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Will Tejay van Garderen finally win a big WorldTour stage race in the unusually hard 2016 edition of the Tour de Suisse?

Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport

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10.06.2016 @ 18:02 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While the two biggest Tour favourites and several of their biggest rivals finish off their final preparation race at the Dauphiné, most of the remaining GC riders for this year's edition of La Grande Boucle are ready to take on their last challenge prior to the big objective. Formerly known as the world's most prestigious week-long stage race, the Tour de Suisse has lost some of its appeal to the world's biggest stars but the 9-day race remains an outstanding event that every rider would love to add to his palmares. Once again the Swiss race has lost out to the Dauphiné in the battle for the most star-studded line-up but an unusually hard course with three brutal summit finishes and a hilly time trial will guarantee a week of perfect Tour preparation and a fascinating battle for the win in the longest WorldTour stage race outside the grand tour category.

 

Switzerland plays a very special role in the anatomy of the international cycling calender. While the Alpine country is way too small to host a grand tour, it has built up a reputation as a formidable place to prepare for a three-week race. Traditionally, the country's two biggest stage races, the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse, have been preparation races for the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France respectively as they are both held close to the start of the grand tours and offer the perfect mountainous terrain for the riders to test their legs.

 

However, that position has come under threat in recent years and the Swiss stage races are no longer seen as the best events to warm up for the Giro and the Tour. While the Tour de Romandie has lost the battle against the Giro del Trentino and has changed its role to become the final prestigious stage race in the early season for the Tour riders, the national tour has been involved in a tight fight with the Criterium du Dauphiné for the role as the best preparation for the Tour.

 

The French race appears to have come out triumphant and most of the biggest Tour stars have preferred to head to the French Alps during the month of June. However, that does not change the fact that the Tour contenders are usually split between the two races and even though the biggest names will again be riding in France, many of the outsiders for a podium at the Tour will gauge their form on the Swiss roads during the next 9 days.

 

However, the data makes it evident that the Dauphiné is now the preferred event by most of the biggest stars. The last Tour winner to prepare the world's biggest race in Switzerland was Lance Armstrong who deviated from his usual schedule in 2001 by racing (and winning) the Swiss event. The American only returned to the Swiss event after his comeback in 2010, and since 2001 the Tour winner has always raced the Dauphiné to prepare for July's race. In 2012 Thibaut Pinot finished 10th in the Tour and was the best rider who had prepared his race in Switzerland while Roman Kreuziger in 5th was the highest placed rider to have raced in Switzerland in 2013. In 2014, the upwards trend continued as Pinot went from a disappointing 15th place in Switzerland to standing on the podium in Paris while Robert Gesink went from a 9th place in Switzerland to 6th at the Tour de France in 2015.

 

However, it is a question of individual preference, and while a few riders always prepare at the same event, most vary their choice from year to year. Alberto Contador and Team Sky always head to France with their main names while riders like the Schleck brothers always preferred the Tour de Suisse. The race has even attracted some of the best French riders like Pinot who traditionally wants to escape the media pressure in his home country. This year the FDJ captain will return to France for the first time since 2011 but instead the Swiss race will field Warren Barguil as a big French GC contender.

 

Of course the main problem for the Swiss event is its geographical location. It has few chances to test out parts of the Tour route - something the Dauphiné has exploited heavily since ASO took over the event in 2010. On the other hand, the race is held one week closer to the Tour start than the Dauphiné and the riders have different preferences as to the timing of their final big preparation race. This year the Dauphiné organizers have done little to base their course on the Tour route but nonetheless most have still preferred to head to France.

 

However, the organizers have also contributed to their fate themselves. The 2009 and 2010 courses were way too easy, offering very few mountain stages for the riders to test their legs, and some criticized the 2009 edition for being designed with the sole purpose of facilitating an overall win by the national star Fabian Cancellara. In recent years, the organizers have again included more mountain stages, and the 2013 route was harder than it has been for years. In 2014 and 2015, the courses were again easier but this year the organizers have completely turned things around as they have designed a route that is much harder than it has been for years.

 

The race still enjoys a very special position on the cycling calendar as it is the longest race on the WorldTour outside the grand tour category. It is one day longer than the Dauphiné and was formerly known as the fourth most prestigious stage race in the world. While that position has now been lost, its role as a national tour adds to its position, and it is still race that all riders would love to add to their palmares.

