The classics are done and dusted and while the explosive one-day specialists take a well-deserved rest, we are about to enter the next phase on the cycling calendar: the grand tours. First up is the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de Romandie has historically offered the contenders for the Italian race a final opportunity to gauge their form. In recent years, however, the mountainous Swiss race has changed its status from a preparation race for the Giro to being the final hit-out for the Tour favourites ahead of a mid-season break as they look to add one final prestigious stage race to their palmares before they start the build-up to their summer objective.
It's part of the very natural and beautiful anatomy of the cycling calendar that the climbing gradually gets harder and harder in a very consistent progression over the spring months. After the sprinter's paradise at Milan-Sanremo to the cobbled classics for the heavy strongmen, the climbers get into action in the Ardennes classics that gradually get harder and harder until it all culminates with Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The one-day races give way to the grand tours where we head into the real mountains and now it is time for the pure climbers and stage race specialists to take over. The Giro d'Italia is the first major rendezvous for the grand tour riders and these days they are all very busy finalizing their preparations.
Held on a mountainous course close to the Giro start, the Tour de Romandie was once the preferred final warm-up race for riders looking to impress on the Italian roads. Many saw a hard week of racing followed by one week of rest as the perfect build-up to the first of the three grand tours, with the difficult terrain in the Alps in the French-speaking part of Switzerland offering great conditions for the final polishing of the form.
Over the last few years, that perception seems to have changed and the role of the Swiss stage race is no longer the same as it once was. Nowadays grand tour riders seem to prefer more rest ahead of the start of a three-week race and so the mountainous race does not fit into the schedule of most Giro contenders. Meanwhile, rival organizers have taken steps to compete with the Swiss and these days GC riders seem to prefer the mountains of an internationalized Giro del Trentino while sprinters head to the sunny Turkish coast for the Tour of Turkey, with the two races usually both offering better weather and more suitable dates for a final block of racing.
This development, however, has not taken away any prestige from the Tour de Romandie. In recent years more and more Tour de France contenders have chosen the Swiss race as the final objective of their spring campaign while the race also attracts a number of in-form classics riders all hoping to take out one last top result before they take their first short break. Nothing reflects the new status of the race better than the fact that the 2011, 2012 and 2013 editions were all won by the later Tour de France winner. Cadel Evans opened the trend in 2011 and since then Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have both gone from success in Switzerland to the highest step of the podium in Paris. No Romandie winner has continued straight from Switzerland to the Giro since Andreas Klöden in 2008 and that year the German didn't even know that he was going to ride in Italy when he stepped down from the Romandie podium as his Astana team was a very late inclusion in the Giro line-up. With a very competitive field containing among others the two latest Tour champions and the reigning Giro winner, there is a great chance that we could see another Romandie-Tour double in 2015.
It is no coincidence that the race is attractive to some of the world's most formidable stage race riders. Held in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the race takes in the roads of the Alpine heartland and there are very few kilometres of flat roads during the six days of racing. Furthermore, organizers have mostly included both a prologue and a longer - often very hilly - time trial in the parcours and the race has all the characteristics of a mini-grand tour - without many opportunities for the sprinters. Hence, it is no surprise to see the fast men turn their back to Switzerland, and the plenty of flat stages and sunny roads of Turkey - Romandie is famous for its rainy conditions - are much more attractive for the world's most speedy bike riders.
Furthermore, the race is a very prestigious one that every ambitious stage racer would love to add to his palmares. It was first held in 1947 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Swiss Cycling and already in its third year it had its first famous international winner when Gino Bartali took the victory. Since then it has been won by most of cycling's greatest riders but with the tendency to peak at fewer races and its status as a preparation race, the list of winners was maybe slightly less illustrious in the 90s and early 2000s before it regained its status over the past few years. Stephen Roche is the only rider to have won the race 3 times but several riders have two wins on their palmares, with defending champion Chris Froome being the only of the current professionals to have won the race twice.
This year seems to confirm recent trends. Among the Giro contenders, only Rigoberto Uran, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Ryder Hesjedal, Damiano Caruso, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Carlos Betancur, Yuri Trofimov and Alexandre Geniez be on the start line while Tour de France contenders Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Rui Costa, Robert Gesink, Laurens Ten Dam, Rafal Majka, Mathias Frank, Romain Bardet and Jakob Fuglsang will all travel to Switzerland for a final week of racing this spring. Among the fast men, only Giacomo Nizzolo, Luka Mezgec and Elia Viviani see the Swiss roads as the perfect site of preparation for their Giro participation.
Last year Chris Froome got back on track after an injury- and illness-filled period when he defended his title in the Swiss race. After Michal Kwiatkowski had won the opening prologue, the race turned into a Michael Albasini show. The many lumpy stages suited the home rider perfectly and he managed to win three of the four road stages but he was absent from the main action in the queen stage where Simon Spilak and Chris Froome rode away from the rest – just as they had done in 2013. Like 12 months earlier, they would again decide the race in the final time trial and here it was no surprise that the Brit came out on top after a great performance that even allowed him to win the stage, beating Tony Martin into second by less than a second. Rui Costa completed the podium to make the top 3 identical to the one from 2013, and Froome, Spilak and Costa will have the chance to make it three in a row as they all be at the start for the 2015 edition.
