American Chris Horner has given himself a big shot at making Saunier Duval's Tour de France team after winning the first serious mountain stage of the Tour de Suisse. It was a shattered peloton that came into Arosa today, with race leader Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) and second place overall at the start of the day, Bradley McGee (Française des Jeux), both finishing almost two minutes in arrears and slipping one rung down the classement général, while McGee's fellow Australian, Michael Rogers (Quick.Step-Davitamon), leapfrogged from third into the yellow, the best finisher in a seven-man chase group, 1'14 behind Horner.
Asked about the motivation behind his attack, Horner said to Cyclingnews: "It was just tactical, pure tactics.
"Today was simple: I was three minutes down on GC and the leaders, if you take the top 10 on GC, the leaders had no-one [left] on the climb to pull me back - so it's logical to think: 'Okay, we're not going to use energy to chase Chris Horner.'
"What I've noticed in the race is that T-Mobile has very few riders left on the last mountain - normally one or two riders - and Française des Jeux, they have the same. So I thought: 'Who's going to chase? I'm three minutes down - maybe they'll give me a bit of a gap.'"
That they did, and the 33 year-old American, along with Fassa Bortolo's Vincenzo Nibali, were left to fight out the stage. However, a colourful exchange of words (a little too colourful for this family-friendly publication) took place between the pair, before Horner attacked his companion and soled away with the victory.
"I said many things," Horner said with a grin when questioned about his tiff with Nibali, which brought loads of laughter from the press that surrounded him. "For me, I don't know the riders, I haven't raced with them much. It's not like in the States; when I race in the States, I know every rider, I know their ability, I know how they're going to ride the course. Here, it's completely different for me. I'm completely out of my realm, I don't know the riders by face, and I don't know what their abilities are.
"When the Fassa Bortolo rider attacked us, he looked very strong. So when I finally caught him and he wasn't working so much, I said some things to make him work, but then after he still wouldn't work, so I attacked him to see if he had something left or not." He didn't.
Vincenzo Nibali explained, "I probably lack experience. With 15 km to go, I was flying as I felt I had really good legs. But the energy I spent then went missing in the finale. I'm still satisfied with my second placing and with the way I'm going at the moment. It's my first year as a pro, and everything that comes to me is good! That's why I live from day to day, as high goals would be too much of a burden."
That meant Horner not only won the stage, he made up two out of his three minute deficit to the favourites at the start of the day - although he admits trying the same move again won't be so easy. "Sure, tomorrow or in the coming stages, they won't. Ullrich and the other riders' form is better than mine, but I knew at three minutes down [at the start of today's stage], my form is probably the best out of the riders who are three minutes down! Unfortunately, I'm not three minutes down anymore, so it will be more difficult to ride away."
And for perhaps the bonehead question of the week, asked at the post-race press conference: "Can he win the whole thing?"
Horner laughed more than a little before answering: "No... it's the beginning of the season [for me]; it's the first time I've had multiple days of hard racing. At any moment, I'm sure the form could disappear for a day - but I think I could have very, very good form at the Tour de France."
How it unfolded
146 riders started were greeted with warm sunshine in Bürglen this afternoon for a 12:59 start time - don't ask us why 1pm wouldn't satisfy the Swiss! The two riders missing were: Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who was complaining of a "sore undercarriage" according to Aussie sprinter Robbie McEwen and decided not to start today's sixth stage; and Michael Blaudzun from Team CSC.
It took only 11 kilometres before these 146 lads were greeted with a climb of the nastiest kind, the hors categorié Oberalp Pass. However, being so early in the peace, the GC riders weren't willing to disturb the peace (for now, at least) and rode up the Oberalp as calmly as one can ride up a 33 kilometre mountain pass that reaches 2,046 metres in height.
The group did splinter, eight riders - Thorwald Veneberg (Rabobank, 80th GC), Niki Aebersold (Phonak, 97th GC), Linus Gerdemann (CSC, 74th GC), Matej Mugleri (Liquigas, 92nd GC) Markus Zberg (Gerolsteiner, 115th GC), David Loosli (Lampre, 38th GC), Freddy Bichot (Française des Jeux, 139th GC) and Pablo Lastras (Illes Balears, 37th GC) - making a move, with Niki Aebersold (Phonak, 97th GC), Iban Mayo and Roberto Laiseka (Euskaltel-Euskadi, 22nd and 33rd GC) and Daniel Atienza (Cofidis, 32nd) also stretching their legs at various points on the climb. In the end, a group formed with Mayo, Laiseka, Atienza, Loosli, Jose Luis Arrieta (Illes Balears), and Daniel Schnider (Phonak), the latter being the best placed on GC at 2'17 behind Ullrich.
At the top of the Oberalp, Laiseka took line honours ahead of Loosli and Jose Luis Arrieta, their group 2'38 ahead of the T-Mobile-driven peloton, which was content to ride moderate tempo.
Aside from a third category 'bump' before the start of the final climb in Chur (km 124.1, 34.6km to go), it was a mostly downhill run till then. Excluding a very chatty 21-man autobus, it was still all together after the first climb, and as a consequence, the larger group's natural momentum helped bring back the break to 1'10 at the foot of the climb.
At 27 kilometres to go, what was left of the breakaway was reeled in by a very itchy-looking peloton. A kilometre after that happened, a four-man group comprised of Jonathan Gonzalez Rios (Illes Balears), Vincenzo Nibali (Fassa Bortolo), Chris Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Daniel Atienza (Cofidis) left the peloton in their wake, with two of those riders never seen again...
Seven kilometres into their escape and with 20 kilometres to go, the group had 1'46 on a 28-man peloton led by Giuseppe Guerini and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), Tadej Valjavec (Phonak) and Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner). However, Michael Rogers (Quick.Step-Davitamon) wasn't happy just hangin' around, and his attack at around the same mark saw six others - Frank Schleck (CSC), Koldo Gil (Liberty Seguros), Valjavec (Phonak), Leonardo Piepoli and Fabian Jeker (Saunier Duval) and Aitor Gonzalez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) - joining him Aussie for the up-and-down ride to Arosa.
With 10 kilometres remaining, just Horner and Nibali were left out in front, but the Italian wouldn't - or couldn't - contribute, resulting in a rather colourful (a little too colourful for this family-friendly publication) exchange of words between the two. Two k later, the 33 year-old American, who recently finished on the podium at the USPRO Championships in Philly after a long early season lay-off, let the legs do the talkin' and launched his winning move.
Entering Arosa with a 1'12 advantage on Nibali, who just hung on for second place, Horner had plenty of time to enjoy his victory - and keep his dreams of a Tour de France berth alive.
Two seconds after Nibali, Rogers came in for third, which saw him don the yellow tunic, while Schleck and Gil Perez were fourth and fifth respectively, both finishing on the same time.