Vicioso now in yellow
Phonak rider Steve Morabito today had one of the most memorable days of his career, a moment which most neo-pros can only dream about. Picture it: a first year professional, granted a start his home Tour, gets into an early break and with no aspirations other than staying out front for as long as possible, reaches the final climb with a what is still a decent lead.
He and his breakaway companion Jurgen Van Goolen (Discovery Channel) ride as hard as possible up the mountain and despite a furious chase behind, are strong enough to hold off all the race favourites. The 23 year-old then jumps away inside the final kilometres to take a superb debut win, exceeding his and his team's expectations. It's little wonder he was grinning broadly from the moment he crossed the line until the post-stage press conference an hour or so later.
The former VC Mendrisio PL Valli amateur got his contract thanks in part to his eighth place in the under 23 world championships last autumn, but today's result is far bigger than anything he has done before.
"To win the stage here is incredible," he told the press after the podium presentation was concluded.
"This morning, my first objective was only to get into a breakaway to get experience of that in a race like this. I got into the break after 50 kilometres, so my first objective was achieved. When we had a good gap my aim was then to reach the last climb with a bit of an advantage so I would be there in order to help one of the team leaders.
"We got to that last climb with a good lead. Van Goolen was riding well so I decided to try to stay with him. Then, at three or four kilometres from the line, I saw that the gap to the chasers was stabilising a little, it wasn't coming down as quickly as before. I realised then that we could stay away, and I was trying to encourage my breakaway companion to ride as hard as he could. But he wasn't very strong at that point. When he would come by me he would slow down a bit. I attacked a few times to try to reach the line alone but couldn't get clear; however, I went for it about 300 metres to go and it was enough."
"It all worked out extremely well in the end, and taking the stage here is a dream come true. To win a stage in the Tour of Switzerland in my home region is incredible."
Morabito surged inside the final kilometre and hit the line at the summit finish of Leukerbad 14 seconds clear of a deeply disappointed Van Goolen, who is still building form after an injury earlier this year. Jan Ullrich's T-Mobile team had led the chase on the final climb but it was yesterday's stage winner Angel Vicioso rather than the German who profited, racing home first out of the lead group, some two seconds after Van Goolen finished.
Vicioso consequently took over at the top of the general classification, with team-mate Jorg Jaksche second and T-Mobile's gifted young rider Linus Gerdemann third. He and the rest of the T-Mobile team worked hard for Jan Ullrich, driving the pace up the first category climb (and distancing the overnight leader Nick Nuyens), but the German didn't attack as was expected. He came home sixth, just behind Koldo Gil Perez (Saunier Duval) and Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step). However his climbing form has clearly progressed since the Giro d'Italia and he is now 7th overall, 16 seconds off yellow.
Vicioso was very happy with his second visit to the podium in two days: "I was going for the yellow jersey today because I realised that the stage win was not possible. The break was a bit far ahead to go for that today.
"The pace set by T-Mobile on the climb was very hard but I felt good so I thought I could go for the jersey. I am in good shape... This result is very important for me and the team. I got the stage win yesterday and today I am wearing the jersey."
Despite his strong finish, Vicioso says he is not looking forward to tomorrow's mountains. "I am not a true climber so tomorrow will be difficult for me," he stated.
"However I will try to defend my jersey and if it is not possible, I will try to pass it to one of my team-mates. I will help the team as much as I can as I think there are riders such as Contador and Jaksche who are capable of going for the general classification."
Interestingly, Vicioso was not named yesterday as part of the Astana-Wurth squad from which their Tour de France team will be drawn - providing, of course, they get a start in the race.
The team has been under a cloud due to the Operation Puerto doping scandal and Vicioso's exclusion is likely due to suggestions that he was one of the riders allegedly recorded on video. However, despite that pressure on him, he's been riding well thus far in this Tour de Suisse.
How it unfolded
The first of four consecutive mountain stages in this year's Tour de Suisse began at the same place as yesterday's finish in La Chaux-de-Fonds. The sun gods were once again out to greet the peloton, now just 154 riders strong after 11 abandons, 3 HDs and 1 DNS yesterday.
Highs speeds characterised the start of the day's play, and it took just under 50 kilometres' racing before a six-man break established themselves, including Steve Morabito (Phonak), Jürgen van Goolen (Discovery Channel), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis), Ralf Grabsch (Milram), Kjell Carlström (Liquigas) and Alexandre Usov (AG2R Prevoyance).
No more than 20 kilometres later, the sextet already had an enviable seven-minute advantage over the peloton. William Bonnet (Credit Agricole) was the piggy in the middle, three minutes in arrears of the lead group, who found himself back in the bunch a further 20 kilometres later.
After roughly 50 kilometres out in front, the six reached their maximum advantage of 12 minutes, an advantage they maintained all the way till 68 kilometres to go. With 30 kilometres left to race, the gap was still a handy eight minutes, but back in the bunch, things began getting serious, as T-Mobile spearheaded a magenta chase.
At 14 kilometres to go and on the final climb towards Leukerbad, Grabsch (Milram) and Usov (AG2R Prevoyance) were the first to get dropped. Monfort (Cofidis) and Carlström (Liquigas) were next to pop, and a kilometre later, van Goolen (Discovery Channel) and Morabito (Phonak) found themselves on their own.
Five T-Mobiles continued to drive the rapidly withering bunch, overnight leader Nick Nuyens (Quick.Step-Innergetic) losing contact 11 kilometres from the finish. Van Goolen and Morabito were doing a great job to hold all else off, but with five kilometres left, the pair were no more than two minutes in front. Was that going to be enough?
With three kilometres remaining, 75 seconds separated the pair from the peloton, now just 30 riders strong. Moments later, Alberto Contador (Würth) launched a stinging attack out of the bunch, with early breakaway rider Carlström hanging on for the ride, hoping to reach the dynamic duo...
... But for the fourth time in as many days, the break had the last laugh, as Swiss lad Morabito gave the locals something to cheer about, comfortably rolling van Goolen in the uphill sprint to the line.