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Tour de Suisse: Nico Denz wins stage 6

Nico Denz (Team DSM) is more of a rouleur than a climber but the German rider suffered up the 17.7km climb to the finish and then sprinted to the line to win the Queen stage of the Tour de Suisse atop the Mooslap.

After holding onto Fausto Masnada (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) on the long climb, Denz came from behind to beat Clement Champoussin (AG2R-Citroën) with a bike throw to the line. 

Jose Herrada (Cofidis) was third and the USA’s Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) was fourth after all being in the break of the day. Masnada, arguably the best climber, was fifth.

Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) brought home the overall contenders group 2:14 behind Denz, fighting for every second.

However, race leader Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech), who took the yellow jersey at the start of the day when overnight leader Aleksandr Vlasov tested positive for COVID-19, was right behind him. 

The Dane kept the yellow jersey but Thomas is now only one second behind him before Saturday’s mountain stage to Malbun and Sunday’s 25.6km time trial around Vaduz.

Denz has been a professional rider since 2015 but this was his first WorldTour win and only the third victory of his career. He recently rode the Giro d’Italia, helping sprinter Alberto Dainese win a stage but today was his turn.

"Finally I'm where I wanted to be,” he said, slightly emotional. “Normally I'm not the guy winning, I do a lot of work in the shadows so this was very special for me today.

"I knew I had a fast finish but I almost thought I'd lost it, because I launched my sprint quite late, but it was enough and it's unbelievable,” Denz said, explaining how he zig-zagged his way to the line to pass Simmons, Herrada and then Champoussin on the line.

"A lot of thanks to the team car and staff who managed to keep me cool with water and ice the whole day, I think that was really the key.“On the last climb I just hung on, I was fighting to stay with Masnada, he almost cracked me, but he also obviously was on the limit."

How it unfolded

With COVID-19 cases exploding at the Tour de Suisse on Friday morning, only 93 riders started the stage, with a long list of riders out due to positive tests, close contacts or decisions by teams to quit the race. Jumbo-Visma headed home on Thursday after four cases and Alpecin-Fenix, Bahrain Victorious and UAE Team Emirates followed them today. With Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) also testing positive, Fuglsang pulled on the leader’s yellow jersey and a face mask whenever not racing.

Despite the organisers admitting a decision on whether the race will continue will be made each morning, the riders at the start in Locarno were keen to race the 177.5km stage.

After a series of attacks and skirmishes and an opening hour at 51.4km/h, a move of 12 riders formed, all looking for the stage victory. In the attack were Fausto Masnada (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Quentin Pacher (Groupama-FDJ), Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), Jose Herrada (Cofidis), Clement Champoussin (AG2R-Citröen), Roland Thalmann (Switzerland), Dion Smith and Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), Andrea Pasqualon (Intermarché-Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Brent Van Moer (Lotto-Soudal), Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Nico Denz (DSM).

With 120km to go the attack led the peloton by 4:00 as the mighty Nufenenpass reared into sight. The Nufenen is also the highest paved mountain pass (though not the highest road) in Switzerland, at 2,478 metres above sea level, so perhaps not surprisingly is 'the ceiling' of this year's Tour de Suisse.

The 21km of official climbing was constant but Masnada upped the pace in the final six kilometres and began to hurt some in the break. Smith was the first to be dropped, followed by Thalmann. The gap to the peloton was a significant 7:30, with Astana-Qazaqstan briefly taking over from Ineos Grenadiers and Israel-Premier Tech on the front.

Simmons made sure he was first to the high summit to score even more KOM points and virtually secure the red jersey as a career souvenir and launch pad to a spot in the Tour de France. The peloton was at 5:25.

The riders enjoyed the 40km descent back down the valley roads, making sure to eat and hydrate as the heat returned. Matthews made sure he won the two intermediate sprints in the valley to move into the lead of the points classification and the black jersey but it was a lot of hard work for his reward. After the first of the two Hors Categorie climbs, the Nufenen, leader Fuglsang still has three teammates from Israel-Premier Tech to support him for the second and last. 

The showdown would come on the 18km final climb to the finish at Moosalp. Matthews was soon distanced when it began. Indeed, the attack was soon down to just four riders: Denz, Pacher, Simmons and Masnada. Pacher was soon dropped as Champoussin and Herrada fought to stay in contact. Simmons also lost contact with 11km to go but also fought on as Masnada tried to hurt Denz. 

A stiff headwind made for a hard climb and stifled Masnada surges.The Italian tried several surges and attacks but Denz fought back and responded every time in a show of determination. The kilometres and the hairpins ticked down by Denz remained glued to Masnada who was growing frustrated and tired due to his efforts.

The two played games in the final kilometres and that allowed Champoussin and Herrada to get back on. Denz was just waiting for the sprint but body wanted to lead it out. Further stalling allowed Simmons to also get back on with 500m to go and the young American hit out early to try and surprise the others in the sprint.

He looked strong but the others were on his wheel and Champoussin swept past thinking he was about to win. But a determined Denz was not done yet and found a last kick to throw his bike at the line and win a sprint at an altitude of 2046m.

Ineos Grenadiers controlled and reduced the peloton even when Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Qazaqstan) tried a solo attack in the final kilometre. Some strong riding by Dylan van Baarle and Thomas reduced the group to around 20 riders with Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) again distanced.

Thomas sprinted to the finish to try to gain a second on Fuglsang but the Dane was just behind him, as Masrtinez lost the wheel and so four seconds. The Thomas-Fuglsang battle for overall victory will be decided on Saturday’s mountain finish to Malbun or Sunday’s final time trial.

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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.

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