Monday, 20 June 2011

Tour de Suisse debriefing

Well, how damn good was the 2011 Tour de Suisse? There was more action, fun and drama rammed into those nine stages than in an average year's Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana combined - it had a bit of everything: sudden comebacks, questionable tactics, blistering speeds, tempers, no clear favourite until the end of the final stage, the emergence of new heroes and stunning scenery. In other words, it was everything the Grand Tours try to be - and for those of us who follow the sport from this sceptred isle of staffordshire bull terriers and all-pervasive CCTV, some impressive efforts by British riders.
The race was marred
by the horrific
accident that has
left Mauricio
Soler in a coma.

The entire event was marred by a horrific crash in Stage 6 during which Columbian Mauricio Soler, who had won the stage on the previous day, hit a raised kerb while descending at high speed. He lost control and subsequently hit a spectator, who was not injured, and was then thrown against a rigid metal fence taking the full force of the impact. Once the Movistar rider had been airlifted to the nearest hospital, doctors discovered he was suffering from serious brain injuries and placed him into a medically-induced coma. His condition is improving but remains serious.

Covering 1245km of Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria, the parcours took in some of the finest regions the Alps have to offer with the mountain stages being worthy of particular note, especially the high altitude Hors-Categorie finish on Trisenberg for Stage 7 (1600m) and the ascent of HC  Flüelapass which at 2383m is 268m higher than the well-known Col du Tourmalet, highest point of several Tours de France. Lower-lying features were equally as good, the Rheinfall being a spectacular highlight, and the villages offering every aesthetic quality expected from Alpine villages - half-timbered cottages that stay just the right side of nauseatingly twee, spotless roads and typically litter-free Swiss roadsides.

One of the biggest surprises of the race was some of the people who didn't dominate. Among them were Mark Cavendish, despite some sprint sections, some flat (for Switzerland) stages and a flat finish in Stage 8 only managed a disappointing 127th place overall. However, going by his attitude and quirky quips (including humourously accusing TeamSky of using up all the available bandwidth to download porn when he was unable to get online after one stage), we're led to suspect that he was taking things easy and treating this Tour as a training ride in preparation for the Tour de France which starts in two weeks' time. Another rider who seemed content to languish at the back of the class was Andy Schleck. A problem with his chain - Andy's least favourite part of the bike by now, you would think - saw the Luxembourger take 147th place in the prologue time trial, with this result not helped by time trialing being the discipline at which he least excels. Talk among Andyfans for much of the earlier stages was then devoted to trying to guess what he was up to, because that was the last we saw of him for a while: was he sandbagging to lull arch-rival Alberto Contador into a false sense of security before the French Tour, could he just not be bothered to put in the effort or was he genuinely showing bad form? He even only took 57th in Stage 6, where the 1132m climb over the final 12.8km should have suited him well. Finally, in Stage 7 he woke up and climbed the Flüelapass like a squirrel on amphetamines, winning himself the green jersey - which he keeps in the overall King of the Mountains competition - in the process and spending most of the rest of the day near the front end of the race in breakaway groups too. He was just pipped to the post, following another impressive Category 1 climb of 549m towards the finish, by Christian Vande Velde; but even Andy will agree Christian rode well and deserved to win in the end.

Levi Leipheimer, one of the nicest guys in cycling, took overall victory after forging ahead in the final time trial.
One rider really stood out, despite coming 50th overall - Peter Sagan, who despite being just 21 years old put the wind up many riders in their prime and won Stages 3 and 8. Sagan, who when 19 was described by team doctors as the strongest rider of his age they'd ever seen, will in all likelihood be the man that Mark Cavendish - often said to be the fastest man on two wheels - needs to keep a wary eye on during the sprint sections of next month's Tour. Another young rider who will now be able to improve his cv is TeamSky's Ben Swift: the 23-year-old British rider took 10th in Stage 5 and a very impressive 3rd in Stage 8. The force is strong in this one, and in three years when Cav and Bradley Wiggins are thinking of signing off it may well be Swift who takes on the mantle of Great British Hope. The most successful British rider was Wiggo and Swifty's team mate ex-mountain biker Chris Froome who although somewhat out of the limelight kept plugging away and racking up the pointeroonies. 8th place in Stage 8 gave him what he needed to take 47th overall with a total time of 42h 30'.

21-year-old Sagan, who once
entered and won a Slovak
Cup race on a supermarket
bike borrowed from his sister,
represented himself very well.

Climbing and classics specialist Damiano "il Piccolo Principe" Cunego was most people's favourite to win from halfway through the race up until the Stage 9 time trial - the diminutive Italian held top place overall through six stages. However, with a lead of just 1'36" it would have been foolish to place any large bets and in the end he lost out to American Levi Leipheimer who beat him by 4 seconds in Stage 9, taking the 2011 yellow jersey. Leipheimer, who at 37 will probably be thinking of retiring so he can devote his time to the animal sanctuary he and his wife Odessa Gunn (also a professional cyclist) have set up in California, adds this victory to a swathe of others won in a selection of road racing disciplines, making him one of the greatest roleurs of all time.

Top Threes
General Classification: Levi Leipheimer (Radioshack) 31h 45' 02"; Damiano Cunego (Lampre ISD) +0' 04"; Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) +1' 02".

King of the Mountains: Andy Schleck (LeopardTrek) 44pts; Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) 35pts; Damiano Cunego (Lampre ISD) 30pts.

Sprints: Lloyd Mondory (Ag2r-Mondiale) 27pts; Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 12pts; Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep) 11pts.

Points: Peter Sagan (Liquigas) 86pts; Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) 50pts; Tejay van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 44pts.

Full Stage 9 and General Classification results are here.

As is traditional with the Tour de Suisse, next year's route was announced on the final day of this year's race. Stage 1, a time trial, will once again be held in Lugano; Stage 2 will start in Verbania over the border in Italy and end in Verbier; Stage 3 starts in Martigny and ends in Aarberg; Stage 4 Aarberg to Trimbach/Olten; Stage 5 Trimbach/Olten to Kanton Aargau; Stage 6 Kanton Aargau to Bischofszell; Stage 7 Gossau-Gossau TT; Stage 8 Bischofszell to Arosa; Stage 9 Näfels/Lintharena to Sörenberg.

Lake Lucerne
The race will run from the 9th to the 17 of July and although route details are not yet available, it looks set to offer more flat sections with some very testing climbs mixed in beginning right from Stage 2 - the route into Verbier features a series of switchbacks up to the village at 1500m. The terrain between Martigny and Aarberg is flatter but the route will probably pass Lake Geneva, Aarberg to Trimbach and on to Argau is similar with several forested regions. Stage 6, though flat, is very long with Bischofszell far to the east near Lake Constance. Following the time trial, the route heads back into the hills with stage finish Arosa located at an altitude of 1775m. Näfels, at 437m, is fairly low, but nearby Rautispitz rises to 2283m so climbs are a distinct possibility in the early stages of the stage. The terrain to the finish line at Sörenberg is rolling and winds around the lakes Obersee, Zug and Lucerne with its 1200m cliffs, so expect some of the finest Swiss scenery. I can't wait. We'll have a closer look at possible 2012 routes sometime soon.

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