Swiss stage racing! The 2017 Tour de Romandie begins this Tuesday.
The Tour de Romandie has been raced since 1947 and a list of former winners reads like a who's who of cycling: Merckx, Hinault, Bartali, Koblet, Thévenet, Zoetemelk, Roche, Rominger, Evans, Froome, etc. Romandie refers to the French-speaking region of Switzerland - approximately 25% of the country and population - the western edge of the country. The region includes the Jura mountains, the Swiss plateau (flattish land between mountain ranges), and the Alps.
Early this year, race organisers considered changing the name of the race to Tour of the Alps, but decided that would be stupid.
Will: This is a strange course: Two short time trials sandwich 4 stages ranging from very hilly to reasonably mountainous. Nairo Quintana won Romandie in 2016, Ilnur Zakarin in 2015, and Christopher Froome in 2014, and 2013. Who are the favourites this year and why would any sprinter even bother to show up?
Conor: Well Will, traditionally this race has only been useful to sprinters attempting to hone their swearing, fighting and crashing skills, which is not a package that any longer appeals to fast men at the top level. Therefore, it is a plethora of climbers, if not always the top climbers, who will be turning up in Aigle next week. Obviously, Simon Spilak is the biggest name to start on Tuesday, provided you are somebody who only watches this race and has never seen another, better event.
No, of course, the most famous rider arriving at the start line this year is Chris Froome, who traditionally has titanic battles with Spilak in Romandie — this is often the first race at which a tuned-up Froome will arrive: the Briton has won it twice. The other contenders, such as Ion Izagirre and Richie Porte, will mostly be using it to tune up for the Tour, despite potential Giro contenders such as Zakarin and Van Garderen making the decision to turn up. Truly, the GC field is a lot barer than we have seen in any World Tour stage race since the Tour Down Under, missing Contador, Quintana, Nibali, Valverde and other specialists.
Prologue - 4.8 kms (Time Trial)
This Prologue course is in and around the picturesque village of Aigle. UCI Headquarters is located on the flatland just below.
Will: Could you imagine a Romandie or Tour de Suisse stage that didn't cycle past the UCI? There are actually beautiful mountains, vineyards, and climbs that begin from Aigle. But this prologue course has only 59 metres of ascent, mainly in the middle of the route. Booooo. The course will run very close to Château d'Aigle (12th century), a wine museum. Conor, will you be drinking wine or watching the stage? And what is the point of such a short, flat prologue?
Conor: I'll be drinking water, Will. This stage isn't worthy of anything more celebratory. Prologues haven't been en vogue since Thierry Marie retired, and handing the yellow jersey to somebody who can put out a load of watts for six minutes does not appeal to me or anyone who isn't out on the course.
Will: Of course, 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.
Conor: That ought to be the most excitement we get watching at home. While there are a lot of young time-triallists whose names I could mention in a bid to look clever if they actually do something, my pick to win is an obvious one - last year's prologue winner Ion Izagirre.
Stage One: 173 kilometres, 2156 metres ascent (Classic)
This stage starts in Aigle and finishes in the scenically located mountain village of Champéry (alt. 1055 metres) - big mountain-peaks everywhere above.
Will: This is a fairly tough first stage, although the climbs are nowhere near as steep as the ridiculous profile below would indicate. The course runs up and down the lower part of the French-speaking part of the Valais (Wallis). Huge, huge mountains on both sides and almost countless hors-categorie roads, many to high alpine dams. It is a cyclo-tourist paradise. Many locals, including friend Alain Rumpf, would name Col de Sanetcsh - starting in Sion, their favourite climb in Switzerland.
Conor, who will win this stage? Are there any climb specialists that could upset the GC favourites?
Conor: The final climb lends itself in no way to a GC battle. While the bottom of the mountain lends itself nicely to attacks with gradients of eight per cent, anyone making a move there would have ten kilometres of much shallower climbing in which to hold off a chasing group — and it will likely be a group. Sky will likely sit on the front for most if not all of the final climb, and given that the top kilometres aren't especially steep, they could likely control it for most if not all of the mountain, ending in a sprint of a dozen or so climbers at the top. Could Andrey Amador or Bob Jungels get themselves into that dozen? Perhaps, and they would be hot favourites if they could. If not, Izagirre is again my pick to win.
Will: The steepest sign I have ever seen while cycling? How about 90%? High above Champéry, on the Swiss/French border is Le Mur Suisse (The Swiss Wall). Admittedly, it is a ski slope and no, I didn't cycle up it.
