The spring classics season is over. While some of you go into mourning it's happy days for mountain goats. So finish drinking your Leffe, it's time for cheese and chocolates. To hell with bumpy cobbles, it's smooth roads and Swiss stage racing. The six day Tour de Romandie start Tuesday. Two time trials, Two mountain stages, and two relatively hilly classic stages.
The Tour de Romandie has been raced since 1947. Romandie refers to the French speaking region of Switzerland - approximately 20% of the population - in the western edge of the country. A list of former Romandie winners reads like a who's who of cycling: Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Koblet, Thévenet, Zoetemelk, Roche, Rominger, Evans, etc.
Will: If this was the Tour de Suisse or the Dauphiné, I'd say it was a medium tough route. But for Tour de Romandie? This is a difficult course. Ilnur Zakarin won this event in 2015, and Christopher Froome in 2014, and 2013. Who are the favourites this year?
Jens: Romandie is starting to look like one of the clearest signs of how the World Tour changes the look of the racing. Used to be the startlist here was nearly a complete list of favorites for the Giro d’Italia. All of them looking for one last race to hone their form and get ready for three weeks in Italy. Now it has a huge list of serious contenders aiming for the win. Many of them Tour de France contenders who have Romandie as a big early season goal. Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot, Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen are all TdF podium contenders and they all have Romandie as an objective too. It’s almost scary. World Tour points are important enough that teams now use other races like Trentino as warm-up races and that is pretty much as it should be isn’t it. And a tougher parcourse with a difficulty to match the field really fits the overall picture.
As for winning, I think the BMC boys are hard to look past for this. You have to think there has to be at least a little inter-team rivalry that needs to be sorted before July no matter how jovial and team-matey everyone seems in interviews. And the course is pretty perfectly suited for them with lots of TTing and very few third week stages where things can go pearshaped like they usually do.
Will: My Pick: Pinot, Pinot, Pinot.
Prologue - 3.95 kms (Contre-la-Montre)
La-Chaux-de-Fonds is the 3rd largest town completely in Romandie. It's famous for making watches .... expensive watches.
Will: Four kilometres? WTF? That's a bit short. Note, the course is at 1000 metres altitude and the bump in the middle is rated a category three "mountain" - so there will be a king of the mountain jersey holder at the end of this stage.
Jens, any idea how they calculate the KOM points during a time trial? Best time to summit from the start? And what is the point of such a short prologue?
Jens: I can only assume they hold a rock, paper, scissors competition by the team buses before the start, it seems the only fair way really. Or the thing you mentioned makes sense too. It doesn’t really matter all that much, they just need a way of putting that jersey on someone for stage 1 and anything is more fun than having the third best on the stage wear it like they sometimes do.
The point of prologues has always been a bit lost on me to be honest, short or long. My guess is it’s one of those things that are really more designed for the locals and people actually seeing the race live, for them it is a great day of spectating. It’s just on TV it isn’t that fantastically exciting often.
Will: Yes, a prologue is brilliant for a fan attending the race. One can see the riders warming up beforehand, racing the course, and throwing their bike post-race.
Stage One - 169 Kilometres, 1865 metres ascent (Classic)
This stage starts in the Jura mountains and then descends onto the Swiss Plateau (the land between the Juras and the Alps). But in Switzerland, it's still hilly, even between mountain ranges.
Will: Could a sprinter win this stage? Let me rephrase that question: Why would a sprinter come to this race?
Jens: I dunno, masochism? Either way, in what seems like a cruel punishment from the team, Marcel Kittel is actually here, presumably to get the legs used to some climbing? It should come in handy for the Giro where there are plenty of chances for guys like Kittel but they are going to have to survive plenty of climbs in between flat sprint stages.
But for actually winning this stage there are riders like Cimolai, JJ Rojas, Impey and Swift, basically the same type of guys who won "sprint stages" in Catalunya.
Stage 2 - 174 kms, 2800 metres ascent (Mountains)
As required by Swiss law, the race will ride past Aigle and UCI headquarters. Expect to see Mister Cookson on the side of the road waving a cowbell. The final two climbs are in the Alps, with Morgins just short of the border crossing into France (Pas de Morgins).
Will: In 2010, a nineteen year-old French kid familiar with the Romandie mountains won the KOM competition. Jens, you're famous for making race predictions. Are there any young climbing prospects here that may burst onto the scene like Thibaut Pinot six years ago?
