The cliché of the hard-as-nails Russian rider is an old one, but namesakes Vladimir Gusev and Vladimir Efimkin reinforced that notion today when they both rode with distinction on the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse.
Gusev (Discovery Channel) went clear in a breakaway group very soon after the start and attacked his companions strongly on the final climb. He finished alone at the top of the Grimselpass, a first category climb made harder by the demands of the two preceding hors categorié monsters plus the freezing mist which shrouded the summit.
American rider Chris Horner (Predictor Lotto) underlined his growing form with second on the stage, 2'02 down, as did third-placed Andreas Klöden (Astana). The German Tour de France contender was also part of this breakaway group and had his most prominent display yet in the race.
Behind, Efimkin was also riding well. Close rival Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) did succeed in breaking the stage-long Caisse d'Epargne grip, darting away inside the final couple of kilometres, but he gained just six seconds on Efimkin, Vladimir Karpets and Damiano Cunego (Lampre Fondital). That saw the 25 year old Russian hold on at the top and in gaining another twelve seconds on former race leader Frank Schleck (CSC), he boosted his chances of the final victory.
Many of the riders were frozen at the finish, crossing the line in a semi-daze and asking immediately for clothing from their soigneurs. Some finished but kept going in the same direction, heading for the warmth of the team bus. That made for few post-race quotes, but it was certainly understandable.
Fourth-year pro Gusev later said that the conditions didn't affect him as much as some of the others; this undoubtedly helped him in the finale. "I suffer more from the heat…the cold doesn't bother me very much," he said at the press conference. "I have more bulk than the pure climbers so the cold doesn't affect me as much as them.
"My directeur sportif [Dirk de Mol] said to me that I should try something today. He advised me to keep something in reserve on the first climbs and not to do too much [in the break]. On the last climb I also paced myself and didn't have any fears that I would crack. In the past few days I have felt that my form is increasing and for that reason I didn't have any real problems."
Gusev turned pro with CSC in 2004 and placed 8th in Gent-Wevelgem that year. The following season he was 10th in the Tour of Flanders and 12th in Paris-Roubaix. He said however that he is not just a rider for single-day events.
"Since turning pro I have got the reputation as being a rider for the Classics, but as a junior and under 23 rider I had a lot of success in stage races. I had a bad fall then and broke my femur. It took me two years to recover fully from that. But I can do well in races like this."
Indeed he showed that in 2006, his first with his current team. He was the overall winner of the Sachen Tour, finished fourth in the Tour of Germany and 23rd in the Vuelta. And this year he was the overall winner of the Tour of Belgium as well as taking fifth in Flanders.
The 24 year old was very satisfied with his victory today, but did have a scare just after crossing the finish line. With photographers and TV cameramen spread across the road, he pulled his brakes too hard and went over the handlebars. Fortunately he suffered no damage.
Like Gusev, Efimkin is also an Italian-based Russian. The two completed together for a while as Under 23 riders before their paths diverged. He was also quietly satisfied with his performance today. "I'm very happy to keep the lead," the 25 year old said. "My colleagues from the team worked hard to protect the jersey. They gave everything. For me perhaps it was somewhat tranquil, but it was certainly not an easy day for them."
The other overall contenders did not start attacking until close to the finish. "I think that was perhaps because of the good pace that my team-mates set, especially Karpets," he explained.
Efimkin said that he was happy for Gusev. When asked why he felt the current batch of Russian riders were doing so well, he suggested that the reason could because of role models from when they were younger.
"Tonkov and Vinokourov have been winners and perhaps that is a reason for the new generation," he said, referring to two former Eastern Bloc riders who triumphed in the Tour de Suisse plus other events.
He is moving closer to joining them in overall victory. With two days left, he is now 24 seconds clear of Kirchen and six more ahead of team-mate Karpets. Matteo Carrara (Unibet), Schleck and Cunego are 31, 33 and 57 seconds back respectively, with everyone else at least two minutes down.
"Tomorrow's stage should be easier than that of today," he said, when asked about his chances. "I hope to keep the yellow jersey and if I do that, I will be able to ride the final time trial on Sunday much harder than would otherwise be the case."
"Frank Schleck is perhaps the favourite for the time trial on Sunday but there are other riders who can do a good race there too. There is still a reasonable number of overall contenders for this race."
Efimkin has a twin brother, Alexander, who is currently racing with Team Barloworld. Lining out together is one of his big ambitions. "It is my dream that the two of us will be together in the same team colours, riding the big races," he stated.
He's not yet sure if the two of them will be at the Tour de France start on July 7th. "I think my brother will do the Tour but I haven't have confirmation from my team as yet. I don't think I will get to do it."
Perhaps the Caisse d'Epargne lineup has already been determined. It would be hard to see them turning him down, though, should he finish up as overall winner of the Tour de Suisse on Sunday.
