Shootout in the Tour de Suisse

Strong in the time trial, but considerable improvement to be made in the mountains: that was the...

70th Tour de Suisse - PT

Switzerland, June 10-18, 2006

Valuable pointer to Ullrich's form

Strong in the time trial, but considerable improvement to be made in the mountains: that was the assessment of Jan Ullrich's Giro d'Italia. His prospects of taking a second Tour de France victory should become easier to assess when he heads into the high mountains of the Tour de Suisse.

Twelve months ago, Der Kaiser was third overall here behind a storming Aitor Gonzalez and the disappointed runner-up, Michael Rogers. Rogers came out of the race with high hopes for July but found that he had gone a bit too deep in scrapping for the win. This was an echo of Jan Ullrich's 2004 experience, the German winning in Switzerland but then showing some fragility in the mountains of that year's Tour.

The race finishes a week later than the Dauphiné Libéré and, for some, this means they have to be careful with their effort. Although Lance Armstrong won the race on his way to his most dominant Tour victory in 2001, you have to go right back to Eddy Merckx and 1974 to find the previous time a rider completed the Tour de Suisse/Tour de France double. Conclusion: those aiming for yellow in July may be advised to keep something in the tank for now.

Of course, that doesn't devalue the Tour de Suisse one bit. Regarded by many as the fourth biggest stage race in cycling, maillot jaune contenders will hope to show some of their increasing strength here while other strong riders will be very much scrapping it out to take a different yellow jersey to Bern on Sunday week. Stage victories are also very highly regarded and consequently some of the world's best sprinters will be at the start in Baden, flexing their muscles in anticipation of July. It's going to be a very competitive race.

Ullrich is undoubtedly the top name, but there are many other big guns in Switzerland. 2005 runner up Rogers is now with Jan's T-Mobile squad and will be one of his right hand men in July. So too Andreas Klöden, who is back after an eight-week lay-off due to a fractured shoulder. He rode the recent Bayern-Rundfahrt and placed an encouraging third in the time trial there. The strong magenta squad also includes 2003 runner up Giuseppe Guerini, 2005 stage winner Linus Gerdemann and the talented Patrik Sinkewitz, who was fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and won the 2004 Tour of Germany.

"We're sending a strong squad into action, with ambitions for a top overall placing," said sports director Rudy Pevenage. "We won the Tour de Suisse in 2003 with 'Vino' and in 2004 with Jan. Last year, Jan was third behind runner-up Michael Rogers. A good placing is also a pointer to the Tour de France."

Ullrich had originally considered riding the Vuelta Ciclista Asturias instead but has now decided on following his traditional pre-Tour preparation. "I have enjoyed success in this race in the past and feel very much at ease there," he stated recently.

Another maillot jaune candidate to opt for the Swiss race rather than the Dauphiné is Australian Cadel Evans. He showed winning form earlier this year when he took the Tour de Romandie thanks to strong performances in the mountains and then a superb final time trial. Both skills will come in handy here, so the Davitamon Lotto rider should be prominent.

Like Ullrich, Liquigas' Stefano Garzelli is a former winner of the Tour of Switzerland. Back in 1998 he showed his strong promise with victory here, then went on to take the 2000 Giro d'Italia. He opted to miss that race this year due to his ambitions of riding strongly in the Tour, but has shown good form already this season with wins in the Grand Prix of Frankfurt and stage 5 of the Tour of Luxembourg. Amongst those supporting his bid from a strong Tour de Suisse will be Dario Cioni, who took third two years ago.

As ever, CSC will be fielding a strong team in a ProTour race. Frank Schleck was fourth last year, just five seconds off the podium place time of Jan Ullrich, and the 2006 Amstel Gold winner could be a dark horse for the overall. Brother Andy and Paris Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara are also listed on the team, while perennial attacker Jens Voigt is down as a reserve. He'll certainly stir things up if he takes part.

More riders who were in the top ten last time round are Koldo Gil (6th), Beat Zberg (7th) and Bradley McGee (8th). Each of these is scheduled to ride. Gil has shown excellent form this year, winning two stages and the overall in the Euskal Bizikleta, while his team-mate José Ángel Gómez Marchante came out best in the Tour of the Basque Country and so could also be a big contender.

As for Zberg, he won the GP Gippingen last Sunday and, according to Gerolsteiner team manager Hans-Michael Holczer, should be a big protagonist in Switzerland. "Beat is in excellent shape," he said. "He can surely lay an eye on the general classification." He will be joined by Markus Fothen and Georg Totschnig, who was himself a good twelfth overall last year.

McGee's form is a little more uncertain. He finished second to Paolo Savoldelli in the prologue of the Giro d'Italia but was then forced to withdraw from the race due injury. He nevertheless has enough ability to play a prominent role, if his health is good.

Alexandre Moos finished three places behind McGee in 2005, placing 11th, and he will certainly be motivated to ride well. His Phonak team is Swiss and so a good performance here is always a target. Also on the team is Axel Merckx, who went close to a stage win in the Giro and may try to get revenge here.

Rabobank has taken strong climbers Peter Weening and Michael Rasmussen to the race and the 2005 Tour de France stage winners will be building form for July. Rasmussen was King of the Mountains there and will test his form amidst the high peaks of Switzerland. Meanwhile Euskaltel Euskadi have David Herrero, second in the final general classification of the Euskal Bizikleta and Unai Etxebarria, winner of the King of the Mountains competition there.

One team under pressure to perform is the Astana – Würth squad. Manolo Saiz' bust on suspicion of buying doping products has cast a shadow on the team, who lost their Liberty Seguros sponsorship as a result and may also be refused entry to the Tour de France. ASO are due to make a decision on that in the next few days; if the riders can summon up the necessary morale and the form, they may try to do something here. If so, watch out for 2004 Paris-Nice winner Jörg Jaksche and Tour of Romandie stage victor Alberto Contador.

If the battle for the overall classification will be a fascinating one, so too the scrap amongst the sprinters. Some of the best fast-twitch specialists in the sport are here, including the charismatic Belgian Tom Boonen. The Quick.Step-Innergetic rider has proved to be the most impressive world champion of recent seasons, winning races such as the Tour of Flanders this year and landing his sixteenth victory of the spring when he was first to the line in Wednesday's Veenendaal-Veenendaal.

However sprint wins are not a foregone conclusion, by any means; Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) took three stage wins in the Tour of Italy and is very, very quick. Boonen's team-mate Paolo Bettini also landed a stage there and could be up for another big result, while Erik Zabel (Milram) can never be ruled out. Factor in strong attackers such as Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Telecom) and Rabobank's Michael Boogerd and it is clear that some super racing is in store.

The 1,468km Tour de Suisse kicks off on Saturday with a 154km stage starting and finishing in Baden. Sprinters and breakaway riders will continue to have their chance over the next three days, the race heading along flattish parcours to Einsiedeln, Arlesheim and La Chaux de Fonds.

The main GC contenders should then come to the fore with the start of the mountain stages on Wednesday. A summit finish to Leukerbad will upend the classification, while the queen stage one day later should cause even more damage. The riders will tackle the gruelling Furka (2,436m) and Albula passes (2,315 m), then do the Julier and Lukmanier climbs the next day. The penultimate stage to Ambri is also a toughie, with one HC climb and two first category ascents providing further opportunity to those with the legs.

The final showdown comes next Sunday with a 30 kilometre time trial from Kerzera to Bern. Will Ullrich repeat his Giro TT success here and, more importantly, how will he fare in the high mountains?

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