For local riders, the tough climb to Triesenberg- Malbun is known as the Alpe dHuez of the region. It rides 1,118 metres in 12 kilometres, making for an average of nearly ten percent, and deserves a classification higher than the second category awarded to it by the race organisers. Given the unofficial link to the Tour de France climb, it is fitting that the rider who won there today is the defending champion from l'Alpe, Frank Schleck.
The CSC rider was clearly strongest on the cruel slopes up towards the rocky 1,600 metre summit. Following an unsuccessful move by Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval Prodir), he put in a couple of digs with about seven kilometres remaining. The first saw him get away before being recaptured; the second acceleration broke the group, giving Schleck the chance to put some daylight between him and the other overall contenders and to take over yellow from his teammate Fabian Cancellara.
The 27 year-old time trialled to the top and finished 32 seconds clear of Russian rider Vladimir Efemkin (Caisse d'Epargne). José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) was ten seconds further back, and Matteo Carrara (Unibet.com) and Schleck's compatriot Kim Kirchen came home 48" down. Simoni was sixth while big names such as Janez Brajkovic (Discovery Channel), Linus Gerdemann, Patrik Sinkewitz, Michael Rogers (all T-Mobile) were between 159 and 351 behind.
Andreas Klöden and Carlos Sastre finished further back, crossing the line together 5'48 in arrears.
"That was a bloody hard climb," said Schleck, when asked about the strange classification in the race manual. "I had a 39 x 25 on and think the others had the same.
"I had good legs and wanted to make a selection. I saw that Carrara was on my wheel so I went a bit faster. Afterwards some riders came back to me but I accelerated harder to make them tired. At that moment I saw that I was alone. I think it was a good idea then to continue the effort.
"The two last kilometres were very tough. It is a very, very hard climb and everyone suffered a lot. I was being updated about the other riders [via race radio] - they were riding together, but it was fine. I knew the distance, I maintained my rhythm and it worked out well."
"It is a fantastic victory, to win on a summit like this. I am a fairly good climber. It is a victory which gives me confidence for the Tour. I dedicate it to my team and to my younger brother, who rode very well and got second at the Giro."
Directeur sportif Kim Anderson was beaming at the finish. "We were thinking that he would do well in the mountains. He knows this climb from four years ago, he did it back then. In the middle of the race today we had to decide if we would go for the stage win or just the jersey. That is why we started to pull so early, to bring back the leaders."
The stage was marked by a long-distance breakaway by Kevin de Weert (Cofidis) and Arkatiz Duran Aroca (Saunier Duval-Prodir). They were finally reeled in with approximately 20 kilometres to go, paving the way for a big showdown amongst the favourites.
Kim Kirchen rode strongly to get fifth and agreed with Schleck that the classification was very misleading. "It should be a first category climb because I think it is the hardest finish we have at this Tour de Suisse. I am happy with the result. I had problems at the start, was suffering, but just kept to my rhythm and it worked out fine.
"I had a bad crash yesterday so today is very good. I don't think I lost much time. We will see how it goes [for the overall classifrication]. We have a good team, we can attack. The Tour de Suisse is very hard and there is a long way to go. People can have good days and bad days. I expect to be in the front but nobody knows."
He ended the day third overall, 49 seconds back. The next T-Mobile rider is Gerdemann, 2'21 down. So, the obvious question is, does that mean he is the new team leader for the race?
"We will see," he answered. "Everyone can have a bad day, and equally everyone can have a good one too. I think that we have a strong team and the others on it haven't lost so much time. We will see what happens."
Frenchman John Gadret was 14th, 2'16 back. "It was a very difficult climb," he said. "I am happy enough with how it went."
"For me is more like a hors categorie mountain," said Scheck's teammate Sastre, coming home with Klöden. "It was very nice for the team - Frank won the stage and took the jersey. It is great for CSC."