Stage 2: 161 kilometres, 2020 metres ascent (mountain)
This is more pre-Alps than Alps, but not much is completely flat in Switzerland The beautiful perched medieval village of Gruyère is just down the road from the finish.
Stage 3: 187 kilometres, 2020 metres ascent (Classic)
A nicely designed stage, the riders will ride into the finish town of Payerne three times, completing three different loops.
Will: This stage is on the Swiss plateau. There are no stages this year in the Swiss Jura mountains. I know the Tour de Suisse struggled to get a French-speaking host town for their 2017 edition. Perhaps Romandie has had similar problems?
The Payerne sausage (saucisson de Payerne) is the local variant on the regional Boutefas or Saucisson Vaudois sausage. Conor will you be eating sausage or watching this stage, and which teams are most suited to supporting a GC candidate on these hilly stages?
Conor: I'll be eating saucisson, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Again, this stage is unchallenging enough to avoid anarchy of any kind no matter who is controlling the race. The teams that will be, however, are Sky and BMC. Sky bring their usual cocktail of capable climbers such as Nieve and Elissonde, while BMC have the time-triallists Tom Bohli and Stefan Küng, plus Tejay Van Garderen and Nicolas Roche to support leader Richie Porte. None of the climbers will really be necessary for winning this stage, however — I think it will come down to a sprint, won by Sonny Colbrelli.
Will: I will bet you some quality cochonou saucisson that a break stays away here frustrating the sprinters. Probably a fair bet as it could go either way.
Stage 4: 163 kilometres, 2855 metres ascent (mountain)
This stage finishes in the ski station of Leysin. In 2011, Pavel Brutt won a Romandie mountain stage finish here.
Will: Now we're talking. These are roads worth climbing. Jaunpass and Col du Pillon are particularly beautiful, if not super high. I am not certain there is a queen stage in this years' race. But this is the Princess stage. Conor, will you be wearing a tiara or watching this stage?
Conor: Can the tiara double as a blindfold? Jaunpass is a decently hard climb but if Pillon is worth climbing, that doesn't increase its average gradient (5.4%) and Leysin is to a category one climb as Esteban Chaves is to Conor Dunne in height. It's just six kilometres long and one of those is flat. Somebody could make an attack in the earlier steep kilometres, but this is no stage on which to win a race. The top five should be very, very close on time going into the time-trial. If I had to pick a winner, it would be someone from the breakaway. David De La Cruz, perhaps.
Will: You are decades younger than me and have thus mistaken the lure of difficulty over the joy of beauty. Yes, this is by no means a brutally tough Alps stage - the high Alps are still snow-covered. But it should be fairly challenging. And more importantly lovely.
Col du Pillon:
Stage 5: 17.9 kilometres, 360 metres ascent (Time Trial)
This stage starts and ends on the banks of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), nice setting.
Will: OK, after four relatively tough stages we finish with a short Time-Trial. What are the chances the GC is still up for grabs? Let's hope this is not just a formality. I fear this is a course design mistake to put such a simple stage last. Conor, will you be Youtube'ing cat videos or watching this stage. Am I over-reacting?
The official Olympic Museum is metres from the start of this time trial. Well worth visiting.
Conor: I've been over-reacting to the mountainous (or not so mountainous) stages, so I'd say your reaction is pretty adequate. Romandie often ends with a time-trial, and I don't remember many where we were sure of the eventual winner. The existence of such a stage, however, narrows down the field to a couple of riders, namely Froome, Porte, Izagirre and Roglic. I think it's possible that their finishing positions in this time-trial may determine the top four positions on GC, and given that Froome hasn't been at his best in this race for the last two seasons, I think that Roglic may be the one to win not only this time-trial but the GC. I may not be giving the mountain stages enough credit, and there's certainly a chance that he'll get dropped or that somebody goes on a raid that's enough to beat him. Additionally, there are bonus seconds, so if the two stages are decided between a group of GC favourites, somebody could still gain a number of seconds' advantage on the former ski jumper. However, I've been very impressed by him and he's my somewhat outside prediction for victory.
Will: Former Ski jumper? Wooohooooo, I am definitely voting for him. Thanks Conor, as I said in a post a few weeks ago drooling about the 2017 Dauphiné route, I give the Romandie route a 6 / 10 - not great, not terrible. To improve they need to get permission and energy to open a big climb or two early (as they did with Col de la Croix a few years back).
My best tip for this race? Buy some authentic Gruyère cheese and some Fendant wine and enjoy.
Below: 2012 Romandie, Geraint Thomas receives some Gruyère cheese for his efforts. Pink = KOM jersey, see here for the leader jerseys.