 

One of the reasons for this prestige is the combination of its history and its difficulty. First held in 1933, it is older than the Dauphiné and as it is held in one of the most mountainous part of Europe, it is no wonder that it is one of the hardest races on the calendar. Even though its list of winners is impressive, the honours roll may lack the impressive depth of its French counterpart. Pasquale Fornara tops the list with 4 victories while two of the local heroes Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet share the honour with Rui Costa in having won the race thrice.

 

In addition to its role as a preparation race, the race has a formidable ability to attract riders from the Giro. It may be due to the extra week of recovery but while the Dauphiné has only seen a few high-profile - and very successful - Giro-Dauphiné doubles, the Tour de Suisse usually has a number of Giro contenders on their start list. This year is no exception as Michele Scarponi, Kanstantsin Siutsou, Darwin Atapuma, Riccardo Zoidl, Hubert Dupont, Joe Dombrowski and David Lopez all finished the Giro strongly and will try to make use of that form in Switzerland.

 

The race still has the upper hand over the Dauphiné in one aspect. While the Dauphiné is held in a region with very few flat roads and so finds it very difficult to attract the sprinters, the Tour de Suisse is obliged to visit all parts of Switzerland which are not all mountainous. That means that the race usually has plenty of opportunities for some of the fast men. The hilly nature of the country and the organizers' preference for difficult finishing circuits mean that the pure sprinters have few chances in the race but the tougher bunch kick experts and classics specialists always find plenty of stages to their likings. It is no wonder that Peter Sagan won two stages in 2011, four in 2012, another two in 2013, a single one in 2014 and two in 2015, and this year's course again offers three solid opportunities for the versatile Slovakian. This year the sprinters are spread a bit more equally between France and Switzerland – probably because of the very mountainous course in the latter race – but Sagan will still have to contend with the likes of Fernando Gaviria, Michael Matthews, Danny Van Poppel, Tom Van Asbroeck, Davide Cimolai, Andrea Guardini, Raymond Kreder and Juan Jose Lobato.

 

Last year Rui Costa’s streak of overall victories was broken as the Portuguese decided to do the Dauphiné. That opened the door for a very interesting battle between Thibaut Pinot, Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas and Simon Spilak. Dumoulin won the prologue but suffered on the brutally steep Rettenbachferner where Pinot won the queen stage and rode himself into yellow. However, the Frenchman couldn’t match the three TT specialists in the time trial and dropped to fourth. Dumoulin lived up to expectations by winning the TT but as he could only gain 18 seconds on Spilak, it was the Slovenian who confirmed his status as one of the best riders for one-week stage races by taking the overall win. Thomas was just five seconds behind in second while Dumoulin had to settle for third. This year Spilak and Thomas are ready for another battle but there will be nu Dumoulin who is preparing for the Tour and the Rio Olympics by training at altitude, or Pinot who has changed his usual schedule and will be doing the Dauphiné.

 

The course

As claimed above, the organizers have tried to make the courses a bit tougher after a few years where a lack of difficulty made the races less spectacular. The highlight was the 2013 which included a mountain time trial and three tough mountain stages which made it the most selective edition in recent years. In 2014 and 2015, the courses were again slightly easier but in 2016 the race will be harder than it has been for years.

 

Usually, the race has had two summit finishes and a mountain stage with a downhill finish. The time triallists have had their say in a prologue which has often been hilly and technical, and a long, relatively hilly time trial. As the climbs in Switzerland are rarely very steep, the mountain stages haven’t been very selective and so the TT has often been the single most decisive stage. The rest of the race has been made up of classic Tour de Suisse stages: lumpy stages that end with a finishing circuit which has a category 2 and category 3 climb. These stages have often been decided in reduced bunch sprints and made the race a treat for strong sprinters and classics riders like Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff.

 

In 2016, the organizers have completely changed the level of difficulty and significantly tipped the balance in favour of the climbers. First of all, they will have no less than three consecutive summit finishes which makes the course far more mountainous than it has been in recent years. To make things even better for the climbers, the final climbs are even harder than usual and all three stages can do a lot of damage. Most notably, the race will return to the famous Rettenbachferner for the second year in a row and as the glacier is known as one of the hardest climbs in Europe, it will make the race brutal.

 

Furthermore, the organizers have shortened the time trial. The individual test has usually had a length of 30-40km but this year there will only be 16.8km of time trialling on stage 8. Furthermore, the TT will no longer come of the final day and as there’s another brutal mountain stage at the end of the race, the climbers will have the upper hand and a chance to turn things around all the way to the finish.

