It's been a very mixed few days for the Unibet.com team. Earlier this week they learned that they would not be given a place in this year's Vuelta a España, despite the March 5th agreement between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers which, effectively, should have cleared the path for them to ride. There is no legal obstacle to the team's sponsors in Spain, after all.
However, despite that fact and the wording of the peace deal, organisers Unipublic ultimately decided to reject the team anyway. The net result means that the Swedish-registered squad will miss all of the Grand Tours this season.
The future of the backing is now uncertain. Talks will take place over the next few weeks to determine if the sponsorship will continue and, unsurprisingly, the riders and management are deeply frustrated. However the Unibet.com squad has been able to at least channel those emotions in a positive way, performing with distinction in this Tour de Suisse.
At the start of stage eight they had three riders in the top 15; Matteo Carrara was fourth, Rigoberto Uran was 11th and Gustav Erik Larsson was 15th. They were consequently second in the Teams Classification, and have been one of the most prominent of the ProTour squads here.
Today all that was surpassed when, after 152.5 kilometres of tough racing, the Colombian pro Uran won the penultimate stage. After breakaway riders Carlos Sastre (CSC) and then Chris Horner (Predictor Lotto) were each reeled in, the 20 year old clipped away with approximately 800 metres to go and hit the line two seconds ahead of a 55-man main bunch. This was led home by Christian Moreni (Cofidis) and Andreas Klöden (Astana), while Vladimir Efimkin placed ninth and retains the yellow jersey going into the final day.
"I had a little bit of luck," Uran said modestly. "I had thought that the finish would be more difficult. The work my teammates did for me before that was very good, and I am very happy to win a stage."
"I have been racing five years and last season I debuted as a professional with the team Tenax. This year I got a new contact with Unibet and changed to that squad. We have got a big team and they believed in me. I am therefore happy to take this win [for them]. This is a very important day for me as it is the second time I have won a race in Europe."
The first was also this month, Uran taking the stage 2b time trial in the Euskal Bizikleta. With the last six riders still to go, the stage was stopped due to stormy conditions. That's not the ideal way to come out on top but nobody can question today's result
He's looking forward to tomorrow, and hopes to move up from his current position of 11th overall. "I like time trials, he said "My aim is to get into the top ten in the final general classification."
When asked about the ProTour issue, he was clearly frustrated by what had happened. "I hope that Unibet will be admitted next year for the Grand Tours. As you know, this year we have not been able to ride those races and I regret that a lot. I hope that will change."
Efimkin ready for challenge
As for the race leader, he is now within one stage of his biggest career result. While he said yesterday that he has not yet been told by the team if he will be riding the Tour de France, his form is obviously extremely good. Caisse d'Epargne teammate Vladimir Karpets is also in the running for overall success; he's third, only 30 seconds back. T-Mobile rider Kim Kirchen is sandwiched between the two Russians in second place, 24 seconds off yellow.
All bar the next three riders are two minutes or more down; Uran's teammate Matteo Carrara is fourth, 31 seconds back, while Frank Schleck (CSC) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) are 33 and 57 seconds adrift respectively. The race is between these six.
"The course today wasn't really easy but the way the race developed was as we thought it would be," said Efimkin, who defended his yellow jersey for the second day in a row. "A break went and then we worked to bring it back. It means that tomorrow is the crucial day for the general classification."
Carlos Sastre did what he could to win but things didn't work out. "I was feeling okay out there, but not now!" he said with a smile immediately after the finish. "I tried but it was really difficult...it was very windy and behind they pulled very hard. But it is okay – this is important for the future.
Efimkin is only 25 and hasn't been in this situation before, on the verge of winning one of the biggest races in the sport. But rather than being overwhelmed, he came across as very motivated to perform to the best of his abilities. Having his team-mate also in the running helps to take the pressure off somewhat.
"I am very happy to get to the final day in the jersey of race leader. I will give everything I can. I hope that if I do not win the race, that it will be Karpets in my place.