How it unfolded
The riders rolled out in overcast conditions for the hardest stage of the 2007 Tour de Suisse, a short but savage 125.7 kilometre race from Ulrichen to the Grimselpass. The day featured three major climbs, all of them over 2,000 metres in altitude. They were the 2436 metre Furkapass (beginning almost immediately after the start and topping out at km 21.3), the 2215 metre Sustenpass (km 63.3) and the final climb, the category 1 ascent to the 2164 summit of Grimselpass.
There were several big name non-starters, including stage five winner Robbie McEwen (Predictor Lotto), former triple world champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), T-Mobile's Guiseppe Guerini, Andreas Klier and Michael Rogers, and Tristan Valentin (Cofidis). Freire had been suffering with back pain since his crash at the end of stage two, while Roger Hammond told Cyclingnews this morning that his teammate Rogers' knee had been giving him trouble.
There was a very aggressive start after the drop of the flag, with Vladimir Gusev (Discovery) and double Tour de France podium-getter Andreas Klöden (Astana) going clear approximately 7 kilometres into the race. Once on the climb the main bunch started to fragment and riders such as Gusev, Chris Horner (Predictor Lotto) and Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre Fondital) forged ahead. They were chased by Daniel Navarro Garcia (Astana) and Patrice Halgand (Credit Agricole).
With 112 kilometres to go Beat Zberg (Gerolsteiner) also jumped away, and joined up with Halgand, Steve Zampiere (Cofidis), Laurens Ten Dam (Unibet), Klöden and Navarro Garcia at the head of the race.
At the summit, Bruseghin, Gusev and Horner went over the prime line in that order, 58 seconds ahead of the chasers who were led by Navarro and Ten Dam. The peloton was almost two minutes back at this point.
Zberg's brother Markus bridged up to the chasing group on the descent. Beat Zberg and Steve Zampieri then jumped away from these and got across to the front three with 92 kilometres to go; 12 kilometres later they were 48” seconds ahead of the Klöden group and 2'50 up on the peloton.
Once onto the Sustenpass, Markus Zberg and Ten Dam were quickly dropped. Klöden raised the pace and brought the chase group closer to the leaders; they then joined up with 67 kilometres remaining to make it nine riders up front. Zberg and Ten Dam were 28” back at this point while the yellow jersey group of Vladimir Efimkin was 4'40 down.
Soon afterwards Ten Dam and then Zberg got back up to the others, and this group of 11 went over the top largely together. With 40 kilometres to go the fast-descending group had a lead of 4'19.
Swiss rider Martin Elmiger was not happy with the pace and he jumped away approximately two kilometres later. Beat Zberg and Gusev set off in pursuit and they were 31” back at the sprint prime line at Innertkirchen [26.8 km from the finish). The remainder of the chasers were 1'10 down while the main field was 5'33 back.
This gap went out a little further, hitting six minutes on the foothills of the final climb of the Grimselpass. Zberg and Gusev reeled in Elmiger at this point, and one kilometre later, 23 km from the line, Gusev put in a strong attack. Zberg and Efimkin were dropped while behind, Markus Zberg and Ten Dam suffered the same fate in losing contact with the Klöden group.
With 20 clicks to go it was Navarro doing all the work for his leader Klöden. The pace saw off Halgand. Two kilometres later Gusev was still clear of Zberg and a full 1'45 ahead of Klöden's group, which at this point was down to the Astana captain, Elmiger, Navarro, Horner, Bruseghin and Zampieri. The peloton was 5'34 down and clearly out of the hunt for the stage win.
Horner still had something left in the tank and attacked his group with 14 km to go. He quickly caught and passed Zberg but found it hard to close up to Gusev. With 10 km left he was two minutes back. Four clicks later he was still 1'33 down, while Klöden's group was a further minute in arrears and the main bunch was 5'57 away.
As the line drew closer, things became more aggressive in the yellow jersey group. Volksbank rider Gerrit Glomser went three kilometres out and was joined before the red kite by Stijn Devolder (Discovery), who then slipped back a little again. Cunego went and was marked by Efimkin and Kirchen; the latter raced away to take sixth, 4'09 behind Gusev and 2'07 off the time of Horner. Karpets, Cunego and Efimkin came in together 4'15 back, while the other contenders lost a little more time. Former race leader Schleck finished 14th, 4'27 back, and dropped to fifth overall.
The tough stage produced another reshuffling of the general classification but with tomorrow's 152.5 kilometre stage to Scharzsee best defined as lumpy rather than mountainous, it is likely that the next big change to the overall will be in Sunday's concluding time trial. Kirchen may have a go, though; he's 24 seconds down and would like to start the TT a little closer to his Russian rival.
Full report soon.