Klöden caps comeback with Romandie title

Bennati dominates sprinters in final stage

Astana's Andreas Klöden became the first German ever to win the Tour de Romandie, easily holding on to his overall title win in a final stage which saw Daniele Bennati of Liquigas take the sprint finish. Roman Kreuziger of Liquigas was second overall, followed by Marco Pinotti of Team High Road.

The slender German turned his attention immediately to the upcoming Giro d'Italia, to which his controversial team finally received a last-minute invitation. "Winning the Tour de Romandie is not a dream, but a great satisfaction in one of the most beautiful tests in the ProTour. It is true that this happiness is doubled by being able to take part in the Giro, knowing that the Tour de Romandie is the best preparation."

His team indicated that Klöden would be the team's captain in the Giro. "Now Andreas can focus on the overall title in the Giro d'Italia," said team spokesman Philippe Maertens. "Right now, he is the strongest of our three captains – himself, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer, all of whom will be at the start in Italy. After the first time trial we will see how he is."

The 32 year-old had a difficult start to his season, as he battled with various illnesses, starting with the team's training camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He slowly came into form, hitting his peak for Romandie. Klöden established the basis for his overall win by taking the third stage time trial, which he won by six seconds over last year's race winner Thomas Dekker of Rabobank.

The final stage was marked by a five-man escape group for a long time. It got away on the first climb and built up a lead of up to 3'28, before being absorbed back into the peloton with about 15 kilometres to go. Astana, Liquigas and High Road took charge of things and brought back the escape attempts to set up a sprint finish. The last few hundred metres of the race contained a short, but steep climb, and Bennati proved to have the strongest legs. Gerolsteiner's Markus Zberg finished second, with Astana's Maxim Iglinsky third.

It was Bennati's first win of the season, much to his relief. "My team-mates did a great job to bring me up to the one-kilometre mark," he said. "From there on, I tried to take advantage of the train High Road formed for Cavendish. It carried me to Zberg's wheel and I launched the sprint with 180 metres to go." He dedicated his win to his team, which has continued to support him all season, his masseur and to his wife, who will give birth to the couple's son in July.

The 27 year-old was also looking forward to the Giro d'Italia, which starts in six days. "My objective? At least one stage win...."

Gerolsteiner's Francesco De Bonis took home the mountain jersey, and High Road's Morris Possoni took the sprinter's jersey. Bennati won the final points jersey.

How it unfolded

The final stage got up off promptly at 11:30 Sunday morning, with four riders deciding not to tackle the final 152.4 kilometres: Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto), Albert Fernandez (Saunier Duval), Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval) and Leonardo Scarselli (Quick Step).

The first climb of the day was the Col des Mosses, at 31km, with 1,035m of climbing over 19.1 km, with an average gradient of 5.4 percent. On the way, Alexandre Moos of the American team BMC took off, and with one kilometre to go until the top, he had a one minute lead over the peloton. Four other riders went after him: Mathias Frank (Gerolsteiner), Jerome Coppel (Francaise des Jeux), Alexandre Botcharov (Credit Agricole) and Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom).

Moos took the mountain points, and in so doing, assured that Saturday's hero, Francesco De Bonis of Gerolsteiner, would be the overall winner of the mountain jersey. The five escapees came together on the descent and built up a 1'30" lead.

A closed railroad crossing held up the escapees for a brief time, but they were still able to work up a lead of over two minutes. Moos showed that he is a sprinter as well as a climber, taking the first intermediate sprint ahead of Frank and Coppel.

With 70km to go, Alexandr Pliuschin (AG2R) took off in pursuit of the breakaway group, which was over three minutes ahead. In the peloton, Liquigas and Astana shared the duties of shepherding everyone along at a comfortable pace.

Shortly after the feeding zone, several riders hit the pavement in a mass crash. Among them were Ian McKissick (BMC), Nick Gates (Silence-Lotto), and three Euskaltel riders, Haimar Zubeldia, Amets Uxurruka and Ruben Perez Moreno, all of whom were able to get back on their bikes and keep going. Not so for Bauke Mollema – the Rabobank youngster had to drop out of the race.

