There's something special about the Tour de Suisse - a perfect vignette of stage racing heaven, the week-long event boasts stunning scenery, mountainous terrain and a little something for everyone. And this year anyone who's anyone will be appearing on Swiss soil.
There are those looking for a Tour de France GC tune up, including Garmin-Transitions' affable 'overall guy' Christian Vande Velde, RadioShack's trio of Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Lance Armstrong, Saxo Bank siblings Fränk and Andy Schleck, classy Liquigas-Doimo star Roman Kreuziger and HTC-Columbia's Michael Rogers, the resurgent Australian.
There's a veritable feast of sprinting talent on offer, including young upstart Peter Sagan, the 2009 Tour's six-stage star Mark Cavendish, Astana's Allan Davis, Cervélo's strongman Thor Hushovd, 'Mr Perpetual' Alessandro Petacchi, the terrific Tom Boonen plus evergreen men Oscar Freire and Robbie McEwen.
And of course the opportunists abound, waiting for the chance to secure something from an undulating parcours. Rabobank's Nick Nuyens is back, Carlos Barredo could mix things up, Sky guys Juan Antonio Flecha, Simon Gerrans, Kurt Arvesen and Serge Pauwels are always a chance plus there's Irish Nicolas Roche, the Ag2R-La Mondiale man developing into a great all-round rider.
The peloton welcomes back Cervélo's Heinrich Haussler after a long lay-off due to injury, plus the revelation of last year's Tour de France, Brice Feillu, returns for Vacansoleil. There's the ever-present threat of Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) plus Simon Spilak could be a man to watch after a standout performance at another Swiss stage race, the Tour de Romandie.
Something for all the family
The opening time trial has Cancellara written all over it: starting and finishing in the Italo-Swiss city of Lugano and 7.6km in length, the close to 150m altitude gain shouldn't bother the reigning time trial world champion. His greatest competition could come from within his own team however, with Swedish star Gustav Larsson currently in great form, having won the final 15.4km TT in Verona at last month's Giro d'Italia.
Stage two from Ascona to Sierre is one for the sprinters but their party could easily be crashed by a plucky break with the right ingredients. With the likes of Cavendish, Petacchi et al bringing gun squads to help them win, it's unlikely an escape will succeed, although the Cat 1 Simplonpass could aid it in its endeavours.
Stage three is 196km that nearly replicates the previous day's parcours, with the Cat 1 Col de Mosses coming halfway through the stage; given the increase in distance, it's less likely a break would succeed than over the journey to Sierre, so don't be surprised if one of the sprinting elite is celebrating in Schwarzenburg. Can Sagan upstage the established names again this season? Looking at the final 50km, it's possible.
If there were any doubts about the previous day's suitability for sprinters, stage four from Schwarzenburg to Wettingen is tailor made for the likes of Cavendish, McEwen, Boonen and Petacchi. He who has the best leadout should take the bounty but the question will remain: who has the legs to finish it off?
A lumpy profile on stage five should benefit those not looking at the next day's queen stage to seal overall success and those without sprinting duties; day-long break, anyone? The 164km from Wettigen to Frutigen could prove a happy hunting ground for those with ambitions not lofty enough to rouse the suspicions of those general classification guns but sufficiently strong to see them try their luck in an escape of the right ingredients.
Whilst there's only a Cat 2 and 3 climb on the day's menu, the many small ascents throughout the route will favour that break which can work well together to stay away from the clutches of the peloton. A reasonably uphill finish will also suit this purpose and could see the likes of Haussler get his season back on track or a darkhorse such as Robert Gesink to regain form ahead of the Tour de France.
The queen stage comes on the sixth day, which is also the longest parcours of the race. The 208km journey from Meiringen to La Punt takes riders into the Romansh region of Switzerland and delivers two hors categorie climbs plus a Cat 1 ascent for good measure. The summit of the second HC mountain, the Albulapass, drags upwards for the better part of 40km and should be a sneak peek of what to expect in July when the same GC stars fight for supremacy in France.
RadioShack will undoubtedly try to control the day's proceedings from start to finish for Armstrong, Leipheimer and Klöden; Saxo Bank may also have something to say about the outcome with plenty of its own firepower.
The following day is another for the breakaway boys as those who burnt their matches on stage six will look to have a rest and the sprinters try to regroup for a push through to Liestal, which comes the next day. With a flat start, a Cat 2 climb halfway through and the peloton recuperating, the 'hurdle' for a successful escape will be the downhill run to the finish in Wetzikon.
It's a sprinters' delight on the penultimate day; despite a sawtooth profile over the final 50km there shouldn't be too much stopping the teams of the fast guys taking their guns to the Liestal hell bent on celebrating a job well done. There's always the chance a break could do the business but the higher probability lies in it being showtime for the sprinters.
After all that's been served up over the previous eight stages, the final day is a last chance for the general classification riders to gain some time and further fine tune for the Tour. Who could go past Cancellara to try for a TT double? While there's a 200m altitude gain the 27km distance won't bother 'Spartacus', who has said his chances of overall victory are slim, which makes a time trial win more likely.
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