Jens: There are a few here actually, how much bursting they are ready to do who knows? Most like Pinot (in that he’s French) is probably Pierre Latour on Ag2r. He is posting continually impressive results whenever the road turns up. Second behind Pinot on the climbing stage in Criterium International, is that enough to whet your French appetite? If not we might do best to look to new Belgian Climbing Sensations, both Louis Vervaeke and Laurens De Plus are here and they both fit the bill of up and coming climbers. Also there’s Colombian Rodrigo Contreras on Etixx who is supposed to be the climbing-equivalent of Fernando Gaviria but he hasn’t looked all that sparkling yet at least. Maybe he starts waking up here?
Thibaut Pinot - As a teenager winning the KOM at 2010 Tour de Romandie:
Stage 3 - 15 kms; 280 metres ascent (Contre-la-Montre)
This stage is in the heart of the Valais region, home to several huge hors-categorie climbs to some of the biggest dams in the world. Part of this course is the very beginning of the climb to Col du Sanetsch (with a beautiful summit lake/dam) one of the greatest cycling climbs in the Alps.
Will: A second individual time trial with a big bump in the middle? Strangely, there are no KOM points on this stage. On the hill towering over the city of Sion is a beautiful basilica and castle. Expect nice helicopter shots.
Jens: I’m going to go ahead and swear in church and say this may actually be the most exciting stage of the race. It certainly may be the most decisive. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that the teams have looked at the stages when deciding who to send here. Practically every strong climbing time-trialer in the world is lining up as team captain this week. And because of that this stage looks incredibly open and unpredictable. Porte, Froome, Quintana, Van Garderen, Pinot, Zakarin, Spilak, Mollema, Dumoulin etc. etc. Depending on form and ambition they could all come out on top in this one. Well, maybe not Pinot?
Stage 4 - 172 kms; 3300 metres ascent (Mountains)
We're going to call this the Queen stage. The three category one climbs all have some very steep stretches. Col des Planches in particular is a beast with the first five kilometres averaging 10%.
Will: Another stage heading past Aigle! Meldonium, Meldonium!
Jens: Ok, maybe this one Pinot can actually win? This actually looks like the type of stage that often turn out really well in Romandie. A wide field of fairly even matched guys (the Big-bigs are usually not on red- hot form yet) tackle tough but not crazy hard mountains. It’s usually a great recipe for good racing. And that two climb finale, without any transport in-between, really sets up the possibility to open the action from far out if anyone has that ambition. If Sky didn't do their usual trick of hitting everyone hard on the first mountain finish this could be where they deploy their patented peloton-mauling to set up Froome for the overall win.
Will: Hey, don't jinx Thibaut.
The final climb to the ski station Villars is the first 2/3s of the climb to Col de la Croix. Sadly Romandie will skip the last 6 steep kilometers of this great climb - which, as of a few days ago, looked like this:
Stage 5 - 177 kms; 1800 metres ascent (Classic)
Another hilly stage but maybe the most sprinter-friendly of the entire race? The stage winds through the Jura mountains and foothills on the vineyard-filled north side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), before finishing in the city of Calvin.
Jens: How long before Will mentions that this stage goes through the village of Bière?
Will: Woohoo! This stage goes through the village of Bière!
Will: I object to that last categorised climb as it stops short of visiting Col du Mollendruz - 250 vertical metres higher. And if the Genevois were a bit creative they could have planned a cobbled uphill finish in the historic old town. Instead of this flat sprint beside the lake.
Jens: It’s a bit of a quirky final stage for a stage race. I suppose between the three preceding stages the GC should be settled but I can’t help but think that margins may be pretty small with a course and field like this. If that is the case I wonder if we could see a parcours like this inspire some teams to try and make some trouble. Apart from a bit of a long flat finish there seems to be ample opportunity to cause problems for some poor schmuck who holds a narrow lead and just wants a nice comfy procession on the last day. Well, we can dream at least.
Will: Traditionally, the Tour de Romandie gives a big hunk of cheese to stage winners. Shouldn't the GC winner at least get a small cow?
Jens: Livestock never really took off as prizes in major cycling competitions the way one would have expected. I blame teams like Sky who I bet don’t want some over-excited Brown Swiss defecating all over their fancy team buses. They have no sense of adventure really.
Will: Skim milk, marginal gains?
Below: Geraint Thomas, the big cheese, 2012 Tour de Romandie. Note, he is wearing the KOM jersey after winning a flat prologue.
Will: I am looking forward to this race. As usual, I will try and attend a stage with my good friend Roger.
Jens: Did Roger ever win any cows in the tournaments he won? It feels like he almost had to?
Will: Of course he did. At the Swiss Open. Lucky bastard.