Anton drops to third in the general classification
Second overall last year, Kim Kirchen showed he is well in contention to take the final victory in this year's Tour de Suisse when he won the sixth stage of the race and seized the race leader's jersey.
The Team High Road rider remained calm when other big guns such as Frank Schleck and Stijn Devolder started firing off big attacks on the day's final climb, the summit finish up to the ski village of Verbier, preserving his power until closer to the line. He then kicked hard, beating Andreas Klöden (Astana) and putting six seconds into Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas). Serguei Ivanof (Astana) and Devolder were fourth and fifth, twelve and twenty seconds back respectively.
Race leader Igor Antón (Euskaltel Euskadi) did what he could to try to hold onto his yellow jersey but just came up short, finishing 29 seconds back in eighth and dropping to third overall. Kreuziger now is Kirchen's closest challenger but is 27 seconds back. Provided High Road can control tomorrow's undulating stage, it means that Kirchen will have a solid advantage heading into Saturday's 25 kilometre mountain time trial.
"I felt good at the end today," said the pleased Luxembourger after the stage. "The riders went up the climb very strongly, with the group going very quickly due to early attacks. I kept my own rhythm.
"I had a little bit of a problem early on on the climb [due to the pace] but my morale went up when I saw some other riders being dropped. I remained calm. I knew I could do something today, especially as the yellow jersey Anton was in difficulty. My aim was to go for the yellow jersey but finally, the stage win came too."
Apart from finishing second overall last year, Kirchen also has taken a string of high stage placings during his career. He is glad to finally be on top the podium. "I have been trying for a victory in the Tour de Suisse for a while," he said. "I have been second several times, third several times, and so I am happy this year to get the stage win and also to take my first yellow jersey in this race."
The day began with the hors categorie climb of Nufenenpass and, thanks to this tough start, eleven riders moved clear and opened up a big gap. AG2R's Philip Deignan was one of the most active towards the end, pressing ahead with Italian champion Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step) inside the final 20 kilometres, and then going again with Mathias Frank (Gerolsteiner) after he and Maarten Tjallingii (Silence-Lotto) bridged back up.
Both were caught and passed by the race favourites with four kilometres to go; the Irish rider said that they might have had a chance had the break worked better. "We were just missing an extra two or three minutes at the bottom of the climb, I think," Deignan stated. "It is a pity because the group was never really working well together, there was always a few guys sitting on.
"The gap went up to ten minutes but could have been more. It was hard with the headwind all day, there was a really strong headwind in the valley and we were just missing a little bit on the last climb. It is a pity."
Yesterday's stage victor Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner) had started the day seventh overall. He was tenth to the line, finishing just behind Damiano Cunego (Lampre), and dropped two places in the general classification.
"It was a tough day, a hard climb at the finish. I think I am still in the first ten," he said after the stage. "It was hard today. I think yesterday's effort cost me some power and I didn't have enough for today.
"The most important race for me is the Tour. But I will try again in the mountain time trial."
Kirchen's directeur sportif Brian Holm said that tactics played a part in the victory. "It was a bit complicated when the group went away. We had to consider what we should do, if we should let them stay at eight or nine minutes and just ride for the GC. Eventually we started chasing, helping Euskaltel with Vincente Reynes and Boasson Hagen. When the gap went down to five minutes we actually stopped.
"We saw quite easily what was happening once the television came on. We could see Jens Voigt stop riding in the front…anyone could see what would happen next, that he would wait for Schleck who would attack on the climb. So we stopped riding."
Schleck was in the running for the yellow jersey on the fifth stage but crashed hard. CSC aimed to set him up for another attempt today. Holm and the High Road team read this situation well and were able to use this to their advantage.
"We saw that CSC tried to close the gap in the last ten kilometres, and they managed that. We then just crossed our fingers and hoped that Kim or Thomas had the legs for the final. Luckily he [Kirchen] did. We weren't sure before he crossed the line because Klöden looked pretty strong as well."
Kirchen said that he will try to take the jersey all the way to Bern on Sunday. "First of all, we have to control things tomorrow and stay calm," he said. "As regards the time trial, it's 25 kilometres. It is fairly long, it won't be easy, but I'll go flat out and I hope it goes well. I have a bit of an advantage. This situation is new for me but I hope the jersey gives me strength."
How it unfolded
All 144 riders were at the start under a blue sky with a few light clouds. Fränk Schleck of CSC was there, hale and hearty and suffering no major injuries from his dramatic crash the day before.
The first hurdle of the day was a major one, the 2479 meter high HC-ranked Nufenenpass. The peloton stayed quiet, riding up together until about 8 km before the top. Maxim Iglinsky of Astana was the first to attack, followed by David Loosli of Lampre, and they went over the pass in that order. Loosli was joined by eight others: Jens Voigt (CSC), Jose Guillen Rujano (Caisse d'Epargne), Steve Zampieri (Cofidis), Philip Deignan (AG2R), Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step), Mathias Frank (Gerolsteiner), Johan Schopp (Bouygues Telecom) und Andreas Dietziker (Volksbank). They were able to catch Iglinsky, with Maarten Tjallingii (Silence Lotto) joining the group, too.
After the Nufenenpass, the next 100 km were basically all downhill. And with exactly 100 km to go, the group's lead was exactly 10 minutes. That gave Dietziker the virtual yellow jersey. The lead went up to nearly 11 minutes, but that was as high as it went. Euskaltel and High Road decided to pick up the speed to protect their men in the GC. With 60 km to go the lead was under six minutes, and it kept going down.
However, the lead stayed at four to five minutes for a long time. The peloton knew that there was another cateogry one climb and mountaintop finish coming up, and was counting on that to stop the escapees. WIth 18 km to go, Italian national champion Giovanni Visconti (QuickStep) broke out of the escape group, joined by Philip Deignan (AG2R). Maarten Tjallingii (Silence-Lotto) and Mathias Frank (Gerolsteiner) came up to join them, as the escape group was now totally shattered.
Fränk Schleck wasn't afraid of crashing again, and took off out of the following group, which was growing progressively smaller. He caught and passed Visconti, and then was himself caught and passed by Stijn Devolder, the Belgian national champ in Quick Step colors, who rode into the lead.
Igor Anton, in the yellow jersey was isolated in a group with Fränk and Andy Schleck, Andreas Klöden (Astana), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) and Kim Kirchen (High Road) without team-mates – a very high-powered group.
With two kilometres to go, it looked as if Devolder would take the win and the yellow jersey, especially with Kirchen, second overall behind Anton, appearing to have problems. But after Devolder crossed the mountain ranking with 1.6 km to go, Anton fell back and the other three pulled up to the Belgian. With 500 meters to go, Devolder had to fall back, too. Klöden stayed closed enough to Kirchen that the Luxembourger didn't have time to zip up his jersey before crossing the finish line. The win also gave Kirchen the yellow jersey of the overall leader, with Anton falling to third overall.