With the Tour de France looming larger and larger on the cycling horizon, the Tour de Suisse represents the last major stage race for the overall Tour contenders and sprinters to get an important block of racing in their legs.
This year's race is the 75th edition of the Tour de Suisse, with the race route visiting every part of the country between June 11-19. Two stages also finish in Liechtenstein and Austria. The 1236km of racing is spread across the nine days, with three mountain finishes, an opening time 7.3km trial in Lugano on Saturday and a final 32.1km time trial around Schaffhousen in the north of the country.
Last year Frank Schleck snatched overall victory with an inspired performance in the final 26.9 kilometre time trial in Liestal.
He was only 13th behind Tony Martin on the day but earned enough time on a fading Robert Gesink to move past him in the overall classification and so pull on the final yellow jersey. Lance Armstrong also finished strongly moving up to second overall and so take the last major result of his career. Jakob Fuglsang finished third. Gesink dropped to fifth.
Former Swiss professional Beat Zberg is the Tour de Suisse technical director and played a key role in designer the 2011 route.
“We again wanted to create a formidable parcours. It's for riders with really serious ambitions of overall victory,” he said when unveiling the stage details.
The 7.3km opening stage will immediately shake up the race thanks to its hilly profile and technical descent back to the finish. It is virtually the same as the 2010 stage, where Fabian Cancellara was able to use his power and descending skills ability to overcome the climb and win by one second ahead of Roman Kreuziger.
The race jumps north for stage two to Crans Montana via the Nufenenpass. However the first real mountain stage is on day three, with the Grimselpass and then the Hors Category Grosse Scheidegg squeezed into 90km of racing before a rapid descent to the finish in Grindelwald.
Stages four and five to Huttwil and Tobel-Tagerschen suit the sprinters but the mountains return with a bang on day six when the race visits Liechtenstein. Most of the 157km stage is flat but the stages ends with the Triesenberg, the hardest climb of this year's race.
Stage seven is another hard day of climbing with the riders facing 223km in the saddle. The Flüelappass comes mid-stage before the finishing climb to Serfaus, just over the border in Austria. Stage eight to Schaffhousen is a final chance for the sprinters before the last-day time trial again decides the overall winner and give a real indicate who is on form for the Tour de France which begins just 13 days later.
Schleck wears number one
Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek) wears race number one as defending champion but will face some major competition from riders of the calibre of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad), Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo) and Andreas Klöden, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack)
The Leopard Trek line-up includes some of its best riders. Andy Schleck will no doubt share overall leadership with his brother while Fabian Cancellara will be the huge favourite for the opening and closing time trials as he races in his native Switzerland. Also in their provisional squad are Jens Voigt, recent Tour of Luxembourg winner Linus Gerdemann, Jakob Fuglsang, Stuart O'Grady and Maxim Monfort.
As a World Tour race, the Tour de Suisse automatically invites the 18 ProTeams to the race. This year the two wild card invitations have gone to Team Type 1 and Team NetApp. Both squads include Swiss riders who will be looking to impress on home roads. NetApp has Swiss U23 national champion Michael Baer and veteran Andreas Dietzikerm, while the US-based Team Type 1 includes current Swiss national time trial champion Rubens Bertogliati.
Virtually all the big-name sprinters opt for the Tour de Suisse rather than the Critérium du Dauphiné because it helps them hit top form for the opening stages of the Tour de France.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) was not at his best in last year's race and caused controversy and complaints from his fellow riders when he clashed Heinrich Haussler and brought down several riders, including Tom Boonen, who seriously injured his knee.
All three will be back in Switzerland this year and ready to fight for stage victories. However this year it is Haussler and Boonen who are struggling for form. Cavendish got his season on track with two sprint wins at the Giro d'Italia, a team time trial victory and a day in the maglia rosa.
Cavendish will have most of his Tour de France lead out train to help him in Switzerland, including Bernhard Eisel and Matt Goss. Other sprint rivals include world champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank-SunGard), Greg Henderson (Team Sky), Robbie McEwen and Robert Hunter (RadioShack), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil), Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Danilo Hondo (Lampre-ISD), Allan Davis (Astana).
They should all make for some high-speed and highly contested sprinting on the days the overall contenders look to recover between the tough mountain finishes.
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