With the spring Classics over for another season, the Tour de Romandie ushers in a new phase of stage racing in the 2018 campaign. Once again, the Romandie organisers have provided a testing six-day route with little room for riders to catch their breath. Two short tests against the clock punctuate a route dominated by the Swiss mountains and one - potentially two - days left for the shallow pool of sprinters in the field.
The 72nd edition of the Tour de Romandie may lack the Giro d'Italia contenders, who no longer use the Swiss race as their final tune-up before the Corsa Rosa, but the field remains strong, with several Tour de France hopefuls on the start line. The conditions could also play a significant role. Rain and even snow have been seen in recent editions of the race, with difficult conditions leading to unpredictable racing.
Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and Ilnur Zakarin have won this race in the last four years, while Stephen Roche, Pavel Tonkov, Andy Hampsten, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx have all stood on the top step of the podium in years gone by. The Tour de Romandie is a jewel in the crown for any stage racer's palmares.
Riders to watch
This year BMC Racing arrive with Richie Porte, Tejay van Garderen and Rohan Dennis in their ranks and will be looking to post a result for the late Andy Rihs, their team owner who died less than a week ago. Porte is the defending champion but his form has been hard to read this year, with illness a factor since his return from Australia. The team still boast one of the strongest line-ups in a race suited to all-rounders.
With Chris Froome enjoying his final training stint before the Giro d'Italia, it's Geraint Thomas who leads the line for Team Sky. The Welshman's Classics campaign was short-lived and devoid of results but he has finished on the podium at the two stage races he has competed in this year and will receive strong support from a team that also contains neo-pros Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov. The former is making his return to racing after a superb showing at the Volta a Catalunya was cut short by a crash on the final stage.
Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) arrives at the race fresh from a Classics campaign plagued by bad luck. The Irishman has taken time to settle with his new team and, but for the opening prologue, will have plenty of opportunities to shine. Jakob Fuglsang leads the line for Astana, while the Izagirre brothers will work in tandem for the Bahrain-Merida team.
The most dangerous rider could be Primoz Roglic. The 28-year-old has only competed in a one-day race on one occasion this season but his stage racing form continues to improve. He won a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico courtesy of an impressive attack on the road to Trevi, and backed up that result with a stage win and the overall in the Basque Country. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider was third last year, and although he would have preferred longer, flatter tests against the clock, there should be few riders for the Slovenian to fear should he turn up with the form he had in the Basque Country.
Other potential contenders include Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Simon Spilak (Katusha-Alpecin), Pierre Rolland (EF Education), Lennard Kamna (Sunweb) and Pierre Latour (AG2R la Mondiale).
Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data) will be looking to kick-start his season after a quiet start, and Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) is an outsider for the opening prologue. Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) has the pedigree to rattle the top-10, while Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) has been consistent in his two stage racing outings this year.
Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) will get into at least one significant break - and probably win. Michael Albasani will win a stage - he always does in Romandie - while his teammate Mikel Nieve finally makes his stage racing debut in Mitchelton-Scott colours.
Due to the mountainous route, and the fact that a third of the stages are raced against the clock, the calibre and depth of sprinters at the race is not at its highest. Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) returns after his injury layoff, and the Colombian will ride alongside Elia Viviani, who won a stage in Romandie last year on the day Team Sky left him out of their Giro team. Michael Matthews has made the trip after a mixed Ardennes campaign, while Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Merida) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) should also play roles in the sprints.
Another testing route
The race kicks off with a 4.2-kilometre prologue through Fribourg. The parcours is flat for the most part, but there are a number of technical sections and a climb towards the finish. Last year's opening offering was hit by heavy rain, and the conditions could play a part if competitors are handed a mixture of dry runs and wet roads.
Alex Dowsett (Katusha Alpecin), Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), and Roglic all line up as potential suitors for the race's first leader's jersey.
Stage 1 from Fribourg to Delemont, with its 2,232m of climbing, will almost certainly prove too testing for the pure sprinters who have ventured to Romandie. The likelihood is that the finish will be decided between the GC contenders, their teams, and a handful of resilient all-rounders who can excel at climbing and sprinting from a small group. The four climbs - the last two coming on a finishing circuit - are unlikely to decide the overall standings but the stage will provide an indication of the true contenders.
The following stage sees the race leave Delemont for Yverdon-les-Bains. Although the 173km test contains almost 2,000 meters of climbing, the last of two ascents - the Col des Etroits - comes with over 60km remaining.
Last year's individual time trial at the Tour de Romandie came on the final stage in Geneva but this time it sits neatly between four traditional road stages. The 9.9km test climbs almost 800m from the start in Ollon to the finish in Villars, with barely any flat road to speak of. The stage, as short as it is, represents the only summit finish in the entire race.
The queen stage starts and finishes in Sion - where Thibaut Pinot won a stage in 2016 - and comprises five major categorised climbs and over 3,500m of ascents. The first category climb to Ovronnaz comes inside the first 20km, but it's the final 70km when the race will be won or lost. The Ovronnaz peaks out at 8.9km and starts with seven per cent inclines. From there it only steepens, with an 11.5 per cent section in the middle of the climb, which only eases to nine per cent in the final stretches.
The first-category Vercorin comes after 73km and is quickly followed by the Nax and Suen, before the final first-category climb to Les Collons. The final ascent is the longest of the race at 13.1km and starts at seven per cent before middles section that averages out at a more manageable four per cent. The final ramps kick up to 7.5 per cent, before the long descent towards the finish.
The final stage from Mont-sur-Rolle to Geneva is perhaps the most sprint-friendly of all, yet the route is still peppered with climbs before the long run-in to Geneva.
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