"No reason why we shouldn't start the Tour"
Robbie McEwen, Oscar Freire, Erik Zabel and the other contenders for the Tour de France green jersey came to Switzerland looking for a morale-boosting sprint win but it now looks like Tom Boonen may be the only maillot vert hopeful to net a stage victory in this Tour de Suisse. Prior to the race it was forecast that the first four days would be for the sprinters, but with the exception of Boonen's winning gallop on stage one, each have been settled from a break.
Today it was the turn of Spaniard Angel Vicioso to triumph, the Würth rider outsprinting compatriot David Hererro Llorente (Euskaltel) at the end of stage four to La Chaux de Fonds. The two went clear approximately six kilometres from the line and although a fast-chasing main bunch almost had them back before the finish, they retained enough of an advantage to fight it out for the stage win between them.
The victory was important for Vicioso for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the first for the newly renamed Würth team - or Astana-Würth as they want to be called. The team formerly known as Liberty Seguros has been under a shadow ever since Manolo Saiz was arrested on suspicion of purchasing doping products on May 23, and so getting a victory shows that the unit is still functioning and fighting.
The second reason is Astana-Würth is hoping to retain its Tour de France place and should find out in the next few days if this will be the case. And the third is that Vicioso himself has been under pressure, after the Spanish media implicated him by saying that he was one of the riders allegedly recorded on video footage taken outside Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes' clinic in Calle Zurbano, Madrid.
The Spaniard didn't want to talk about that subject today, saying more than once that he wished only to discuss matters pertaining directly to the Tour de Suisse.
When asked what this first win meant for the newly-renamed team, Vicioso said that "this victory is something special. As the sponsor has shown confidence in us, it is a way to thank them. It is also a special victory for me, especially as it is a ProTour race."
Vicioso and Herrero made their move in the final kilometres of what was a very active and aggressive finale. Once again the course profile and hill classifications proved deceptive, with the tough undulating terrain leading to many breaks and putting weaker riders under a lot of pressure. Amongst the race favourites to attack were Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), Cadel Evans (Davitamon Lotto), Jörg Jaksche (Würth) and Koldo Gil Perez (Saunier Duval), each of these being present in a 14 man break which gained two minutes on the main field, but was reeled in with 60 kilometres remaining.
Other individuals and groups then went in short-lived surges. However the most dangerous was probably the attempt by Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile) and Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) with 26 kilometres to go. They opened up a 20 second lead but were finally brought back with 16 kilometres remaining. Then, ten kilometres further on, Vicioso and Herrero made the winning effort. The Lampre-led peloton almost got them back, but not quite; the two fought it out for the stage win and there the Würth rider had enough speed to take top honours.
"Lampre were riding very hard in the last few minutes but I knew they were still a bit behind me. I waited until the right time to start my sprint and to win the stage," Vicioso said. "I let him come by me and then waited for the right time to start my sprint."
He was then asked once more about the Operation Puerto doping affair but wasn't willing to talk on this. "I wish to speak only about the race," he said. However he did respond to a question about the team's participation in the Tour de France.
"I think we will do the Tour," he said. "There is no reason why we shouldn't do it. There are very important riders in the team such as Vinokourov who can do something in the general classification and there is no reason to put us to the side.
When asked if he would dedicate his win to anyone in particular, he said, "This is a victory I would like to dedicate to Manolo Saiz and the rest of the team. From the start of the season, this hasn't been an easy year for me and the team. There have been difficult moments for us."
Race leader Nick Nuyens had a tough day today, losing contact at one point but eventually returning to the front group. He reached the finish as part of the regrouped main bunch and thus held on to his jersey.
"It wasn't easy because the course was very hard," he said. "I was dropped on the last climb but I got my rhythm back. At the summit I was 250 metres behind. Then on the descent several team-mates came back to me and we chased hard to get back to the first group."
When Nuyens was in trouble he appeared to be on his own, with no team-mates nearby. He was asked about this at the finish but played it down. "The finale was very hard. It wasn't a course for my team and before the stage we said we would just see what would happen.
"I was alone for a while but then some team-mates came back for me. It wasn't a problem."
How it unfolded
Today's 161.3 kilometre stage began under sunny Swiss skies, with 164 riders leaving the start town of Niederbipp at 13:25 this afternoon. The opening pace was particularly fast, neutralising any breakaway attempts in the first hour.
It wasn't until 61 kilometres had been covered and with exactly a 100 to go that a group went away, containing none other than T-Mobile Team captain Jan Ullrich along with 16 other riders. A few more bridged across, including race leader Nick Nuyens, but the short though challenging climb to Mont Soleil narrowed the group down to 14 riders by its crest at km 75.3, including: Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile Team), Jörg Jaksche, Alberto Contador, Angel Vicioso (Würth), Beat Zberg (Gerolsteiner), David Canada, Koldo Gil Perez, Jose Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Alexandre Botcharov (Credit Agricole), Fabian Cancellara, Christian Vandevelde (Team CSC), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Iker Flores (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Marco Fertonani (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears).
A solid workgroup saw the break's advantage reach two minutes with 73 kilometres to go, but with no-one from the race leader's team represented, Quick.Step-Innergetic took it upon themselves to organise a chase, shaving off a half-minute in just a few kilometres.
Despite a star-studded breakaway, the gap continued to come down, slowly but steadily. Sensing the inevitable recapture, Caisse d'Epargne's Marco Fertonani decided to attack his companions with just under 40 kilometres left to race.
11 kilometres later and 28 kilometres from the finish in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Rik Verbrugghe (Cofidis) and Sylvain Calzati (AG2R Prevoyance) had bridged up to Fertonani, but moments later, Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile Team) and Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) went straight past the trio as if they were standing still.
The bunch, though, still 70 riders strong, weren't so keen to let these groups go, and with 16 kilometres left to race, it was peloton groupé. But fuelled with the motivation of the previous two stages, with two successful breaks in as many days, Euskaltel-Euskadi's David Herrero and Würth's Angel Vicioso were next to try their luck, six kilometres from La Chaux-de-Fonds.
With five kilometres remaining, Vicisio and Herrero had 16 sixteen seconds over the peloton. Now one long line and driven by Lampre-Fondital and Rabobank, the latter teams were trying to set things up for their sprinters Daniele Bennati and Oscar Freire.
However, three kilometres from the finish, the gap continued to hold firm at 15 seconds; at two kilometres, it was 13 seconds, the pair maintaining this gap as they passed under the flamme rouge, signaling 1000 metres to go.
With the peloton breathing down their necks in the final 500, there was no time for cat and mouse. Rather than one leading the other out, the two chose to sprint mano-a-mano, and it was Vicisio who came out on top over a bitterly disappointed Herrero, the latter banging his fists in frustration, while Bennati outsprinted Freire no more than a second behind them.