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Tour de Suisse Preview

In which we ask: Geraint or Egan?

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I haven’t had a lot of time to think about cycling in the last week or so, but you’ll be gratified to know that when I could turn my mind to this mad little sport of ours, I was thinking of the Café. Specifically, I was thinking about how on earth I was going to find a hook for the Tour de Suisse. Nice little race, sure, but hardly the Dauphine. What makes it interesting.

So, the tiny glimmer of light in the gloom of Chris Froome’s injury is this: it gives me a hook for this column. TdS 2019: The Battle for Ineos Supremacy. Thomas vs Bernal. Well, sort of. Let’s meander through the usual stuff and come back to that.

The Lukmanierpass, a decade ago. Ah, Spartacus.
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The race

Hoary old race, the Tour de Suisse (if this column is ever read aloud, that’ll be my favourite bit). They’ve been pootling around the Cantons since 1933, with a brief intermission for the Second World War. As befits a race of that seniority, it has quite the list of former winners. Hugo Koblet, of course. Eddy Merckx and Roger de Vlaemninck in consecutive years. The pride of Eurosport, Carlton Kirby Sean Kelly. These days it is mostly a Tour tune-up, heavy on long steady mountain passes, extensive time trialling, and great views. 2019 sticks closely to the formula. You’ll find the official website here and a startlist (still not confirmed as I write this) here. Oh, and you’ll find pretty good coverage on Eurosport and in the usual places.

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If you don’t want to read through the website, and frankly I can’t blame you, we start off on Saturday with a flattish time trial, just under 10km and around Emmental. Holely sensible way to start a race. The hole field spend the second stage in and around Emmental, too, with an out and back course (a rind trip, if you will) before they mercifully leave the cheese puns behind.

stage 2

Stage three and four are bumpy affairs again. The former looks like a nailed-on sprint, whilst the latter is a harder one to call. Assuming the break doesn’t stick (and that’s not been a reliable assumption this year) it’ll be a good test for sprinters, and I don’t think all of them will be in the main field, but some should.

stage 4

Stage five is not too dissimilar – there’s a cat 2 climb but it is very long and less than 4% average gradients, with 35km of flattish road for a regroup afterwards. At this stage of the race it’ll be the chronomen fighting for overall leadership with the competent time trailers who have picked up bonus seconds in the sprints.

stage 5

All that changes with stage six, which is scheduled to be a mountain top finish. I say “scheduled to be” because there was a significant landslide this week and there’s an awful lot of rock to shift off the road to Flumserberg. Even with the Swiss ability to manage infrastructure, this could be problematic. We’ll see if an alternative is provided. If the climb remains, it is a tough finish to an otherwise uneventful short stage – eight and a half kilometres and not much less than 10%. There are plenty of longer climbs in the race but this gets my vote as the toughest and most important - if they ride it.

stage 6

Stage seven sees the field take on a much longer day, with 217km in the saddle and three categorised climbs, including the finishing climb to San Gottardo. This route takes us up through Ambri and is a steady 7.4% climb for 12km. Steady is the watchword for these climbs – we won’t be seeing Giro-esque or even Amstel-esque gradients, but the climbs are plenty long enough to make life hard for the riders.

stage 7

WOOHOOO! It’s Will here rudely interrupting. I just want to highlight what an exciting finishing climb this will be. It’s fucking cobbled, and we at Podium Cafe fucking love cobbles. The summit is the border between German and Italian speaking Switzerland so its name is Passo del San Gottardo (said with gusto and waving your hands), or Gotthardpass (said fairly seriously).

That is all cobbled:

There is a huge car-only tunnel under the mountain, and another paved option on this side, so this road is quiet for cyclo-tourists. It’s known as La Tremola

At the summit is a rebuilt version of the old hospice (this was a common historic Alps crossing point), a lake, a statue of a Russian General (the hero of the Battle of Gotthardpass), and a Canadian drinking beer. The cobbles? These are Swiss cobbles: very smooth.

They stay in the valley for stage eight, a race-altering 19km power TT course, following a rough oval from Goms up and down beside the upper stretches of the Rhone. Stage nine also starts and finishes in Goms but couldn’t be more different. It is a road race over three HC climbs – the Furkapass, Sustenpass and Grimselpass. All are long, slow, steady climbs without significant gradient – but they combine for 60km of climbing in a 144km stage. There’s a long descent and a period of flat after the final climb but this stage does give riders a final chance to improve their position.

stage 9

It’s Will again: I just want to highlight what a huge stage this is. The Tour de Suisse usually stays away from super-high climbs. Central Switzerland has several of the best high paved climbs in the entire Alps and these are three of them.

The helicopter shots of the multiple dams/lakes high on Grimsel will be fun.