The previous yellow jersey Cancellara got dropped early on in the climb and eventually came home 63rd, 10'49 back. His experience of leading the Tour de Suisse is over for this year, but he has the chance to be part of the winning team of the race. Schleck is in a strong position and with Cancellara and the rest of the team fully committed to protecting the jersey, he will try to hold on all the way to Bern on Sunday.
When asked as to what their chances are, team DS Andersen strayed clear of making rash predictions. He preferred instead to savour the moment. "It is a hard week. It is a good result. We have what we have for now."
How it unfolded
Although this is the Tour de Suisse, today's stage began in Austria and travelled to Liechenstein. A total of 161 riders lined out in bright, warm conditions for the day's start in Nauders. The riders rolled away from the same location as yesterday's finish and covered the first few kilometres in reverse to stage three, having a brief two kilometre climb to the top of stage three's final climb, then a fairly long descent afterwards.
Several riders tried to go clear, but nothing of any significance occurred until approximately 30 kilometres into the stage when the peloton split into two groups. The first section contained approximately 50 riders, including the CSC team and their race leader Fabian Cancellara.
This front group had opened up a lead of 45 seconds by the time they arrived in Prutz (km 36.5). Ten kilometres later things came back together. The next move of significance went 116 kilometres from the finish when Kevin de Weert (Cofidis) attacked on the way towards the day's first climb, the second category Arlbergpass.
Arkatiz Duran Aroca (Saunier Duval-Prodir) counter-attacked approximately ten kilometres afterwards and sent off in pursuit. After some 70-odd kilometres of racing de Weert was 5'18 ahead of the peloton and 2'38 up on Duran Aroca. The junction between the first two was made some seven kilometres later, by which time the peloton had faded to almost nine minutes back.
Duran Aroca took the prime ahead of de Weert at the top of the climb. The bunch was 9'33 down the slopes at this point but the pace shot up when riders started firing off attacks. One of those to the fore was Carlos Sastre, who is here to build form prior to leading the CSC team in the Tour de France. On the descent he was away with six others, namely Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Andrey Mizourov (Astana), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step Innergetic), Marco Marzano (Lampre), Laurens Ten Dam (Unibet), and Florian Stalder (Volksbank).
As expected, this provoked a chase from behind and within ten kilometres everything was back together once more. CSC then started to drive the pace, bringing the gap down and by the time de Weert took the bonus sprint at Bludenz, 51.8 km from the line, they were just 3'30 ahead. T-Mobile also got involved in the chase and with approximately 20 kilometres to go, things were back together once more.
Florian Stalder (Volksbank) beat Gustav Erik Larsson (Unibet) and Thomas Lövkvist (Française Des Jeux) at the second sprint prime, then shortly afterwards the peloton hit the final climb. It would gain 1118 metres in 12 kilometres, cresting out at an altitude of 1600 metres, and was far harder than the race manual ranking of second category would suggest.
Astana's Andrey Mizourov was the first to attack, getting a lead of 15 seconds. Behind, yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara was in difficulty and soon got dropped. Mizourov was caught, then with nine kilometres to go Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval Prodir) kicked clear in a short-lived move which thinned the front group right down.
Schleck then put in a dig, going clear of the others and being chased by Matteo Carrara (Unibet). He was reeled in by the others, but went again with seven kilometres remaining and this time got a big advantage over a chasing group containing riders such as Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) and others.
With five kilometres to go he was twenty seconds clear of the Stijn Devolder-led chase. Schleck continued to build his lead between there and the finish, hitting the line 32 seconds clear of Vladimir Efemkin (Caisse d'Epargne), and a further ten ahead of José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Carrara and Kirchen came home 48" down, with Simoni completing the top six. Devolder paid for his strong efforts in fading to tenth.
The net result was a shift in the maillot jaune from Cancellara to Schleck. The Luxembourg rider will start tomorrow's 192.8 kilometre stage from nearby Vaduz to Giubiasco with a 49" lead over Efemkin. A third and a first category climb come in the first 115 kilometres, after which there is a long descent and then a mainly flat run in to the finish.