For some it is a curse, but for Tom Boonen it has been a talisman. The wearer of the Rainbow Jersey of world champion today sprinted to his seventeenth win of the season in Berne, taking an early lead in the Tour of Switzerland in the process. Boonen landed fourteen big victories in the whole of 2005, yet in less than six months racing, he has already surpassed that total. On the evidence of today, more wins this week and in next month's Tour de France are quite easy to envisage.
"Today I have had a super and strong team," he stated after the finish. "They were able to control the race in every moment. Everybody has done a fantastic job. They worked a lot on the last climb at 22 kilometres from the finish line, and the high rhythm they set there affected the legs of many riders. During the last 2 kilometres, Tankink, Nuyens, Bettini and then Tosatto worked hard and perfectly piloted me up to 250 meters to go. It's a team success."
Hitting the front quite a way out, Boonen was more than strong enough to hold off his two closest rivals, Lampre's Daniel Bennati and former rainbow jersey Oscar Freire (Rabobank). The latter two almost collided crossing the line but stayed upright to take second and third out of the 82 man lead group.
Robbie McEwen (Davitamon Lotto) and Erik Zabel (Team Milram) were expected to be up there but the tough fourth category climb of Hertenstein put paid to their chances. They got tailed off on the second lap of the finishing circuit and came home 1 minute and 53 seconds back.
"The last lap was pretty hard," said Boonen. "When I saw the climb the first time, I thought it mightn't be possible that it could all stay together until the end. But when we crossed the climb and saw the fifteen kilometres which lay between there and the finish, with fast roads, I thought then that if I could stay in the front, no break would get clear between there and the line on the last lap.
"The second time up, we went climbed it pretty fast. First Bram Tankink was pulling and then Paolo [Bettini] at the same pace. I had no problems staying in the front but behind, McEwen and Zabel were getting dropped. That wasn't too hard, but after the top it was a little more difficult to keep things together with only two or three teammates left. It all worked out, though, and it is great to win here."
The sunny first stage was marked by a long distance lone break by Astana Würth rider José Antonio Redondo Ramos. The Spaniard broke clear 24 kilometres after the start in Baden and opened up a maximum lead of 8 minutes and 45 second by kilometre 66. Michael Albasini (Liquigas) and Roger Beuchat (LPR) tried to get across before this point but were unable to do so. However the Quick.Step and Davitamon teams of Boonen and McEwen had better luck in reducing the gap, cutting the lead to 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
At this point a persistent Albasini and Steve Zampieri (Phonak) took their chance, setting off in pursuit on the fourth category Baldingen/Rüti climb, about 60 kilometres from the end. They chased well together and finally bridged up about 20 kilometres later. The three rode together for a while and then Redondo Ramos was tailed off on the second ascent of the steep Hertenstein climb.
Albasini and Zampieri hung out for a while longer but they were finally hauled back six kilometres from the line, setting things up for a big sprint and Boonen's victory.
First year pro Redondo Ramos was a little disappointed at the end, but indicated he may try again. "I was going well but it was a hard stage for a breakaway. It is only the first stage, so we will take it day by day and see how it goes."
Albasini has tasted success here before, winning a seven man sprint last year to land stage five to Altdorf. "It was a hard stage, especially with that climb at the end," he stated "I am happy with my form, we were working well but with so many behind and the sprinters teams happy to ride, it was very, very difficult to stay clear. We were caught about seven kilometres from the end, so it was a pity."
"If there is the chance to win a stage I will try again. I would like to win a stage, as I did last year – maybe I will do it, maybe I wont. I think I am doing the Tour de France, so riding well there is also a target."
How it unfolded
The first stage starting and ending in Baden's Bruggerstraße was run in perfect summer weather, with temperatures in the mid-20s and not a rain cloud in sight. 168 riders from 21 teams signed on, and the stage got under way shortly before 2pm. The field stayed together for the first 24 km, before Würth's José Antonio Redondo Ramos managed to attack and get a gap. The peloton was more than content to let the 21 year-old first year pro with no wins to his credit ride away, and leave the job up to the sprinters teams to pull him back when they saw fit.
Redondo took full advantage of the fact, and although he was pursued by Swiss duo Albasini (Liquigas) and Beuchat (LPR) for a while, the chasers were caught after 38 km and Redondo was on his own in front. His gap at that stage was a mere 1'10, but then the pace eased in the bunch and it grew to 8'45 after 66 km, before the chase started.
Initially it was Quick.Step and Davitamon chasing for their sprinters Boonen and McEwen, the two fastest men on paper in this field, but they got some help from Milram (for Zabel). Within 10 km, they had already carved two minutes off the Spaniard's lead, and the stage looked to be heading for a predictable conclusion.
But when the gap was down to around 4'30, Michael Albasini (again) and another Swiss rider, Steve Zampieri (Phonak) set off in pursuit on the fourth category Baldingen/Rüti climb with around 60 km to go. The pair quickly ate into the leader's advantage, while the peloton thought it was too early to react, and let them go.
Redondo headed back into Baden with two 23 km laps to go with the two Swiss chasers just 1'07 behind, and the peloton at 3'08. While Redondo had been taking all the bonus sprints, Albasini had been picking up second place ahead of Zampieri, in order to improve his chances on GC.
Team LPR had started to help out the always working Quick.Step and Davitamon teams, and the bunch looked to have the situation in hand, as Redondo was caught by Albasini and Zampieri with 40 km to go. The gap was around 2'30, and never got bigger, despite the best efforts of the two Swiss in front.
At one lap to go, the leading trio got a massive cheer from the crowd at the finish line, and still held 2'00 over the bunch, where Bettini led under the finish banner with Boonen on his wheel. The leaders hit the short but steep (8.6%) Hertenstein climb, and Redondo dropped off. David De la Fuente (Saunier Duval) tried to stir things up in the peloton by attacking, and it succeeded in creating a split in the bunch, causing McEwen and Zabel to be dropped.
That was the signal for Rabobank and Quick.Step to drop the hammer, and their gun riders started to work for a Boonen or Freire stage win. Redondo was swallowed at 18 km to go, while Zampieri and Albasini lasted until 6 km to go, and the bunch sprint was on the cards. Jan Ullrich was prominent near the front in the wind, but was not doing any turns today. His teammate Lorenzo Bernucci tried an attack at 4 km to go, which went nowhere, then it was up to the sprinters to sort it out.
Lampre-Fondital and Quick.Step did most of the work in the final kilometres, and Boonen went under the red flag with two teammates. Bettini did the job in marking a pre-emptive move by a Cofidis and Saunier Duval rider, before Tosatto went at just under 500m to go. The Italian did a long lead out, allowing Boonen to jump at 175m to go to take the stage win from Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank).