Thursday, 16 June 2011

Tour de Suisse Stage 3

(Originally published Monday 13th June 2011)

Another exhausting day for the riders touring Switzerland today with the majority of Stage 3's 108km taking place at altitude. The race starts out today from the almost ridiculously beautiful town of Brig-Glis (I visited once as a child) which is home to the vast Stockalper Palace, at the time of its construction the largest private building project ever seen in Switzerland, and where inhabitants speak a unique German dialect used nowhere else in the country.
Stockalper Palace
Lying 691m above sea level, the town nestles among high Alpine peaks which have brought winter prosperity in the form of skiers and snowboarders and which also ensure that the riders will be met with a climb immediately upon leaving the town - it's a relatively minor one so far as gradient is concerned, rising some 655m in around to Ulrichen in around 25km, but it should be more than sufficient to get the old knees woken up. Next comes a flatter stage of around 15km, a welcome chance to summon up the energy to face the day's biggest challenge which comes in the form of an 819m climb in 10km to the Grimselpass at 2165m, the highest point of the stage and from which riders will be able to see the Rhone Glacier, source of the river Rhone, should any of them have achieved a sufficient lead in the climb to be able to afford a spot of sight-seeing.

The view from Grimselpass
From the summit, the riders descend 1520m in 30km (imagine that, Cambridge bikers! Makes the Coldham's Lane bridge seem a bit boring, eh?) to the stage's lowest point. This may prove to be a very interesting section - Andy Schleck, who took second place in last year's Tour de France following an incident in which his chain came off allowing eventual winner Alberto Contador to take a 39" lead (the margin by which he beat Schleck in the overall classification), has taken a bit of back seat thus far in the race, leaving his older brother Frank to defend Schleck family honour (their father and grandfather were also professional cyclists) on the leadership board, may decide to use today to demonstrate his form, displaying the ability as a grimpeur which had Contador looking extremely worried in the 2010 Tour, which could allow him to either lead or at least be one of the first over the Grimselpass. In addition to this, Andy demonstrated almost yogic serenity in France, looking calm and even smiling for the crowds at times when other riders were grimacing. If he's got the same form this year, he might be able to maintain any advantage obtained on the way up all the way back down again when other riders get a bit twitchy at high speeds.

Andy Schleck may decide to put on a show of strength today
Although nobody's going want to take their hands off the bars at those sorts of speeds, they're going to have to take the opportunity to top up on the energy gel because at the 78km mark there's a fearsome Hors-Catégorie climb to contend with. Despite reaching the highest point of the stage, the climb up Grimselpass begins at altitude and as such is rated Category 1. Once they've completed the descent, the competitors don't have any flatland whatsoever, allowing no respite before beginning the 1317m ascent of Grosse Scheidegg, a pass at 1962m which is usually only open to buses and the location of the final fight between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, in which Moriarty was killed permanently and Holmes temporarily (it's amazing what public demand can achieve). 

This is going to be a very, very tough climb indeed and any rider for whom the descent was not enough to rest is going to suffer - we shall almost certainly see at least one rider abandon in this section, but anyone with the strength left in them will be wanting to get a lead because once they're over the top there's a shorter but even steeper descent, 958m over just 11km, to the finish. Anyone with significant lead on the pack will be able to use this section to cruise comfortably without needing to risk life and limb in a hairy free-fall to the finish at Grindelwald, a town that virtually defines what a Swiss town should look like and which was once home to the world's most talented anti-semite Richard Wagner. Keen-eyed sci-fi fans may also recognise the mountains surrounding Grindelwald as they were used to form the outline of the mountains surrounding Alderaan in Star Wars Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith. 

Grindelwald - more typically Swiss than H.R. Giger eating a Toblerone while building a cuckoo clock and brewing up LSD with Albert Hoffman. In a bank.
You can watch very nice 3D Google Earth animations of the Grimselpass and Grosse Scheidegg sections courtesy of

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