Australian champion Robbie McEwen (Davitamon Lotto) won the longest stage of Tour de Suisse, 208 kilometres between Vaduz near the Austrian border and Bad Zurzach. During the stage, many teams showed an unwillingness to work at the front of the peloton, and the three man break that escaped halfway through got an honest chance to stay away. At the end, race leader Jan Ullrich finished in the peloton at the same time as the winner, and none of the top riders in the GC gained any bonus seconds.
"We could sit back and let the others chase the breakaway, because we had Bart Dockx in a group of three, which was a really great move from him," McEwen explained after his win. In the final kilometres, "The rest of the guys, especially [Nick] Gates, Wim Vansevenant and [Fred] Rodriguez, did a really great job in the final to keep me out of the wind.
"It was a technical finish; it was something that suited me with a few corners and a little bit uphill. Just at the end, before the last corner, I got a little bit caught, had to brake slightly and then go again. But I was able to wriggle my way out of the first two guys through the corner, and the last 50 metres, I was able to enjoy my sprint... it was a nice day out (smiles)."
How it unfolded
Despite the length of the stage, many riders were interested in getting away shortly after the start, notably some of the bigger names, including Tom Boonen (Quickstep), Mirko Celestino (Domina Vacanze), Jens Voigt and Bobby Julich (CSC) and Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo). The peloton was reluctant to let anyone away, and all attempts were terminated.
Despite Jan Ullrich's promises not to wear his team out, the T-mobile team were responsible for the work up front until they happily let Bart Dockx (Davitamon Lotto), Allan Johansen (CSC) and Lorenzo Bernucci (Fassa Bortolo) away with 136 kilometres to go. The trio quickly gained a lot of time on the rolling peloton, reaching a maximum of 7'20 seconds with 66 kilometres to go.
T-mobile was reluctant to let go of all control at the front, and probably worked harder than they needed to, waiting for one of the sprinters teams to take control. That proved to be hard, since Oscar Freire's Rabobank was nowhere to be seen and Bradley McGee's and Baden Cooke's Francaise des Jeux was playing it way cool, using its two seconds disadvantage to its advantage instead. Robbie McEwen, who had his eye on this particular stage, could benefit from having Dockx at the front, so none of these teams came to the aid of T-mobile.
Finally, with around 50 kilometres to go, QuickStep decided that it was not going to happen unless they did it themselves, and they moved Hulsmans and Knaven to the front. The gap started to decrease, but it didn't look as if the two men leading the peloton were superior to the three men in front of them. Bernucci rode over the first intermediate sprint in Koblenz, without looking up. The break still looked to have a good chance to stay away, having 4'30 with 35 km to go.
In the peloton, it was obvious that no team wanted to take full responsibility and it looked like the break had a 50/50 chance of staying away. The first scramble up third category Zurzacherberg didn't prove very hard for the peloton, but a lot of the top riders stayed close to the front to check the route out and to avoid accidents as the rain had started to fall.
With 19 kilometres to go, the gap was down to 2'30 and now Davitamon Lotto joined the chase, since a sprint finish could not be avoided. Coming up Zurzacherberg for the second time, the pace in the peloton was much higher, but no real attacks were made, just dashes for the final GPM points. At the front Bernucci had dropped Johansen with ease going up the climb, but Johansen was able to come back to the duo in the flats and Bernucci calmed down for a minute or two.
Coming into the final ten, QuickStep had Christian Moreni up front, mixing it with the Phonak riders, determined to put Aurelien Clerc at the front for the sprint. After a final attack by Bernucci, the break was neutralized with four kilometres to go, and then it looked wide open. Most teams had representatives at the front, and although the pace was high, it wasn't the crazy gallop we are used to see towards the finish. The technical course leading to the line made it crucial for the riders to place themselves right, and especially Tom Boonen and Robbie McEwen came through fine.
Roger Hammond (Discovery channel) started out the sprint, but was overtaken by Daniele Colli (Liquigas) who in his turn had to see him beaten by McEwen who came past on pure power. The riders placed high on the GC all finished in the peloton, and there were no major changes.