Sustenpass has lots of tunnels that even I don’t hate:

And the view from Grimselpass to Furkapass is one of my very favourites. It’s slightly complicated but they’ll climb those high distant Furka hairpins in the photo below to start the stage, and descend the near Grimsel hairpins to end the stage and close the loop. Note, high in the distance on the left of the hairpins on Furka pass is the Rhône Glacier. From there the Rhône rivers runs across Switzerland, and through France all the way to the Mediterranean sea.

And yes, when ever Furkapass is in a bike race, like clockwork, I remind everyone that this is where the car chase and sniper scene in Goldfinger took place. Fun seeing the road over 50 years ago. At the 12 second mark you’ll see the Rhône Glacier behind the historic old hotel.

The field

For sprinters this year, the Suisse option is a superior tune-up to the Dauphine, with stages two, three, four and five potentially offering fastmen some options. With nats to get ready for as well, it is no surprise to see a good field, particularly at the hardmen-sprinter end of the group. Peter Sagan is back after his post-Ardennes break and will be mixing it with the in-form Alexander Kristoff, the form-seeking Elia Viviani, plus John Degnkolb, Michael Matthews, Matteo Trentin and Greg van Avermaet. Keep an eye out for promising youngster Ivan Garcia, too – he opened his WT account with a win in California and could surprise some bigger names here. Look for Sagan to get started on bossing points competitions and Viviani to pick up a win after they eluded him in Italy.

The TT stages aren’t short of contenders either, and leaving the GC men aside the specialists include home favourite Stefan Kung, world champ Rohan Dennis, Ineos engine Jonathan Castroviejo and Danish star (and winner of a road stage here last year) Soren Kragh Andersen. Dennis might fancy himself a GC contender but it is against the clock that he earns his wages and his season has been quiet so far. Kung is the bookie’s favourite for the first stage but I like Dennis’ chances in both TT races on uncomplicated courses.

Then, of course, there’s the GC contest, which effectively boils down to climbing (diesel slopes, mostly) and a bit of power TT-ing. So much so that I really wonder why Tom Dumoulin went to the Dauphine. It wasn’t even the right plan B, but I imagine they have a recovery plan for him. Of those that have turned up, Enric Mas is probably the non-Ineos favourite. He’s had a fairly quiet so far but does everything that this course asks very well and looks to be riding into good form at the right sort of time. He can test himself here. I could have written exactly the same paragraph about Marc Soler and had it be just as true. So far this year he’s a smidge less impressive, but his support in this race is superior and the two young Spaniards will be close, I suspect.

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If Hugh Carthy has anything left after his Giro exploits he’ll be one to watch in the mountains, and the same can be said for Domenico Pozzovivo. At the other end of the fitness scale, Wilco Kelderman is coming back from injury. He’ll enjoy the time trials more than Pozzo or the Heron of Preston, and if he’s fit enough is a podium threat. Luis Leon Sanchez is dangerous everywhere he goes and Simon Spilak and Rui Costa have between them won this race in five of the last seven years.

The Ineos question

On the other hand, there are two riders in this race who are prohibitive favourites. They both ride for Ineos. One was supposed to lead the team in the Giro, before he broke a collar bone, from which he’s apparently made a rapid recovery. The other was supposed to co-lead in the Tour (for which he’s defending champion) and he’s slowly riding himself back to the sort of form that makes that feasible. With Chris Froome also riding nicely in Southern France, the Ineos field was looking very crowded for July.

Then came Froome’s injury. I have no desire to make light of what he’s suffered and can only say that after a crash at that speed with physical injuries so severe, it is a relief he’s apparently avoided any head injuries. It will be a long road back and of course we wish him well. The Tour will be the poorer for his absence.

On the other hand, this is set up deliciously between two very different riders. The young, brilliant, entirely unproved Egan Arley Bernal, a lieutenant last year and expected to go to Italy. The canny, experienced, mercurial Geraint Thomas, shock winner of the Tour last year, finally coming good on his outrageous talent on the biggest stage of all. That they are teammates makes this all the sweeter. On a traditional team there’s no question of what has to be done – champion Thomas, in the number one dossard, is the unquestioned leader. On a numbers-driven basis, I have no evidence but strongly suspect that right now Bernal is putting out better data.

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Will they let the road decide? 2018’s Tour says that they will. Of course, they’re going to have a chance for a dress rehearsal in Switzerland this week. All eyes will be on them, and if, as I expect, they are both at the very top of the classification, the potential for polemica will increase. I think Geraint Thomas wins this battle, and takes the overall Suisse title (with Soler second and Bernal third, if you want a podium). I think he does that because he’ll time trial well and the climbs will suit him. I think we’ll see at least one reminder that Bernal is a more brilliant climber, and I think we’ll leave this race and head for Brussels with Ineos’ leadership for the Tour just as cloudy as it is at the moment.