Despite Romandy's difficult terrain organizers created relatively easy courses for the 2011 and 2012 editions which were both mostly decided in the time trials. Both races had few opportunities for the sprinters but with no hard mountaintop finishes, the climbers had no real opportunity to make the difference and a rather large field of riders had to battle it out in the individual efforts.
The reason for the easier courses may have been an attempt to persuade more Giro contenders to include the race in their schedule as most of them are reluctant to go too deep less than a week before their most important race. With the changed status, however, they bucked the trend for the 2013 edition when they again designed a harder course. The traditional short sprinter-friendly prologue was now one for the explosive climbers and the hilly time trial was replaced by one for the specialists. The climbers benefited from a much harder queen stage, meaning that the climbers and time trial experts were battling on a much more level playing field. In the end, the queen stage was changed due to bad weather but the intention clearly was to make the race tougher.
Last year the race is had a very similar format as it included three lumpy stages that had no impact on the GC, a short prologue, a big queen stage and a final time trial. However, the mountain stages have rarely been very hard and it is a bit of a paradox that a race in this hilly part of Europe is one of the WorldTour races in which the time trials are most important.
This year the organizers have finally realized that their race is no longer a Giro preparation event and instead they have designed a course that makes it a perfect test for the Tour de France. In fact, the course turns it into a mini grand tour and is the hardest that has been seen for years. This year the Tour de France will have a very important team time trial and to attract the Tour line-ups to the Swiss race, the organizers have skipped the usual prologue in favour of an opening team time trial which will be one of three decisive stages. The second third and fourth stages are the usual lumpy Romandie stages that suit the strong sprinters and classics riders while the GC will be decided in the weekend. On Saturday, the riders will tackle a tough mountain stage that has the hardest mountaintop finish that has been seen for several years before the race ends with its usual time trial. With two timed events and a big mountain stage, the 2015 Tour de Romandie will be won by a complete rider, making it a perfect grand tour test.
The Tour de Romandie is one of the few WorldTour stage races that has usually started with a prologue which has often been a very short and technical affair suited to the really explosive riders. In 2013, they deviated from the pattern by designing a rare mountain prologue and this year they have gone one step further by completely skipping the traditional opener.
The organizers have probably been inspired by the inclusion of a very important team time trial in the Tour de France and most teams are keen to test their skills in the collective discipline on every possible occasion before the big event in July. Hence, they have decided to start their race with a TTT that will determine the first leader of the race.
The 19.2km route brings the riders from Le Sentier to Juraparc and is mainly one for the real specialists. After having travelled in a southwesterly direction, the riders will turn left to get onto the main road that will bring them in a northeasterly direction in flat terrain alongside the shores of the Lac de Joux. There are no topographical or technical challenges and the riders will reach high speeds in this very fast section of the course that is all about power.
However, it will be important to save some energy for the final part of the race. With 3km to go, the riders hit the small climb Col du Mont d’Orzeires whose 2.2km with an average gradient of 2.5% will test the cohesiveness of the teams and will see the weaker riders get distanced. The top comes with 750m to go and from there it is all all downhill at a gradient of 4.3% along a completely straight road.
There may be a small climb in the end but it is not very steep and as the main part of the stage is made up of a long, flat road, this is a stage for the teams that really specialize in this discipline. Even though there will not be any flat stages in this race, it will be important for the teams to select some really powerful riders who can help them set a fast pace in this stage which is all about power. Short team time trial rarely create big time differences and the stage will probably be decided by a few second but in a short stage race like the Tour de Romandie, any time loss can turn out to be crucial. It will be very important for the GC riders to get the race off to a good start before they head into the next three stages which are all about survival.
The Tour de Romandie last had a team time trial in 2009 when the collective test came on the third day. Back then, Team Columbia – HTC beat Caisse d’Epargne and Team Saxo Bank on the 14.8km course in Yverdon-les-Bains to put Frantisek Rabon in the leader’s jersey.
The Tour de Romandie, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Volta a Catalunya are all held in very hilly regions that give very little room for the pure sprinters. Instead, they offer plenty of opportunities for the fast riders who can survive some tough climbing and the in-form Ardennes specialists usually have lots of opportunities in a race that is loaded with climbs.
The second stage may be a bit too hard for that kind of riders but a fast sprint will be an important asset -in the first road stage of the race which is a very tough affair with a significant amount of climbing. It brings the riders over 168.1km from Apples to Saint-Imier and is one full of ups and downs that leave little room for recovery.
The first part of the stage is the easiest as the first 45.4km only contain a small climb at the midpoint. Then the climbing gets serious when the riders hit the bottom of the category 2 Col des Etroits (11.5km, 4.8%, max. 9%) which is followed by a short descent as the riders continue in a northeasterly direction close to the Lac de Neuchatel. A short flat section leads to the next challenge, the category 3 La Haute de la Cote (3.8km, 8.1%, max.10%) whose summit comes exactly at the halfway point. There will be no immediate descent as the riders stay on a plateau for a few kilometres and here they will contest the first intermediate sprint. A small climb leads to a long descent before a short flat section will bring the riders to the finish in Saint-Imier where they will cross the finish line after 117.9km of racing.
The final part of the stage is made up of a 50.2km finishing circuit which is a typical Romandie affair with lots of climbing. Right from the start, the riders will go up the category 2 Col les Pontins (4.0km, 8.6%, max. 11%) before they descend to a gradually downhill valley section. The main challenge of the day is the category 2 Col de Vue des Alpes (8km, 6.7%, max. 9%) whose summit is located just 17.2km from the finish. The first 12.5km are downhill and then the riders get to the final 4.7km which are mainly flat.
This is a very tough stage with no less than 2579m of altitude and the climbing is pretty tough. All four categorized climbs are steep enough to do a lot of damage and could potentially be used to make a difference for the GC riders. With the final summit coming far from the finish, they are likely to keep their powder dry though but we can expect a very aggressive finale with lots of attacks. As the time gaps are still small, the GC teams and the team of the race leader are likely to control the stage firmly but a late attack could pay off in this hard finale. However, Sky are likely to ride their usual fast tempo up the last climb which will make it hard to escape and it will probably be a very small group that sprints for the win in Saint-Imier which has not hosted a stage in recent years.
Most of the fast finishers are likely to have found the first stage too tough and so they will be keen to shine in stage 3 which should be one for the riders who usual excel in Romandie. The combination of a solid pair of climbing legs and a fast sprint is usually a winning one in the Swiss race and may pay off again in the third stage of the race.
The course brings the riders over 172.5km from Moutier to Porrentruy and is made up of a combination of circuits in moderately hilly terrain. First the riders do a lap of a 31.5km circuit on the northern outskirts of the starting city. After a descending first part, it contains a long, gradual uncategorized climb which makes for a tough start to the stage before the riders descend back to the start. From here they travel along slightly descending valley roads to the Col Ranglers (8.4km, 4.5%) which they will climb from its easiest side before they descend to a flat section that leads to the finish in Porrentruy where they will contest the first intermediate sprint after 69.3km of racing.
The riders will now do one lap of the easiest circuit which is mostly flat and only contains the category 3 Cote de Bure (1.8km, 7.4%, max. 10%) at the 80.8km mark. At the end, they will cross the finish line for the first time and from here 66.7km remain. They are made up of two separate circuits that will see the riders tackle a total of three climbs but the riders won’t cross the finish line in between the two loops.
The first circuit is the hardest and contains the category 2 climb Col de la Croix (4.8km, 6.3%, max. 10%) before the riders go up the category 2 Col des Rangiers (5.0km, 7.2%, max. 10%) from its steep sides. From there, they descend back to Porrentruy where they will contest the final intermediate sprint with 36.7km to go before they finish the race by doing another lap of the circuit with the Col de Bure. The top of the climb comes with 25.1km to go and the final part is pretty easy. A short flat section leads to a long, gradual descent to Porrentruy before the riders reach the mainly flat final 4km. The final turn comes just 400m from the line and leads to the finishing straight which is slightly rising with a gradient of 2.25%.
Like every Romandie stage, this one has a lot of climbing and the riders will tackle no less than 1989m of altitude. However, the final circuit only has one climb and the Cote de Bure is not very hard. This means that it should be possible for most of the sprinters in this race to survive the challenges and sprint it out in the technical finale in Porrentruy. However, bigger time gaps are likely to have opened up in stage 2 and history shows that breaks are difficult to catch in this terrain, especially as most teams are not too focused on the sprints. A bunch sprint is the most likely outcome but you can never rule out a strong breakaway.
Porrentruy last hosted the race in 2010 when Marco Pinotti won the short 4.3km prologue to become the first leader of the race. Four years earlier, it was the scene of one of Chris Horner’s first big wins in Europe when he managed to distance Jörge Jaksche and Alexandre Moos by 5 seconds to win stage 2 and take the overall lead while riding for Davitamon-Lotto. The city also played host to a memorable stage in the 2012 Tour de France when a young Thibaut Pinot won a tough stage in his debut Tour de France after he had passed Fredrik Kessiakoff close to the finish.
The weekend will be all about the GC and so every rider who is not a climber or a time triallist has to make the most of the lumpy stage 4 which is another typical Romandie stage. With a total of 1785m of climbing, it is a tough one with little flat terrain but there are no big or very hard climbs which means that the typical Romandie sprinter will be licking his lips in anticipation.
The stage brings the riders over 169.8km from La Neuveville to Fribourg and starts with what is probably the easiest part of the entire race. Close to the Lac de Neuchatel, the organizers have found some of the only flat roads in the Romandy region and the first 60km of the race will have no topographical challenges as the riders travel in a southerly direction towards the finish in Fribourg. Then the terrain gets slightly hillier as the riders go up a small categorized climb before they again reach flay roads that lead them to the shores of Lac Leman close to Lausanne.
The riders now turn around to head in a northerly direction and this signals the start of the harder second part. First they go up an uncategorized climb before they descend to Chatel-St-Denis where they contest the first intermediate sprint at the 92.7km mark. Now it is time to tackle the category 2 climb Les Paccots (3.9km, 6.8%, max. 11%) whose summit comes with 72.8km to go. From here, they descend to a long rolling section that leads to the hilly finale.
The climbing resumes with 37.6km to go when the riders hit the bottom of the category 2 climb Sorens (4.4km, 4.1%, max. 10%) which is followed by a descent and a short flat section that contains the final intermediate sprint with 17.2km to go. Then it is time for the final challenge, the category 3 claimb Treyvaux (3.8km, 3.7%, max. 8%) whose summit is located 12km from the finish. From there, the roads are gradually descending until the riders hit the final 4km which are mainly flat. The riders will go through several roundabouts in the finale, with the final one coming 900m from the finish. From there, the straight road is slightly descending at an average gradient of 1.2%.
This stage is the easiest of the entire race and none of the climbs are very hard. This means that the sprinters will be eager to get their chance on what will be the final day for them. However, there are rarely many fast finishers in this race and the terrain lends itself to attacks so a strong breakaway may have a chance. Nonetheless, the most likely outcome is a bunch sprint in Fribourg.
Fribourg last hosted a stage last year when Michael Albasini took his third win in four days by beating Thomas Voeckler and Jan Bakelants in a sprint from a strong 3-rider breakaway. In 2010, Mark Cavendish beat Danilo Hondo and Robert Hunter in a bunch sprint while Ricardo Serrano beat Lars Bak and Gregory Rast in a 3-rider sprint in 2009. In 2008, the sprinters again had their chance and back then it was Robbie McEwen who beat Daniele Bennati and Matti Breschel in the bunch kick.
The Tour de Romandie usually has one big day of climbing in the Alps and this year the queen stage comes on the penultimate day. As usual, it is a big day with lots of big climbs but for the first time in years, the race ends at the top of a hard climb which will make it the most selective stage in recent editions. With a total of 3408m of climbing, it will be a brutal day and if the usual bad weather mars Romandy, it will be a tough stage that can make a lot of damage and will go a long way in determining the winner of the Tour de Romandie.
At 162.7km, the stage brings the riders from the previous day’s finish Fribourg to the top of the Champex-Lac climb. It consists of a long southerly run as the riders get into the Alpine heartland where they will mainly follow the valley road. However, they will make a few digressions from the direct line to go up a couple of big climbs along the way.
The first 50km of the stage are very easy as the riders travel along mainly flat roads to get into the Alpine terrain. The hostilities start at the 50.1km mark when the riders hit the bottom of the category 1 Les Mosses (13.7km, 4%, max. 9%) which is not a very hard climb and often features on the course. After the top, the riders go down a very long descent that brings the riders the UCI headquarter in Aigle and the valley road in the Alps.
The riders will follow the flat road for a few kilometres before they get to the first intermediate sprint with 70km to go. This signals the start of the finale as the riders make a small deviation from the straight line to go up the category 1 Les Giettes climb (9.4km, 7.6%, max. 11%) before the riders turn around and go back to the valley road. Here they stay in the flat terrain for another 20km and contest the final intermediate sprint with 31.7km to go.
With 29.2km to go, the riders leave the valley and from now on there are no flat roads in the remaining part of the stage. First they go up the category 1 Petite Forclaz (5.1km, 9.8%, max. 13%) which is brutally steep and summits just 24.1km from the finish. Again they turn around to head back to the valley and then they head straight onto the lower slopes of the final category 1 climb to the finish in Champex-Lac (14.2km, 7%, max. 13%).
This is the day for the climbers to make the difference before the final time trial and they will have plenty of terrain to do some damage. For the first time in years, the final climb is hard enough to create significant time gaps and with the very steep Petite Forclaz coming just before the final ascent, the finale will be very tough. This is the stage that all GC riders want to win and so the escapees will have little chance of success. The penultimate climb will probably be used by Sky to make the race hard and it could be a pretty small peloton that hits the bottom of the final climb where the big climbing battle of the Tour de Romandie will unfold.
The final climb has not been used in recent editions of the Tour de Romandie.
In addition to the prologue, the Tour de Romandie has mostly included an individual time trial – with the 2009 edition being the major exception – and over the last few years it has always been held on the final day of the race. That's again the case in the 2015 edition of the race as the riders will end their race by tackling a 17.3km individual test around the city of Lausanne on the shores of Lac Leman.
In the past, the time trials have often been very hilly but in the last few years the organizers have been favouring the specialists. In 2013, the final stage was completely flat and all about power while last year’s stage was an interesting combination of long, flat roads and a pretty tough climb at the midpoint. This year it is again a mostly flat course with a small climb but this year’s ascent is definitely not as tough as the one that featured in last year’s race.
The riders will start in the centre of Lausanne on the shores of Lac Leman and head along flat roads in a westerly direction for the first 4.45km. Here they will do a U-turn to head back along the same flat road before they leave the lake to start the climbing part of the race. The ascending starts after 7.48km when the riders go up a 1.4km climb with a gradient of 4.5%. Then there’s a small descent before the riders again start to climb for another 750m at a gradient of 10.8%. The top comes with 6.6km to go and after a small descent, the riders get to the final 450m climb which has an average gradient of 6.2%. After a mostly flat 800m section, the real descending starts and it brings the riders back to the shores of the lake with 2.2km to go. Here they turn right to head along a slightly descending road to the finish. The flat part of the course is non-technical but there are several turns in the climbing part. However, the descent is not very difficult.
The stage has a total of 230m of climbing and the biggest part of the course is flat and non-technical which suits the specialists. However, the middle part is pretty irregular with many turns, short flat sections and three smaller climbs of which one is pretty steep. This will make it hard to find a rhythm and should suit the more explosive riders. For a rider like Tony Martin, however, the course is very good as he both has the power on the flats and can go fast up this kind of climbs. Like last year he is likely to go head-to-head in a battle with Chris Froome who will both be targeting the stage win and a third straight overall victory on the shores of Lac Leman.
