Cancellara: a sprinter on Sunday, a climber on Monday
Showing great endurance after 200 kilometres in a break plus considerable stubbornness and determination, QuickStep - Innergetic rider Alessandro Proni held onto a narrow lead over the top of today's final climb and pulled off his first pro win.
The 24 year-old Italian attacked breakaway companions Daniel Navarrio (Astana) and Luis Pasamontes (Unibet) with approximately eight kilometres to go, kicking clear on the foothills of the cat three Norbertshöhe when the trio had a lead of just over two minutes. He dug deep all the way to the top, wrenching the pedals around as he tried to get every last bit of energy out and fend off a late charge from the Lampre train of Damiano Cunego.
Proni reached the summit nine seconds clear but still had some two kilometres remaining before the finish. However he descended superbly on the steep run down into the mountain village of Nauders, and only lost two seconds to the 29 man chase group.
Xavier Florencio Cabre (Bouygues Telecom) was second across the line, while race leader Fabian Cancellara (CSC) had a very impressive ride and came home in the same group, placing 12th and holding onto yellow by two seconds from Proni.
Overall contenders such as Frank Schleck (CSC), Andreas Klöden (Astana), Michael Rogers, Linus Gerdemann and Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), Janez Brajkovic (Discovery Channel), Thomas Lovkvist (Française des Jeux), José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval - Prodir), John Gadret (AG2R) and Chris Horner (Predictor-Lotto) all made the split.
Other big names such as Carlos Sastre (CSC), Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) conceded between 21 seconds and 5'21. This further underlined the in-form Cancellara's strong performance over some tough climbs.
Proni was delighted to get the win, especially as he hadn't really believed it was possible. "The first goal was the King of the Mountains," he told the assembled media at the press conference. "I had good sensations in my legs, and have recently been going well with third place in the Tour de Picardie.
"But even as the break developed, I never believed that I could arrive in Nauders as the winner. My team directeurs encouraged me, though, telling me it was possible to finish with success."
Earlier in the stage the riders tackled the hors categorie climb of Flüelapass, the summit of which came 60 kilometres from the end. Proni indicated afterwards that the two Spaniards appeared stronger here, but when it came to the crunch he had the best legs left.
"When we got to the last hill I heard that the gap had dropped substantially. I attacked to see if it was possible to stay away. The guys in the QuickStep car had told me that I had two kilometres of descent after the top and that encouraged me.
"On the first climb I didn't have the impression that I was the strongest in the break but when we got to the bottom of the final hill my directeur sportif told me that I had to try something. He said it is necessary to attack in order to win races."
Cancellara was very pleased to hold on to his race lead. "It is clear that the goal was to defend the jersey. The work my team did today was extraordinary," he said with a smile. "Carlos and Frank are capable of fighting for the general classification but when we have the jersey on our shoulders, we are responsible for the chase."
Other teams did very little to help, even when the gap went out to over ten minutes. "Sometimes cycling is a bit bizarre. A lot of the other teams waited until the Flüelapass [without helping the chase]," he continued. "We know that the victory in the prologue and wearing the yellow jersey is a pretty big piece of the cake. If the other teams want a slice of the cake, they also need to do something."
When Cancellara won the prologue two days ago, his eight second margin of victory made it clear that he was in excellent form. However today's result is even greater proof that is the case.
"It's not that I am a climber, more that I am a fighter," he stated. "After the Flüelapass I was already a bit tired because I am 80 kg... I will certainly never be a climber! But I will be proud to start tomorrow morning with the yellow jersey on my shoulders. Today I felt that the jersey once again added to the strength in my legs. That helped me arrive here with the [chasing] group and defend the lead."
Indeed, Cancellara did more than just reach the finish with the top riders. After the summit, the television cameras saw him attack the chasing group. He explained at the conference what that burst of speed was about.
