never certain," he said. "You could see from the thunderstorm today that anything can happen…. It was very, very difficult to steer…with these time trial bikes it's very difficult to handle them in the gusts. Today's conditions showed that nothing is guaranteed and so I am very, very happy to take this win.
"Taking this victory is great, it has a huge meaning for me. The Tour de Suisse is one of my preferred races. It's certainly the most difficult race after the three Grand Tours. We did more than 22 thousand meters of climbing, and so I am extremely happy to have performed well in these conditions. It proves I am in good shape prior to the Tour de France. Furthermore, I did a very good time trial today, despite the bad weather conditions that were there near the end. Therefore I am very happy."
Cadel Evans was congratulated warmly by his team after recording the provisional best time. He looked happy, but said to them that other strong riders were yet to finish and so it would be premature to talk about the stage victory. This proved to be the case almost 22 minutes later. Evans spoke to Cyclingnews before Ullrich finished, stating that he was happy with his ride. "I felt good…a bit slow at the start, but I came better near the finish," he said. "I did a good time but I think I have been very lucky with the weather as well."
Evans went on the attack in the closing kilometres of yesterday's stage. When asked if he was getting stronger as the race went on, he agreed. "Yes, that is my usual style," he said. "It seems that I can't go fast at the start!"
Ullrich's win will give the German increased motivation prior to the Tour start in Strasbourg in 13 days time. He will now concentrate on recovering from the Swiss event, and perhaps paring another kilo or two off his increasingly-lean physique. Staying in full health is also a priority – when he first won the Tour de Suisse two years ago, he got the flu prior to the Tour and finished back in fourth place. Providing he can stay healthy this time, a very interesting battle is in store between him and the other big contenders. Roll on July 1st.
How it unfolded
The first rider of 110 riders to start was laterne rouge Jimmy Engoulvent (Credit Agricole), who left Kerzers at 14:28 this afternoon under mild, overcast conditions, destination Bern.
Unsurprisingly, the early best time was set by the 17th rider to leave, this year's Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC), the Swiss powerhouse clocking 40'11 over the challenging, 30 kilometre-long parcours.
Next of the favourites came home shortly thereafter, as three-time world time trial champion Michael Rogers (T-Mobile Team) finished 25 seconds short of Cancellara to slot into second on the provisional leaderboard. Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner, 40'41), Volodymyr Bileka (Discovery Channel, 40'42) and Evgeni Petrov (Lampre-Fondital, 40'44) also posted competitive times to complete the virtual top five.
With just 15 riders left to come in, Cancellara continued to hold top spot, followed by Rogers, Fothen, Bileka, Marcus Ljungqvist (Team CSC) and Petrov.
However, things didn't like staying that way, as Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel Evans blitzed the start, and was already half a minute ahead of Cancellara by the first checkpoint (km 14.2). By the finish, Evans had set the new best time of 39 minutes and 8 seconds - 1'03 quicker than Cancellara! - changing the virtual top five to Evans, Christian Vandevelde (Team CSC), Cancellara (Team CSC), Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) and Alberto Contador (Würth).
As the last five riders were out on the course, a thunderstorm blew in, the wind picked up, and it began to pour with rain. Despite this, Ullrich powered past the first and second checkpoints with the fastest times, and his 38'45 set a fantastic average of 47,53 km/h. But was this going to be good enough to win?
In the meantime, Angel Vicioso (Würth) clocked a very respectable 39'16 to secure his fourth place on GC, while his team-mate Jorg Jaksche finished with 40'08, most likely dropping to him to third overall by the day's end.
With race leader Koldo Gil (Saunier Duval-Prodir) coming through the second checkpoint 34 seconds in arrears of Ullrich, the maillot jaune could only lose another 15 seconds if he were to win overall. That he was not able to do, his 1 minute and 14 second deficit to the German seeing him slip to second - and elevating the name of Jan Ullrich to champion of the 2006 Tour de Suisse!
Full report to follow