Lausanne last hosted a stage in 2012 when Geraint Thomas won the opening prologue over a short 3.3km distance. In 2009, Frantisek Rabon also won a prologue in the big city while Markus Zberg won the bunch sprint in the final stage in 2008. From 2002 to 2007, the stage hosted the time trial on the final day, with Alex Zülle winning the first edition before Tyler Hamilton won twice in a row. Santiago Botero was fastest in 2005 before Cadel Evans and Thomas Dekker secured overall wins by winning the final time trial on the shores of Lac Leman.
Over the last few years, the time trial has been the most decisive stage of the Tour de Romandie and even though the organizers have slightly bucked the trend by designing a bit harder courses in recent years, the final day has often been the most important. In 2013 and 2014, Chris Froome and Simon Spilak have been able to slightly buck the trend by being a lot stronger than the rest in the mountains but no one can deny that the time trial has had a crucial impact on the mountainous race for several years.
This year the organizers have gone one step further by designing a much harder queen stage and for once the climbers and the time triallists seem to be on a more level playing field. Furthermore, the opening prologue has been replaced a team time trial and this provides climbers who are backed by a strong team, to start the race with an advantage instead of finding themselves on the back foot right from the start of the race.
Despite the toughness of the queen stage, the time trial will still have a huge impact on the race. The distance may only be 17.3km and it may include a bit of climbing but there are plenty of flat roads for the time triallists to make a difference. On the other hand, the final climb in the queen stage is a lot harder than usual and even though it levels out a bit near the top, it has some steep sections where a lot of damage can be made.
Stages 2, 3 and 4 seem to be for fast finishers or escapees and are unlikely to play any role in the battle for the overall victory which will be decided by the team time trial, the queen stage and the time trial. With those three disciplines all playing a role, the 2014 Tour de Romandie shapes up to be some kind of a mini grand tour and it rewards the truly versatile riders. This year it won’t be enough to be a good time triallists but to win the race one also has to be one of the very best climbers. The team time trial will also have an impact in a race that is likely to be decided by pretty small margins but usually the differences between the best teams are not very big in such a short TTT.
When it comes to versatility, one rider is a step above the rest. Whenever he lines up in a stage race, Chris Froome is usually the man to beat and it won’t be any different in the 2015 Tour de Romandie. With the importance of the time trial, his status as favourite has been even bigger in the Swiss race than in most other events and he has fully lived up to expectations by taking dominant wins in both 2013 and 2014.
This year he finds himself in the strongest field yet and he will probably have a harder fight on hand if he wants to make it three in a row. With a harder mountain stage, he can’t rely on his TT skills as much as he has been able to do in 2013 and 2014 and it seems that more riders will have a chance to challenge him in the 2015 edition of the race.
In general, there is a tendency for certain observers to claim that a mountainous route doesn’t suit Froome which has led to suggestions that the 2015 edition of the Tour de France doesn’t suit the Brit. However, that is a huge mistake. Froome has repeatedly proved that he is the best climber in the world and he would be the favourite to win most stage races even if it did not include a time trial. Alberto Contador has done nothing to hide that he fears Froome more than anybody else in the mountains and he has refused any suggestion that Froome should not be regarded as a climber.
In 2013, Froome was hugely consistent but a combination of crashes and illness means that he hasn’t shown the same kind of consistency in 2014 and 2015. In the 2014 Criterium du Dauphiné and the 2015 Vuelta a Andalucia, however, he has clearly proved that he is the strongest climber when he is at 100%. When it comes to time trialling, no other GC rider is even close to matching the impressive Brit and this makes him perfectly suited to this year’s course in Romandie. He may not have the strongest possible Sky line-up for the team time trial but the squad still has so much firepower that Froome should head into the mountains with a solid start after the opening test.
The only question mark is Froome’s condition. He had a perfect off-season and was in great condition when he Alberto Contador in the Ruta del Sol. Things seemed to be on track before he fell ill before Tirreno-Adriatico but that health issue turned out to be a bigger setback than expected. In the Volta a Catalunya, he delivered his poorest showing in a WorldTour stage race since he emerged as a GC contender and the result may have been a cause for concern in the Sky camp.
Since then he has been training in Tenerife and he is usually very strong when he gets back to the European mainland for the Tour de Romandie. He looked sharp in Fleche Wallonne until he was again involved in an unfortunate crash. Luckily he didn’t suffer any major injuries but the accident was of course a setback that may have an impact on his condition in Romandie. Furthermore, it was a shame to see him drop out of contention for the Fleche Wallonne as it would have been interesting to gauge his form in a battle with the best on the Mur de Huy.
However, Froome has done nothing to hide that the Tour de Romandie is one of his big goals and he appears to be extremely motivated to prove that he is again back on track for the Tour de France. Unless the crash turns out to have had a bigger impact than expected, there is no reason to expect that he is not at his usual high level in Romandie. If that is the case, no one is going to beat him on this kind of course and this makes him the favourite to win the race.
His biggest rival seems to be Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian was once known as the one of the most consistent riders in the world and he was widely appreciated for his ability to be a contender from February to October. Since he won the 2013 Giro d’Italia, however, his approach has changed and he now seems to be more focused on his select goals.
As a consequence, he had an unusually poor start to the 2014 season and he only really hit his best condition for the Tour de France. This year he has again been far off the pace but things seem to have changed after he returned from a solid training camp on Mount Teide in Tenerife. Unlike last year, he seems to have built a great condition for the classics and he will take that good form to Romandie which will be his final race in the first part of the season.