"After the last climb I was not up to date with the full situation. I thought that [Swiss AG2R rider] Martin Elmiger was in the group ahead and believed that he could perhaps get the jersey. I made a big effort to catch this group and at that moment, I had the idea to pass it and keep going. However my legs were a bit wasted then, so I was happy enough to stay with them."
Team-mate Stuart O'Grady crossed the line 6'05 down, visibly very weary after his day's work, but was happy with the effort the whole CSC team put in. "It is pretty well deserved [keeping yellow]. I think the boys did a pretty good job today. Fabian is in great form and we have yellow for another day. That's great."
How it unfolded
165 riders lined out in sunny conditions for the 228.7 kilometre third stage of the Tour de Suisse. Shortly after the start three riders went clear on the unclassified climb, namely Daniel Navarrio Garcia (Astana), Florian Stalder (Volksbank) and Unibet's Luis Pasamontes Rodriguez. These were joined by eleven others but with overall contender Carlos Sastre (CSC) as part of the move, the peloton deemed this escape too dangerous and hauled them back over the top.
Approximately 21 kilometres after the drop of the flag Navarro Garcia and Pasamontes Rodriguez went again, taking Alessandro Proni (QuickStep - Innergetic) with them this time. They quickly built a good lead and just after Lachen, some 50 kilometres into the stage, they had seven and a half minutes. This jumped up to 11'04 by the summit of the unclassified Kerenzerberg (km 68.5), then hovered around ten and a half minutes for quite some time.
The road was becoming gradually steeper and once through Davos for the start of the hors categorie Flüelapass, the three leaders had 9'51. They dug in up the climb and by the time Proni led Pasamontes and Navarro over the summit, netting the KOM jersey, they still had a lead of approximately eight minutes over the peloton. This main bunch travelled up the slopes at a relatively controlled pace, although some non-climbers were jettisoned on the way up.
Sixty kilometres remained after the prime, including a long descent before a flat run in to the base of the final climb. At the bottom of the downhill the leaders reached the 40 kilometre to go point with a gap of just under seven minutes, and this had dropped to 5'30 with 25 km remaining. Pasamontes took the first bonus sprint near this point.
CSC had until now been doing almost all the work but Lampre then started to ride. They had two reasons to work; the first was to pave the way for a possible attack by Damiano Cuengo on the final climb, and the second was to try to help sprinter Daniele Bennati, who started the day just seven seconds behind Cancellara.
The efforts of both teams caused the gap to plummet. Navarro led Pasamontes and Proni over the bonus sprint line in Martinsbruck, this effort making sure he'd end the day on the podium as the sprints jersey leader. Shortly afterwards, with approximately 8 kilometres to ride, the peloton had closed to within 2'21.
Realising that the break was doomed, Proni seized his chanced and attacked early on in the final third category ascent. He immediately distanced the two Spaniards and drove hard all the way to the top. The Lampre team were chasing hard in an effort to get him back but despite a rapidly-eroding lead, Proni stubbornly hung on to the summit and carried a nine seconds advantage onto the descent.
Two kilometres remained from there to the line, and Proni had two things going for him. Firstly, it was quite a steep drop into Nauders and secondly, he is known as a good descender. He hammered around the bends on the way down to the village and hit the line seven seconds clear of the chasers. Cancellara came home in this group but the finishing bonuses meant that Proni ended the day just two seconds off yellow. As for Bennati, he blew up badly in the finale, losing ten and a half minutes plus any chance of taking the lead.
The net result is that Cancellara hangs on at the top for another day. He will start tomorrow's 167.2 kilometre fourth stage to Triesenberg-Malbun in Liechtenstein with a small advantage and, despite his good showing, concedes that the lead could change hands there.
Apart from two intermediate sprints, the riders will hit the seconds category climbs of Arlberg Passhöhe [83.2 km after the start] and Steg/Malbun, which tops out just 1.6 kilometres from the line. It's not the toughest day, by any means, but there is certainly plenty of scope for some aggressive racing.