Much can be made about races that aren't the top ranked ones in anyone's mind except possibly the locals. We paint Tour Down Under as a winter holiday training race, Omloop is a warmup, Pais Vasco as a sideshow to the classics, Dauphiné is a training race and so on. Truth is though that with the World Tour working as it should and with big teams ever more packed with top talented riders, no one is treating these races with even a little bit of nonchalance any more. For the guy who is third or fourth in the pecking order in his team, Romandie is deadly serious in showing he can be a captain and winner on his team. To management getting points all over the calendar is crucial and when it's all tallied up there is no snobbery about if the points were gained in Romandie in May or in France in July. For many teams the chances are actually bigger, they may get more exposure in July but in a sporting sense the smaller races matter much more.
In a way you can almost sense that the stageracers have all been waiting impatiently by the sidelines for the classics nonsense to be over because when they had call-ups for who was ready for Romandie pretty much everybody put their hand up. It' almost easier to point to the few teams that don't seem to take this race too seriously than the other way around. The big story here is once more an anticipated showdown between the Bigs, in this case three of the four as Contador is training/resting in order to manage his efforts for the Giro/Tour double. Nibali, Froome and Quintana are all here though looking for some good form-answers. Nibali fresh off the Ardennes is obviously on form and Froome we know has this as a major stepping stone toward July and one he wants to win on the way. All three are bringing strong teams with Sky seemingly moving more and more away from their old strategy of keeping one group of riders as intact for the TdF and all the big preparation races while Astana have a definite "July-feel" to their roster. Aru was supposed to be here but illness has him preparing for the Giro alone in training instead of racing. That opens up room for a guy like Fuglsang who looked flying in L-B-L even if he said afterward that he wasn't. If His Nibs is even a little bit disinterested then the Dane should grab the chance for himself with both hands because he won't be getting that many more this year. We saw last year that Nibali had very little interest in gaining some kind of faux-prestige by trying to best his opponents before July and it served him well. Odds are he takes a similar approach now. Personally I'm betting a few cents that we don't get that much of a "showdown" here either, Andalucia might have been as heated a fight as we'll see before July. Personally I'd be fine with that, I'd much rather see Kennaugh fighting Fuglsang and Anacona anyway at this stage of the season, gives more weight to the TdF anyway. Given Froome's history it's unlike we see him letting this one go though and he looks pretty unbeatable given the amount of timetrialing vs. climbing. What Nairo's agenda is remains to be seen but I just don't get a Kingtana scent off this race. There really isn't anything here to give him an edge and it's probably more an opportunity to keep the legs at race pace and maybe get a feel for the TTT which has always been a Movistar strong-suit but maybe not something they have needed to show since Nairo came onboard.
Froome vs. Spilak again perhaps? Michael Steele - Velo/Getty Images
More interesting is probably the sidestories, and by sidestories I don't mean sprinting because "hello, there isn't any", but sneaky outsiders. Katusha most notably have every chance in the world to stick their nose in the big fight as we're in Switzerland, the land of Simon Spilak actually doing stuff. Backed by an all-Russian gang of strong riders he could definitely podium again here. With no J-Rod kaboose their TTT should be excellent to start with. Plus they win everything this year. The battle of the French kiddies should also be a good one. Bardet is on form and Pinot looks to be on another level of solidity now. Will be interesting to see if the addition of Morabito as support can work as well in reality as it looks on paper, if it does then Madiot has struck gold. All in all this race feels like a dress rehearsal for FDJ which is one of the teams that really has to step up to avoid putting their captain in a hole with the TTT in the Tour.
Most pressure to perform is probably on IAM this week on home field. They had a strong start but since the the season has been a bit of a walk in the desert for the new WT team. Classics were a dud and they aren't scoring many points.This and Suisse are golden opportunities for Mattias Fränk to shine and they could sure need it. Now IAM doesn't really seem like the team that badgers riders into performing but this is the kind of stuff they hired him for and at some point they have to start finding some kind of identity beyond having good kit.
Last but not least we have the merry band of Giro-hopefuls. Guys like Uran, Ulissi, Hesjedal, Van den Broeck, Damiano Caruso, Betancur (bwahahahaha) and Niemec should all be looking to do well, but not too well, here. We saw Uran getting it right last year with a lot of work but no peaking and that is probably just the ticket. Be prepared for enough comments about looking for "good sensations" to make you sick this week, it's all about the good sensations. In Betancur's case we can likely expect him to do a lot of the searching for the good sensations somewhere at the back of the bunch, which for some reason is where he seems to be convinced they are located. As for the others I'm assuming we'll see quite a bit of them. Ulissi in particular is interesting, can he find the form to take a stage or two in the Giro which is surely his goal, or will this be a lost season for him? Van den Broeck has taken a different path too this season and opting himself to aim for the Giro where he had good success early in his career. After some bad runs at the Tour he now thinks a return could be a smarter move than to keep banging his head against a TdF that just keeps letting him down. It's not the worst plan in the world and it also frees up Lotto for a less cluttered agenda in July, it could be a big win-win for the team that otherwise often struggles with too many ambitions at once in the Tour. As for Romandie JVDB could probably do with a receipt that he is on target for the Giro, he does seem to come with a bit of bruised self confidence these days compared to back when he was marking himself as a TdF podium-contender.