At the time of writing, Nibali still hasn’t done Liege-Bastogne-Liege and so it is hard to gauge exactly how strong he is at the moment. However, he seemed to be at a high level when he attacked in the Amstel Gold Race and he was riding well in Fleche Wallonne too. However, the real test of his condition comes in Liege which is his really big goal in the sprint. In the first two classics, he had a domestique role and mainly used those races to prepare for the biggest of the Ardennes classics.
The Tour de Romandie is more of an extra event for Nibali but there is no doubt that he would like to boost his confidence in a direct battle against Froome and Quintana. Last year he tried to attack Froome in this race but he was easily distanced by the Brit. This year he wants things to be different.
Nibali is no time triallist but he has improved a lot in the individual discipline. He delivered solid performances in the 2013 Giro, 2013 Vuelta and 2014 Tour and in this year’s Tirreno he was riding really strongly in the two TTs despite being off the pace in the mountains. Together with Specialized he has done a lot of dedicated to improve and the efforts have clearly paid off.
Nonetheless, he will lose time to Froome in the finale time trial and he needs to take that time back in the mountains. However, even Sky admit that their analysis shows that Nibali would have been hard to beat in the mountains at the 2014 Tour de France and this suggests how much he has improved his climbing skills. The queen stage suits him well and if the usual bad weather hits Romandie, he will have another advantage as he is famously known for his ability to handle cold and rainy conditions. Finally, Astana have a really strong team for the TTT and even though they are usually beaten by Sky in this discipline, things could be different this time around. It will be hard for Nibali to beat Froome but if anyone has a chance to do so, the Italian seems to be the man.
The third big contender in this race is of course Nairo Quintana but the Colombian may have a hard time in this race. First of all the course doesn’t suit him too much and secondly he doesn’t seem to be riding at his best level at the moment.
Quintana was in fantastic condition when he returned to European racing at the Tirreno-Adriatico. The tiny Colombian easily rode away from all his rivals, including Alberto Contador, and seemed to be back to his best after his bad crash at the 2014 Vuelta. However, things had completely turned around for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which was his biggest goal in the spring season. Despite expressing lots of confidence and having meticulously prepared for the event, he came up short against the likes of Sergio Henao and Joaquim Rodriguez. Admittedly, the course didn’t suit him too much but the Colombian was clearly not at his usual level in the mountains.
He has returned to competition in the Ardennes where he played a support role for Alejandro Valverde in Fleche Wallonne. In that race, he was unable to follow the best on the penultimate climb of the Cote de Cherave. One should not put too much emphasis on that result as he was not targeting any kind of success in that race but with Valverde being the major favourite, he had an obligation to support his leader in the finale. Hence, it is another indication that he is not riding at his best level. He will face an even bigger test in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and when the riders have crossed the line in Ans on Sunday, we will know a lot more about Quintana’s condition.
No one can deny that Quintana is a great climber and the queen stage in Romandie should suit him well. He may have had the upper hand compared to Froome on the final two mountain stages of the 2013 Tour de France but in every other race, he has never been able to match the Brit when he is fully fit. Furthermore, Quintana will lose time in the final time trial and even though Movistar are usually very strong in the team time trials, they don’t have their best team for that kind of test in this race. Hence, Quintana probably has to gain a lot of time in the queen stage and to do so, he needs to be at the level he had in Tirreno. Nothing suggests that this will be the case and so it will be hard for Quintana to take a maiden win in Romandie.
One rider has been more consistent than anybody else in the Tour de Romandie. Simon Spilak has always been one of the strongest riders in the spring and he rarely misses the top 10 in Paris-Nice, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour de Romandie. It is no surprise to see him shine in those three races that are often hampered by bad weather. The Slovenian is famously known for his ability to shine in cold and rain and this makes the Tour de Romandie a perfect fit for him.
Spilak won the race in 2010 after original winner Alejandro Valverde was disqualified due to his involvement in Operacion Puerto, and in 2013 and 2014 he was second behind Froome. In fact, those two editions have been very similar, with the pair riding away on the queen stage before deciding the race in the time trial. On both occasions, Spilak has won the mountain stage and on both occasions Froome has taken the overall win.
Spilak is not a pure climber or a pure time triallist and he would probably have preferred a less hard queen stage. However, he was climbing excellently in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on some very steep slopes and we may have won the race overall if he hadn’t suffered a mechanical in the time trial. He defends himself well in TTs but this year’s course is definitely a bit too flat to suit him perfectly as he generally prefers harder courses. However, Spilak is clearly in excellent condition and if the weather turns sour, he will be ready to shine again on the Swiss roads.
As said, the Tour de Romandie has changed its status from a Giro preparation race to an event for Tour de France contenders and so it is no surprise that only one of the five biggest favourites for the Italian grand tour will be at the start line in Switzerland. Last year Rigoberto Uran returned to Europe to finalize his preparations for the Giro in Romandie and with his second place in Italy the strategy worked. Hence, the Colombian has decided to repeat the approach and he will be back in action on the Swiss roads after a block of training in his home country.
Last year Uran was set back by a virus in the early part of the year and only the Tour of Oman was a success for him in his early campaign. This year things have been completely different as he was very strong in both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya and he is clearly riding at a much higher level.
On paper, the Tour de Romandie is tailor-made for Uran. He is part of one of the strongest teams for the team time trials and he has improved massively in the time trials, making him one of the best GC riders in this discipline. Furthermore, the fact that there will only be on mountain stage should suit him well as he is usually pretty inconsistent in the mountains.
