Apocalyptic race conditions, emergency changes to the parcours, flat out racing and an upheaval in the general classification; today's sixth stage of the Tour de Suisse had it all. At the end of two hours, 28 minutes of racing Tour of Romandie victor Thomas Dekker scooped more success on Swiss soil when he raced to the day's victory, while 11 seconds later Russian rider Vladimir Efimkin sprinted in to take the race overall lead from Fränk Schleck (Team CSC).
The Caisse d'Epargne rider finished in a five man group which wheeled in just behind second-placed rider Gerrit Glomser (Team Volksbank). This quintet had ripped clear of the main field on the tough climb to the finish in Crans Montana, the quality group also including Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval Prodir), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), Damiano Cunego (Lampre Fondital) and Simoni's teammate José Angel Gomez Marchante.
As for overnight race leader Frank Schleck, his form on this climb contrasted markedly with his dominant display on stage four. He cracked with just over four kilometres to go and lost 1'21 between there and the finish, placing 26th on the stage and falling to third overall, 21" back. Gomez Marcante is now Efimkin's closet challenger at nine seconds.
Apart from the reshuffling of the general classification, the big news of the day was the incredible storm which was raging at the start and which led to the abandonment of the race after just six kilometres. Huge chunks of hail and ice fell from the skies, breaking team car windshields, bruising riders and even smashing some carbon frames. The riders took cover for a while in a tunnel while emergency discussions about the best course of action were taken by race director Armin Meier and others.
He spoke with rider representatives Schleck, Fabian Cancellara (CSC) and Erik Zabel and due to weather reports forecasting another possible storm on the day's hors categorie climb of Nufenenpass, it was decided to restart the race on the other side of the mountain in Ulrichen, 95 kilometres from the finish. The peloton was ferried to that point and things got underway once more at 15.35.
"The riders were all in agreement to protect themselves," Efimkin said of the storm and its aftermath. "The solidarity between the riders was truly extraordinary [in the difficult conditions].
"I thank the organisers who made the effort to organise the transport to bring all the race caravan together. We fight on the bike but this became a battle to save the stage, and that was successful."
The 25 year-old stated that he had to dig deep on the final 12 kilometre climb, which gained 833 metres in height, but said that it was worth it. "The climb was very hard, very difficult, even after a couple of hours of racing. When I heard from my team car that Frank Schleck was in difficulty, it was necessary to pedal harder. It made me suffer even more but it worked out well.
"I am very proud to have this jersey. There is a special reason for that because I crashed heavily in Tirreno-Adriatico and, apart from my family, my team was also very concerned and helpful to me. Because of that I am very happy to be in yellow.
"After a difficult start of season due to the crash, I worked a lot to reach this level. In the Euskal Bizikleta I already had the opportunity to win a stage and be the leader for one day. Now here I am first overall again, in an important race like the Tour of Switzerland. I will do everything I can to arrive in Bern with that jersey on my shoulders, even if I know that the task is not an easy one because tomorrow's mountain stage will be very hard.
"I think that I and Vladimir Karpets have a good chance to win the overall classification and we will try to get it."
Team CSC's directeur sportif Kim Andersen was philosophical afterwards. It's likely that the team will come out fighting again tomorrow.
"It's too bad, but it couldn't be helped. We'd kind of hoped that Frank would take another stage, which is why we picked up the pace just before the climb. But maybe it was a disadvantage for Frank that the stage was shortened. He never really got the chance to wear down his rivals, because it was fast paced on a flat road before the climb.
"But, on the other hand, it was quite good that the team was spared a bit today with a shorter route."
Stage winner Thomas Dekker did not appear at the post-race press conference due to the late finish and the fact that he had to wait a long time before being able to give a sample in doping control. The Rabobank team hotel is 95 kilometres from the stage end, making it likely that he will return to the hotel very late.
How it unfolded
The riders started in the Ticino town of Giubiasco this morning facing 190 kilometres to the finish on the 1452-metre Crans-Montana. Soon after the start, they were met with heavy rains and a hailstorm that forced the riders to take shelter in garages. Some riders were nailed with golf ball-sized ice chunks, including White of Discovery, which drew blood.
The race got back underway at 15:35 under sunny skies in Ulrichen, at kilometre 95, or 95km to go. The peloton rolled along led by CSC for race leader Fränk Schleck. The Luxemburger got out of climbing the Hors Catégorie Nufenenpass but still would have to face the 11.3-kilometre explosive climb to Crans-Montana.
Victor Hugo Peña (Unibet.com) and René Weissinger (Volksbank) nailed it off the front of the peloton at 80 kilometres to go. The Colombian-German duo gained up to 2'59" over the peloton still being led by CSC. During this time there was a crash (-63km) with Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre-Fondital) and a Saunier Duval Rider. The Italian from Avola (Sicily) was carried off in the ambulance with a neck brace but at the point of this writing, he was reported with a "possible concussion."
Peña and Weissinger kept tapping out the rhythm westward towards Vaas and the base of the day's climb. Neither of the men had much kick in their legs and they were resigned to the fact that they were going to be climbers' bait for the finale. At 33 kilometres to go, 23 to the base of the Crans-Montana, the duo held on to a slim 1'30" gap.
Gerolsteiner started adding coals to the chase fire for German Stefan Schumacher. The winner of the Amstel Gold Race fancied his changes on the upward run. "It will be an explosive finish that will suit the attackers," Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) noted before the race start.
At 'Sprint 2' the gap was at 1'43". Peña was letting his German partner get all the sprint points. Florian Stalder of Volksbank nipped off the front of the peloton at both sprint points to get third spot. Volksbank was not banking on the stage win but, rather, gathering the points on offer to maintain Stalder's white sprint leader's jersey.
Soon after, at 14 kilometres remaining, the duo was swept up and the path was cleared for the day's final artilleries. At the base of the final run the peloton was thinning under the firepower of 2006 Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss was followed by Sastre and then race leader Schleck. Astana was looking particularly anxious to attack.
Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) busted CSC's tempo with a blast at 10 kilometres to go. The Belgian was followed by Caisse's David López García. The Spaniard dropped Devolder two kilometres later while Gerrit Glomser (Volksbank) put in a chase from behind. As Devolder was nailed back by the peloton Saunier's magic duo Simoni and Gomez Marchante were moving up beside the Lampre's Cunego.
López García and Glomser joined forces for the final seven kilometres. The duo briefly became a trio at five kilometres to go when a horse ran on the course in front of Glomser. The riders followed the four-legged cycling fanatic for 300 metres until he ran back of the course. Near the same time, Schleck was running out of horsepower and drifting back.
Italian Simoni closed the gap to López García and Glomser at four kilometres remaining. Cunego was having none of it and went after his former team captain with a launch that blew the lead group apart. Only José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) joined Il Piccolo Principe in the drive.
The duo faded and it was countered by young Dutchman Thomas Dekker of Rabobank under two kilometres to go. He caught and passed Glomser and Simoni, who finished second and third. Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) finished in seventh but with his time gap over the faded Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) he took the race leader's jersey.