Friday, 17 June 2011

Tour de Suisse Stage 7

Stage 6 may have considerately allowed the sprinters a chance to strut their funky stuff yesterday, but Stage 7 is just going to hurt them because it's gradients all the way in a parcours du combattant that will punish all but the very fittest of the mountain specialists and which looks set to be the toughest stage of this year's event.

Extending over 223km in the decidedly spiky east of the nation, the route takes in the Flüelapass (46°45′01″N 9°56′52″E - worth a look on Google Earth) which, with an elevation of 2383m, is the fifth highest pass in Switzerland. Unlike the rolling terrain to the first climb in Stage 6, there's no easy build-up today either - it's uphill all the way for the first 65km from the start at Vaduz in Liechtenstein. Then it gets tough.

Flüelapass. At 2383m, riders are going to suffer.
75-95km sees the first real climbing of the day: though uncategorised, this short section ascends 701m from Thusis at 720m and Wiesen at 1421m. There's then a relatively flat section, but when you're one-and-a-half thousand metres up riding on pancake-flat terrain is still tiring - this is, after all, higher than the highest point in the British Isles - so the food station positioned at 105km is going to be a welcome sight. They're going to need an extra energy bar or two in the musettes too, because from here it's 10km to Flüelapass and a steep 841m climb up to the top which will sort out the superhumans from the merely super fit. And there's still almost 100km to go!

There's no let-up even after the teams crest the mountain because although the following 50km are downhill all (well, most) of the way, another climb is waiting in the shape of Catgory 2 Norbertshöhe with an average gradient of 6.4%. There's then another 30km of knee relief down to under 1000m prior to the day's final climb, Category 1 Serfaus which like yesterday marks another finish point outside Switzerland, this time in the Austrian Tyrol. The village of Serfaus is notable in being entirely car-free, made possible by its diminutive subway system in which a single train runs on a cushion of air rather like an underground hovercraft. The riders won't be afforded that sort of comfort, however, because they need to climb 477m over 5km to get there.

Serfaus, proving how pretty a town can look if it bans cars. If only everywhere else had underground hovercrafts and a network of ski lifts to rely on for local transport too! Looks a nice spot for a holiday - unless you happen to be Jewish.
Weather: Vaduz will reach highs of around 26C, creating the possibility of thunderstorms and at least a 60% chance of rain. There's every possibility that this won't happen until after the stage is well under way, but ominous clouds on the horizon (or around the mountaintops, you don't get to see the horizon very often in Liechtenstein) will remind the riders that there are other ominous natural phenomena ahead and do nothing at all to raise spirits. Arrival in Serfaus doesn't look much better with a 70% chance of rain.

Predictions: How wrong were we yesterday? Very, basically. We didn't even include stage winner Steven Kruijswijk, a complete oversight on our behalf because the Dutch grimpeur was an obvious contender. Nor did we rate Levi Leipheimer who, with second place, showed us all that being 37 years old doesn't necessarily mean a rider no longer has what it takes. Not if that rider is Leipheimer at any rate - but then, like all professional cyclists, what applies to mere mortals doesn't apply to him. We raised doubts that Little Prince Damiano Cunego had the physical strength required to do battle with the likes of Frank Schleck and Laurens ten Dam on Triesenberg: in fact, he beat them both and hangs onto his top place in the overall classification with a lead of 1'23" after he was 4th over the line. We did put Bauke Mollema in the top five and got that one right as he achieved fourth, whereas we'd never even heard of Katusha's Giampaolo Caruso until he crossed  in fifth place on Mollema's back wheel. We reckoned Frank Schleck would take his first stage win, but in reality he finished in 6th. Ten Dam, our choice for 2nd, managed 8th. We were right about the overall classification, predicting a shake-up, but we really wish we hadn't been - the horrific crash which has left 3rd place Mauricio Soler in intensive care sees the other riders move up one place.

Today, we expect Cunego to deliver the goods and at this point in the proceedings we're also going to mark him as favourite for overall victory on Sunday when the race ends. We're going for Kruijswijk in 2nd, and since we're still gunning for the older Schleck brother we hope to see him take 3rd. We think Mollema will repeat his placing of yesterday and manage another 4th, followed by ten Dam in 5th. Let's just hope there's no further injuries, but we won't be surprised if anyone drops out and abandons the race today - this is a stage as hard as anything in the Grand Tours.