However, Uran is never very good in his preparation races. Last year he could only manage 14th despite doing a great time trial and there is a pretty big chance that he will again be off the pace in the mountains. Nonetheless, the course suits him very well and if he can buck the trend, he should be able to do well in this race.
Rui Costa has finished third in this race three years in a row and with his three straight wins in the Tour de Suisse, he has an excellent history on Swiss roads. Last year his performance was a bit of a surprise as he had been off the pace in Pais Vasco and the Ardennes where he had even crashed out of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. This year the situation is completely different as he is riding at a much higher level. He was strong in Pais Vasco and in the first two classics, he has been close to his best. He was clearly one of the strongest in Amstel and it was no major surprise to see him drift backwards on the Mur de Huy which doesn’t suit him.
However, the course for the 2015 Tour de Romandie doesn’t really suit the talented Portuguese. Lampre-Merida have never been one of the best teams for team time trials and the harder queen stage is not an advantage for Costa compared to the pure climbers. Furthermore, Costa is not a time trial specialist and he usually needs a harder course to do really well. On this flat course, he may lose a bit too much time compared to the likes of Froome and Uran. It will be hard for him to win the race but an in-form Costa should do well in this race.
For IAM, this is one of the biggest races of the year as they are riding on home soil and so it is no surprise that it is a massive goal for their GC leader Mathias Frank. The Swiss finished fourth last year in his first season as a team leader and his performances throughout 2014 proved that he deserves his spot at the helm of a WorldTour team. Later in the year he was on the podium in the Tour de Suisse where he proved that he can be up there with the best in the mountains. Furthermore, he has improved a lot in the TTs and he should be able to do well on the final day.
Frank has carefully built his condition for this race and has had a slower start than usual to be fresher for his later goals. In Fleche Wallonne, he seemed to be in reasonable condition and he is much stronger on the longer climbs in Romandie. He is backed by a strong team that includes lots of firepower for the team time trial where he should be able to limit his losses. If he has the legs he had last year in Switzerland, he will be a podium contender.
For Thibaut Pinot, the Tour de Romandie is one of the biggest goals of the year. The Frenchman has always liked the Swiss race which is often held in the bad weather that he prefers. Last year he was riding strongly on the Romandie roads until he was set back by bad luck in the queen stage and this year he aims to do even better before he turns his attention to the Tour de France. He even decided to skip Fleche Wallonne to be fully ready for this race.
In the past, Pinot would have had no chance in a race where the time trial plays a major role but the talented Frenchman has improved a lot. Nowadays, he is one of the best time triallists among the GC riders as he proved in Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished fourth overall after having done splendidly in the two individual tests. Later he was fourth in the Criterium International time trial and he has no reason to be afraid of the final stage.
However, the opening day will be a problem for Pinot. FDJ are definitely no specialists in team time trials and they will lose quite a bit of time compared to the best teams. Pinot needs to take that back later in the race and that will be difficult. On the other hand, Pinot is a splendid climber and if he has found his best legs, he will be a danger man in the queen stage. Unfortunately, he has not been very strong since he impressed in Tirreno. He failed to win the Criterium International and he was not at his best in Pais Vasco either. It remains to be seen if he has returned to his best but if he has, he will be one of the contenders.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck has not had a lot of success in recent years and he has lost his leadership role in the Lotto Soudal team. He has been denied a chance to again ride the Tour de France and he had to work hard to convince his team to make him a leader for the Giro d’Italia.
However, Van Den Broeck is still an excellent bike rider. In last year’s Dauphiné, he proved that he is still a very good climber when he is not suffering from any health issues. Unfortunately, he was again set back by illness in the Tour de France and so never got the chance to show his form on the biggest scene.
This year Van Den Broeck has not been at his best. He was close to the top 10 in Tirreno-Adriatico and we never got the chance to see what he could do in Catalonia where he sacrificed himself for Bart De Clercq who suddenly had the chance to win the race. Since then he has been preparing for the Giro and this race will be important to gain confidence for the grand tour.
Unlike many others, Van Den Broeck is usually very strong in his preparation races and he has an impressive track record in the Dauphiné. If he is really back to his best, he should be very strong in this race. Unfortunately, the course doesn’t really suit him. He has improved a lot in the time trials but he will probably lose quite a bit of time to the best GC riders. Furthermore, Lotto Soudal don’t have the best team for the team time trial and Van Den Broeck needs to be at his very best in the mountains to be in the mix for the overall win.
Nibali is the Astana leader but the team is one of the strongest in this race and has several cards to play. One of them is Jakob Fuglsang who has been riding very strongly all year. He was among the best in Paris-Nice and he has been riding very strongly in the first two Ardennes classics which actually don’t really suit him. In fact, he seems to be riding stronger than ever before and it would be a surprise if he is not one of the best in the queen stage.
Earlier in his career, Fuglsang was a great time triallist but that is no longer the case. While he has improved his climbing massively, he has lost the edge in the TTs. That has been evident on several occasions, most recently in Paris-Nice where he was far off the pace on the Col d’Eze and in the prologue. Last year he was one of the podium contenders in this race but lost it all in the final time trial. With a very strong Astana team, he should be able to gain time on the first day but with the final stage playing a massive role, it will be hard to finish on the podium for the in-form Dane.
