Swiss cycling has a lot to be proud about. At nine stages long they have the longest home tour outside of the Grand siblings, another successful World Tour race in the Tour of Romandie, a handful of Grand Tour successes including back-to-back Tour de France wins from Ferdinand Kubler and Hugo Koblet, a famous podium sweep in the 1996 Vuelta a Espana, several Hour Record times and one of the most successful Classics rider of the last ten years.
The country shares the Alps with France and Italy (and to a lesser extent Austria, Germany and Slovenia) and Switzerland seems a logical place to host a mountainous stage race. The race’s duration stands out amongst others sitting between one and two weeks long for much of its history. Since 2004, a unique nine stage structure has been locked in with a familiar blend of flat, hilly, and high mountain stages. A move to June accompanied the development of the UCI Pro Tour in 2005 and the race has struggled in its battle with the ASO’s Criterium du Dauphine to be the Tour’s premium build-up race. Last year’s winner Simon Špilak, somewhat of a Swiss specialist, didn’t even go to the Tour but a more damning statistic may be that no rider on the Tour de Suisse podium has even challenged at the Grand Boucle since Jan Ullrich in 2004 & 2005 (the German also won the race in 2006 before expulsion from the Tour de France following Operation Puerto implications). Arguably two exceptions to this trend were Bauke Mollema – who twice podiumed in Switzerland before high placings at the Tour – and Frank Schleck – whose victory at the 2010 Tour de Suisse could well have led to challenge in France had it not been for a crash on Stage 3.
Even allowing for these anomalies, the Dauphine looks the overwhelming favourite for Tour contenders with a roll of honour featuring Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde and Lance Armstrong plus plenty of appearances from Alberto Contador, Tejay Van Garderen and Cadel Evans. Before Switzerland concede defeat, however, it’s worth asking the question – is it better to be known as a preparation race or one fought tooth and nail, regardless of the participants? Every race on the calendar will be taken as preparation for some riders but the Dauphine, with its frequent use of Tour de France roads, seems particularly suitable.
The 2016 Tour de Suisse concluded last Sunday with a weather-wrecked shortened final stage. I’ve seen it described as ‘a strange race’ and ‘not a classic’ but after a slow start things picked up with three brutal days of climbing and a cast which, for the most part, were happy to lay everything on the line in the pursuit of success.
We started with a short time-trial won by home hero Fabian Cancellara before two stages taken by a surging Peter Sagan; a certain advocate of the race claiming an impressive thirteen stages since his debut in 2011. There was a wonderful win for loyal lead-out man Maximiliano Richeze the next day but the stage, not his victory, was marred by a questionable corner 150m from the line disrupting a share of the peloton and putting Danny Van Poppel into serious difficulty. BMC’s Darwin Atapuma held his Giro legs to take a well-earned win on stage 5 before Pieter Weening went solo on the climbs of stage 6.
At this point in the race the GC was beginning to take shape. Headed by Wilco Kelderman, the top ten featured Warren Barguil, Andrew Talansky, Ion Izagirre, Miguel Angel Lopez, Pierre Latour, Simon Spilak and Jarlinson Pantano. Though Talansky and Barguil will plead Tour ambitions, all eight of these riders were in Switzerland to win and it showed on the following stages.
Van Garderen, one who does have eyes on the Tour, rode away for victory on the Queen Stage into Solden but Kelderman cracked and the GC bunched up once more. Barguil took the race lead but by the time Izagirre won the 16.8km time trial the jersey had changed hands once again – now on the shoulders of Astana’s ‘Superman’ Lopez.
He led by just eight seconds to Talansky, with Izagirre and Barguil within twenty seconds reach. The final stage was cut drastically short and the games began almost immediately. Lopez was isolated on the day’s only climb and responded the only way he knew how; by attacking. He reached the summit first with a buffer for the descent – Superman’s weakness – and was joined by Pantano, Izagirre and Van Garderen inside the closing kilometres. Barguil was a handful of seconds behind and tried desperately to join the leaders, taking part in a two-man time trial with three-time Suisse champion Rui Costa.
Soon it became apparent Lopez had done enough to keep his leaders jersey and attention turned to the stage win. Pantano sprinted away for victory before breaking into jubilant tears. The Colombian had been seeking his first pro win and couldn’t have picked a better time than in the home race of his soon-to-be-defunct IAM Cycling team. He was greeted with handshakes from race winner and compatriot Lopez as well as Van Garderen, who had moved up to sixth. The big loser on the day was Cannondale’s Talansky.
The week before, the Dauphine had treated fans to another dose of fantastic racing. Chris Froome would eventually take his third and Team Sky’s fifth victory in the race dismissing the many attacks of rival Alberto Contador. Dan Martin put in an attacking performance to take third, whilst Romain Bardet rallied following a crash to finish second in the GC. The race had plenty of great moments – such as another Stephen Cummings masterclass – but you can’t help but feel the whole race was designed with the Tour in mind. Switzerland, by contrast, felt unique and typically Swiss. That is, of course, until the Queen Stage took the riders to Austria. That needs addressing.