Kirchen cracks, Klöden into second overall
Storming to his biggest career win thus far, Czech rider Roman Kreuziger wrested the yellow jersey off the shoulders of High Road rival Kim Kirchen on a tough 25 kilometre mountain time trial to the top of the Klausenpass.
The former world junior champion set a superb pace on the climb, beating early leader José Rujano Guillen (Caisse d'Eparagne) by sixteen seconds and Andreas Klöden (Astana) by a further two. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) was the only other to finish less than a minute behind, while the overnight leader Kirchen was on an off-day and placed only fifteenth. He was a considerable 3'25" down and dropped to seventh overall, with Klöden now the closest challenger to the new yellow jersey.
"Until now, my win in the 2004 world junior title in Verona was the most important. But now this victory here in the time trial tops that result," said an elated Kreuziger afterwards. "I hadn't done a mountain time trial yet with the pros, but I was very motivated because I was second overall going into today. This is my first big victory as a professional."
The 22 year-old clearly likes racing in Switzerland, given that he was second overall in the Tour du Romandie this season. In fact, he has a long history of competing in the country. "I was racing as a schoolboy for a Swiss club called RV Sulz and as a junior I competed for the Groupe Sportif Schumacher, which also had its base in Sulz," he said.
He headed to the race with the goal of building form, but now finds himself with a very strong chance of winning. "For the first time, I am in the Liquigas team selection for the Tour de France," he stated. "I will go there to learn and to stay there for ten days. Maybe I can do something in a stage. I came to the Tour of Switzerland hoping to do a good preparation for that race, but when I learned I was in good condition, the overall classification came into my focus."
Kirchen said yesterday that he was unsure of his chances, given that the time trial was so long, and also because he had very little experience of being in this position. He previously led the Tour of Luxembourg, but had never defended a jersey until the end of a stage race.
The High Road rider was under a lot of pressure and clearly weakened as a result. "I felt that I had no power in my legs," he said after his time trial. He was then asked why he used such a big gear. "Well, if I have no power, even with a smaller gear I would not move my bike [quicker]," was his response.
Second place on the stage went to Rujano, who finally looks like getting back to the form he showed when racing to a stage win, the King of the Mountains classification and third overall in the 2005 Giro d'Italia. "I felt very well and most of all, was very motivated by the course of this time trial", said the Venezuelan. "This morning I went to see the course in car, together with my team manager José Luis Jaimerena and I understood that it could suit me very well.
"At the end the gap with the winner was not so big, but in fact I lacked power in the last four kilometres. I would have be very happy to win, most of all to thank my team Caisse d'Epargne for trusting me the way they do. I was very tired at the end of the Giro d'Italia, but I am feeling better every day and I am satisfied with my Tour de Suisse. Now I will prepare myself for the Olympic Games in Beijing and later for the Vuelta a España, which is my main goal of the season."
Damiano Cunego showed his form is on the up prior to his big season target, the Tour de France. He placed fourth and ended the day fourth overall. "We're very happy for Cunego's performance," said directeur sportif Maurizio Piovani. "Damiano showed that his pace on climbs is good and it will be better in the next weeks because his condition will increase. He pedalled on normal bike with light wheels, and he could keep a constant pace that allowed him to realize a good time."
Both Igor Anton and the Italian are well adrift of Kreuziger, 1'55" and 2'11" respectively, and while tomorrow's final stage from Altdorf to Bern is undulating almost all the way, it's difficult to conceive that they could get back sufficient time. Klöden's smaller deficit is also unlikely to be overcome, but for now the young race leader is taking nothing for granted.
"It is not over yet, tomorrow will be difficult. Let's see how it goes," Kreuziger said. "I am not quite sure if I can be the overall winner. I expect an attack from Andreas Klöden, but I have a gap of 49 seconds and that should be enough. The final part of this stage is very difficult with some climbs....I think I am probably 80 percent sure of overall victory."
How it unfolded
A number of riders didn't appear for today's mountain time trial. Rabobank's Thomas Dekker announced yesterday that he was dropping out of the race, and an intestinal virus swept through the Gerolsteiner team, knocking out Oliver Zaugg and Stefan Schumacher.
Jose Rujano (Caisse d'Epargne) brought in a best time of 1h00'38, a time which held up for quite a while. For a long time no one could come within four minutes of his time. But eventually a few riders started to get closer. CSC's Jens Voigt set the best intermediate at the first check, after 9.1 kilometres, but he could not keep it up and eventually finished 1'19 behind the Venezuelan.
Voigt was eventually passed by Steve Zampieri, but the Swiss rider could also not get better the time of Rujano and stayed in second for the time being. Next to put Rujano's time to the test was Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), but he, too, fell short. With his 1h03'43, however, he squeezed past Zampieri into second.
The top five were about to start and the 2008 Tour de Suisse was about to be played out. First off was Andreas Klöden (Astana), who set a third best intermediate time, which was still held by Jens Voigt.
In two-minute intervals, the top riders set off: Thomas Lövkvist (Team High Road) at 17:32, Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) at 17:34, Igor Anton Hernandez (Euskaltel - Euskadi) at 17:36, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) at 17:38 and finally Kim Kirchen (Team High Road) at 17:40.
Just when Kirchen went, Voigt hit the line, with a 1h01'57. Another rider who moved into second, unable to get to Rujano's time.
At the first time check, things already looked bleak for Kirchen, who was almost three quarters of a minute down on Kreuziger, who set the best time with a 19'13. Kirchen continued to lose time, while a determined Kreuziger quickly stormed the mountain.
Andreas Klöden caught his two-minute man Andy Schleck inside the final kilometre, but even that effort was not enough to get past Rujano. The German was one second slower than the Caisse d'Epargne rider.
It was Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas who finally broke Rujano's grip on first place, 16 seconds faster. Kim Kirchen lost 3'24 and his yellow jersey, which he had to hand over to a happy stage winner Kreuziger.
Klöden moved to second overall, 48 seconds back, while Anton stayed in third, but already 1'55 down on the Czech race leader.