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Gerolsteiner rider Markus Fothen took what is arguably the most significant result of his pro career...
Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) takes the stage
Gerolsteiner rider Markus Fothen took what is arguably the most significant result of his pro career when he won the fifth leg of the Tour de Suisse, a hilly stage concluding in Caslano.
Fothen broke free on the final climb and descended well to close down the lone leader Fränk Schleck (CSC), who had made his own move earlier on the ascent of the second category slopes of the Cademario.
The two traded pulls until the Luxembourg rider dramatically crashed with approximately four kilometres to go, losing what looked to be a certain opportunity to wrest the race leader's yellow jersey from the shoulders of Igor Anton (Euskaltel Euskadi).
Schleck misjudged a tight right-hand bend and slammed into the guardrail, flipping over and falling down the other side. He was miraculously unharmed, apart from scrapes and bruises, but ultimately finished 2'52" back in 44th place.
Schleck had started the day just 16" seconds in arrears and with Fothen hitting the line almost a minute clear of Anton's group, it was clear that there would have been a change at the top of the general classification.
Fothen scooped up the victory, returning to the limelight he enjoyed when he led the best young rider competition in the 2006 Tour de France. "It is wonderful, it is a great race here at the Tour de Suisse," he said at the post-race press conference. "It is a good preparation for my season goal of the Tour. I am in a very good condition and am very lucky.
"The team's first goal today was to work for Oliver Zaugg as he is our rider for the general classification. I did that but when we saw that there were so many riders on the final climb, we spoke amongst ourselves and it was clear then that if I was strong, I could attack.
"Once I went the aim was to gain as much time as possible until the top of the climb, then try to catch Frank Schleck on the descent."
Fothen did just that and the two worked together until Schleck had his fall. The Gerolsteiner rider was clearly shocked by what happened. "The crash was unbelievable, it looked terrible. I didn't have much time to react to it – if I had, it would have perhaps made me brake hard and perhaps, fall too.
"When I saw the crash, I had the impression that it was finished [for Frank Schleck], that he would be very badly injured. I am reassured and am very happy that he can continue. He was lucky. We had agreed to work together and then let the victory be settled in the final kilometre."
Astana rider Serguei Ivanov took second, 50 seconds back, while Marcus Zberg (Gerolsteiner) led in the first group some seven seconds later. Many of the big guns were present, including Anton, Kim Kirchen (Team High Road), Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) and Andy Schleck (Team CSC). Andreas Klöden (Astana) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) lost time, however, conceding 20" and 57" respectively to the other race favourites.
Team High Road's Kim Kirchen remained second overall, six seconds back, while Fothen's team-mate Oliver Zaugg is just eighteen seconds back in third place.
Anton was happy to remain at the top. "The day was difficult," he said. "There were tough climbs at the start and some good riders got away in the break. At the end Schleck attacked and it was clear that he was the strongest. If he hadn't crashed, he would surely be in the yellow jersey.
"Tomorrow will be a difficult day. I hope to feel better than today – I will need to be. I think that Devolder, Cunego, Klöden and Schleck will be the strong guys. Some of them lost time today but we still need to watch them."
Kirchen is also a threat, given that he is the closest challenger. He was nineteenth on the stage, crossing the line at the back of the Anton group. He told Cyclingnews that he felt under a little pressure. "The stage was okay but it was a little bit too warm today. There was a big difference [when compared to the previous stages] so I was suffering today. However I survived and I hope I will be better tomorrow."
The 187.9 kilometre stage had started with the a third category climb and then the long ascent to the top of the first cat Lukmanierpass. A break went clear with several riders, amongst them Pietro Caucchioli (Crédit Agricole) and Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), as well as perennial attacker Jens Voigt (Team CSC) plus Maxim Iglinsky (Astana).
The latter was the last to be caught but he was eventually reeled in just outside the 20 kilometre to go point. Then, following an effort by Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) and Serguei Ivanov (Astana), Schleck made his own bid for stage victory, catching the latter, being later reeled in himself by Fothen, and then crashing hard.
He crossed the finish line holding a religious medal, thanking his guardian angel for saving him from what seemed certain to be much more grievous injuries.
"My mother gave this to me when I was born. It is a guardian angel, it brings me luck," he told the media, clearly thanking his good fortune.
"I suppose that I went into the corner too fast," he continued. "I didn't realise that the corner turned so sharply and I was going too quick. I just hit the barriers and went over them. It is a pity because I would have got the yellow jersey today."