Spilak is clearly the Katusha leader but the team has a very exciting talent on their roster too. Ilnur Zakarin showed great potential in 2014 and the combination of good climbing legs and great time trialling skills earned him a contract with Katusha. However, very few would have expected him to ride with the best in his first ever WorldTour race with the team but that’s what he did in Pais Vasco. He looked like one of the strongest riders on the climbs and only a below-par showing in the time trial prevented him from finishing in the top 10.
Usually, Zakarin is a great time triallist and in fact he is a former Russian champion in the discipline. On paper, the course in Romandie should suit him well and he will be eager to make up for the disappointment from Pais Vasco. In the Basque Country, he proved that he can already match the best on the climbs and with his versatile skills, another good performance may be in store in Switzerland.
Romain Bardet is clearly in very good condition at the moment. The Frenchman was disappointed after the first part of the season as he failed to reach his best level in Paris-Nice and crashed in Catalunya. Since then he has prepared for his big goal in Liege and used the Giro del Trentino to get back into the racing rhythm. After a slightly disappointing performance in stage 2, he was very strong in the final mountain stage where he launched repeated attacks, spent a long time in the break and still had enough left to finish fourth in the same time as race leader Richie Porte.
Bardet will try to use his good condition in Romandie but he has made it clear that his main goal is a stage win. With the importance of the two time trials, he will probably lose too much time to be a real podium contender. On the other hand, he is climbing so well at the moment that he could deliver a very impressive performance in the queen stage.
Przemyslaw Niemiec prepares himself to lead Lampre-Merida in the Giro d’Italia but this year he follows a different schedule than he usually does. The Italian team skipped the Giro del Trentino and so the Tour de Romandie will be his important preparation race. However, Niemiec has usually been very strong in Trentino and as he should be close to 100%, there is no reason to suggest that it will be any different in Romandie.
Niemiec has had a quiet start to the season but he was at a reasonable level in Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico. In the latter race, he lost too much time in the time trials but he was one of the strongest in the mountains. He fell ill in Catalunya but he has proved that he is still a very good climber despite reaching the twilight of his career. The Pole will appreciate the harder course but the overall design of the race still doesn’t suit him. Even though he is likely to be strong in the queen stage, he will lose too much time in the team and individual time trials to be a real podium contender.
Michele Scarponi is the third Astana card. The veteran Italian is riding very strongly at the moment as he proved in Pais Vasco where he was one of the strongest on the climbs. He still looked solid in Fleche Wallonne and he should be able to do well in this race.
However, Scarponi has never been a great time triallist and even though Astana have a strong team for the opening day, the overall outcome of the TTs will be a time loss. Scarponi needs to take that back in the mountains and even though he is still a very strong climber, he is not the rider he once was. He will probably settle into a domestique role but that could include an attacking showing in the queen stage. If he has the legs he had in Pais Vasco, he will be hard to catch and then he may create a surprise.
Simon Yates was given the chance to lead Orica-GreenEDGE in the Tour of Turkey but the talented Brit preferred to focus on the Ardennes classics and the Tour de Romandie to get more experience at the WorldTour level. He showed amazing condition in the Basque Country where he was clearly one of the strongest riders on the climbs and with a fifth place finish, he proved that he can be up there at the WorldTour level.
Unfortunately, the Tour de Romandie suits him a lot less as he is usually a poor time triallist. He did well in the Basque time trial but on this flatter course he will lose a lot of time. Furthermore, the short, steep climbs in Pais Vasco suited him a lot better and he will probably have to focus on a top 10 result in the Swiss race.
Finally, Jean-Christophe Peraud deserves a mention. On paper, this race suits the Frenchman perfectly as it includes a time trial with a bit of climbing and a big mountain stage. Last year he was one of the most consistent riders on the WorldTour calendar but unfortunately he has been off the pace in 2015. Due to injury, he had a slower start to the year but looked back on track when he won the Criterium International. Hence, he was hugely disappointed when he found himself far from his best in Pais Vasco and things were definitely not better in Trentino.
For Peraud to be a contender in this race, he has to turn things around dramatically but you can never rule the strong Frenchman out. He has proved that he doesn’t need to fear anyone in the mountains and with his strong time trial, he is an obvious podium contender in this race. We would be surprised if he can turn things around so quickly but with a talented bike rider like Peraud you never know.
NOTE: This preview has been written before Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Based on the outcome of that race, Nibali doesn't deserve a 4-rider status. Instead, we would have given Spilak a four-star rating and moved Fuglsang to the 3-star category.
***** Chris Froome
**** Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana
*** Simon Spilak, Rigoberto Uran, Rui Costa, Mathias Frank, Thibaut Pinot, Jurgen Van Den Broeck
** Jakob Fuglsang, Ilnur Zakarin, Romain Bardet, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Pierre Rolland, Michele Scarponi, Simon Yates, Rafael Valls, Rohan Dennis, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Dan Martin, Alexandre Geniez, Robert Kiserlovski
* Rafal Majka, Steve Morabito, Damiano Caruso, Tom Danielson, Tony Martin, Yuri Trofimov, Sergei Chernetskii, Darwin Atapuma, Carlos Betancur, Alexis Vuillermoz, Janier Acevedo, Ryder Hesjedal, Riccardo Zoidl, Geraint Thomas, Rein Taaramae, Ivan Santaromita, Maxime Monfort, Jarlinson Pantano, Marcel Wyss, Romain Sicard, Bart De Clercq
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