"Kirchen and Schleck are of course also important contenders. But I think they will have to give everything if they want to beat myself and Karpets. We will do all we can to win."
He was asked what lead he believes he would need to be sure of victory. "It not possible to tell," he answered. "It would perhaps be necessary to have one minute in order to be certain of keeping the jersey, but it's hard to know. I will give everything possible to hold onto the lead."
He said that he rode a time trial two years ago in the Tour of Portugal, which was similar in terms of length. So what kind of work has he done for such races? "Several times I trained for the time trial," he answered. "But always alone, without special preparation [wind tunnel testing- ed.].
"I like the description of the parcours for tomorrow, but I don't know how my muscles will feel! I could have heavy legs; we will see."
He will give his all to take the victory. But if it doesn't work out, he feels that he will have changed as a competitor. "Whether I win or not, this experience will be good for the future," he said. "I have learned how to ride as a leader and I think it should help me become a stronger rider."
How it unfolded
Riders did not wait long for attacks today, with Carlos Barredo from Quickstep the first to give it a go.
After 10 kilometres, a group of 15 tried to go but it was also unsuccessful. In Oberried, after a good 25 kilometres, four riders had a slight advantage but they couldn't get away either. The field was very attentive and also prevented an attack by Juan Antonio Flecha, who never got much more than seven seconds.
50 kilometre into the race all the constant attacking had done was that the race was extremely fast, about 20 minutes ahead of the fastest schedule - but the field still together.
As they passed Spiez with its narrow roads the peloton broke into two and Barredo tried again, but nine seconds was all he got. Ten kilometres later Swiss rider Hubert Schwab of the Quickstep squad had to abandon the race.
At kilometre 70, it was the first time that a group seemed to be able to get a decent gap.
A group of 11 went clear and it built a maximum lead of just over three minutes. The group contained Carlos Sastre (Team CSC), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Matthew White (Discovery Channel), Gianni Meersman (Discovery Channel), Jurgen van Goolen (Discovery Channel), Daniel Navarro (Astana), Fred Rodriguez (Predictor-Lotto), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Yannick Talabardon (Crédit Agricole), Enrico Poitschke (Milram), Florian Stalder (Volksbank)
The peloton started to chip into the lead and it was under two minutes when they entered Fribourg. As they crossed the old part of town, they hit some cobbles and an uphill, which Ballan and Sastre used to get themselves off the front. The two worked well together but the peloton was relentless and it decreased the lead constantly. The chase group fell apart, but four guys stayed between the lead and the field.
At kilometre 123 Florian Stalder won the sprint in Fribourg ahead of Meersman and Albasini and secured the sprints jersey. With a little more than 17 kilometre to go Fabian Cancellara dropped out of the field, saving his energy for the time trial.
One kilometre before the top of the cat 4 GPM in Weissenstein Sastre attacked and dropped Ballan. Sastre got the mountain points with Ballan 22 seconds back and the group chasing behind at a good minute.
Ballan was swept up by the chasers a little while later. Sastre was plotting ahead and increased the lead over the chasers slightly to 30". The field containing the yellow jersey was at 1'30".
The field swept up the remaining chasers at 10 kilometres to go and Sastre's lead shrunk to 48". He took the last sprint with nine kilometres remaining. Stalder got second ahead of Van Goolen. A couple of kilometres later Sastre's attempt was over as he got swamped by the field. There were attacks immediately , but nobody could get ahead.
With five kilometres to go Horner made a bold move and stayed ahead for a couple of kilometres but the chase behind was too hard. Saunier Duval and Quickstep launched attacks but the attentive field did not let anyone get ahead.
The final mountain points were only a couple of kilometres from the finish. It was Proni before Gusev, Gomez Marchante and Schleck.
The field entered the last kilometre where it was Colombian Rigoberto Uran from Unibet who tried to steal the sprinters' show with a last minute attack and he succeeded!