At 39km, Astana, Liquigas and Cofidis combined to bring the lead down even more, under two minutes, as they rode along the banks of the beautiful Lake Geneva on their way to Lausanne. The five managed to maintain a one-minute lead at the second intermediate sprint, which Moos took again ahead of Coppel and Botcharev. But with 33km still to go, the group began to have doubts as to whether it would be able to stay away to the end. Clement wasn't ready to give up and took off from his team-mates, as the lead shrunk to 53 seconds.

The Belgian had a 10 second lead as he started up the day's second ranked climb and the final one of the race. High Road sent two riders to the front of the peloton to help lead things and keep an eye on the break, which held at just about a minute.

With some 30 km left, Jens Voigt (CSC) lived up his reputation and took off out of the peloton. Clement took the mountain ranking, 14 seconds ahead of his former breakaway group and about 45 seconds ahead of Voigt, who in turn was about 15 seconds ahead of the peloton. Astana kept a close eye on the wiley German, who was only 2'45" behind their captain Andreas Klöden

The four followers caught Clement again and about 30 seconds behind them, Jussi Veikkanen of Francaise des Jeux caught up with Voigt. Another 30 seconds back was the peloton, where High Road sprinter Mark Cavendish was trying desperately not to drop off the back.

With 23km to go, Voigt realized he wouldn't get away and sat up to get back in the peloton. Veikkanen tried it on his own for a little longer, but was also absorbed back into the peloton. At 21km there was also 21 seconds between the two groups.

Coppel and Botcharov took off with 18km to go, with Clement dropping off the back and not able to hang on with Moos and Frank. He was quickly passed by the peloton, which was flying along in single file. Up ahead, the four remaining escapees got together again with a 17 second lead, but again Coppel and Botcharov shook them off. Moos managed to get back up to the leaders, as Frank was also absorbed back into the peloton.

They fought doggedly to hold on to their lead, and Botcharov took off as the peloton reached them with 15km to go, but he was only able to postpone the inevitable for one kilometre. Astana had things firmly in hand at the head of the fast moving peloton, with one Liquigas rider also up front.

The next attacks came at 12km to go from Rick Flens (Rabobank), Wim Van Huffel (Silence Lotto) and Laurent Mangel (AG2R). Astana wouldn't let them go, though, and quickly brought them back. Nick Nuyens of Cofidis took off as the peloton crossed under the 10km arch. He rocketed off the front on a light climb, followed by Alesander Kolobnev (CSC). Nuyens quickly built up a lead of 18 seconds.

A Lampre rider tried his luck as well, Paolo Tiralongo. The sprinters' teams had now lost control of the peloton as more riders tried to get away and dribble out the front.

Nuynes ground his way ahead, keeing a steady 20 second lead. Kolobnev was unable to make up any time on him and Tiralongo caught him with 6km to go, with Nuyens just visible ahead of them.

Osscar Pereiro was one of the bigger names to jump out of the peloton, catching Kolobnev and Tiralongo, but the three were then quickly caught by the peloton. Tiralongo jumped again but was unable to build up a lead of more than a few meters. Gerolsteiner sent two riders to the front of the peloton and the quickly moving group made up time on Nuyens, whose lead had shrunk to five seconds at 4km. He was passed through the peloton and quickly fell off the back.

Four of the mineral-water riders took over the head of the peloton, pushing a high speed until High Road took over with 2km left, with young Mark Cavendish looking for a win. He was closely followed by Daniele Bennati (Liquigas). At one kilometre to go, the road headed uphill, with a 4'25" percent gradient.

Bennati led the sprint up the climb to the finish line, and Cavendish proved again that he is a sprinter and not a climber, as he was unable to power his way up. Markus Zberg of Gerolsteiner finished second and Maxim Iglinsky of Astana third. Andreas Klöden, safely tucked in the peloton, had no trouble maintaining his overall lead and taking the title.

Full report coming!

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