 

In general, the course can be split in two. After the traditional prologue, the first three stages are the typical stages for strong sprinters and classics riders. They have to make the most of their opportunities though as the final five days are all about the GC. After three summit finishes, a relatively short time trial and a short, intense mountain stage with a downhill finish, the final winner will emerge and with this kind of tough course, there is a bigger chance than usual that it will be a climber who will be standing on the top step of the podium in Davos on June 19.

 

 

Stage 1

Since 2000, only four editions of the race haven't started with a short time trial. The last time the race kicked off with a road stage was back in 2008 when Oscar Freire won a sprint from a reduced peloton to take the first leader's jersey. This year the opening stage is again a time trial but like last year the organizers have deviated from their usual pattern of including a pretty difficult climb and a very technical descent. In recent years the race has often started with the same stage in Lugano which mostly consisted of a climb and a descent but in 2013 they had their first traditional prologue for years. In 2014 the opener was again a challenging affair with a tough climb but in recent years the organizers have preferred to give the specialist the upper hand on the opening day.

 

At 6.4km, the stage is a bit longer than last year’s prologue and is held in the city of Baar that will host the two first stages of the race. After an early turn, the riders will follow a straight road for most of the first half that is mainly descending and has a small climb (500, 3%) around the 2km mark. In the second half, there are more turns and the course becomes more technical. Furthermore, the road is very slightly uphill as the final 2.5km average around 0.6%. The final turn comes 600m from the line. In total, there are three turns in the first half and seven turns in the second half.

 

With a flat course, this is a stage for the specialists who will relish the chance to go for a stint in yellow. The first half will allow the powerful riders to make a difference but the many turns in the second half mean that technical skills are also very important. Due to the short distance, the sprinters will also have a chance, especially in the second part where they can profit from their acceleration and bike-handling skills. However, it will be hard for them to take the yellow jersey and stage win as they will be up against best prologue rider in the world. Fabian Cancellara would love to kick off his final participation in his home race taking a very popular win while the GC riders hope to limit their losses. On such a short course, they won’t be too big and at the end of 9 weeks of hard racing, the seconds gained or lost in this stage are unlikely to be important.

 

Baar last hosted a stage in 2001 when Gianluca Bortolami beat Petr Wrolich in a 2-rider sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 2

The Tour de Suisse has always been a treat for strong sprinters and classics riders. The race usually includes two time trials and a few mountain stages while the rest of the race is made up of lumpy stages. There aren’t any flat places in Switzerland and so the organizers have always liked to end their stages on tricky finishing circuits with small climbs. Hence, it is no mystery that Peter Sagan has the record for most stage wins and that the race has traditionally been the preferred Tour de France preparation for riders like Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb. This year the strong sprinters and classics riders will have tons of opportunities in the first half of the race, starting with the opening road stage.

 

In the last two years, the starting city has had the honour of hosting both the prologue and a circuit race on the second day. This year the city of Baar will welcome the riders for the opening weekend. After the relatively flat prologue, they will offer the riders a challenging circuit for the 187.6km second stage. It is made up of four laps of a 47.6km circuit, with the first few kilometres of the first lap being neutralized.

 

The main challenge of the circuit is the category 2 climb of Dorfstrasse which starts juts 1.2km after the passage of the line. It averages 4.2% over 5.4km but the road continues to climb for another 5.5km. From there, the terrain is mainly descending but there is a small uphill section of 2.5km at an average gradient of 3.2% whose top comes with 16.6km to go. The descent ends with around six kilometres to go and from there, the terrain is rolling. The final 1.5km are slightly uphill at 0.5-1%. There are turns with 2km and 600m to go respectively.

 

The climb is pretty long but not very steep. If the pace is fast, some of the fast guys will be left behind but as the climb comes far from the finish and the second half of the circuit is very easy, we don’t expect the stage to be very selective. Most of the sprinters should be able to survive and as the time gaps are small, there won’t be room for a breakaway either. Hence, we can expect a bunch sprint to kick off the real racing at the 2016 Tour de Suisse.

 

 Baar last hosted a stage in 2001 when Gianluca Bortolami beat Petr Wrolich in a 2-rider sprint.

 

 

 

Stage 3

The 2016 Tour de Suisse can clearly be split into two halves. While the final part will be all about the GC, the first half is a treat for the stroing sprinters and classics riders. They are likely to have had their first chance in the first road stage and Monday’s third stage is another typical Tour de Suisse stage that is tailor-made for that kind of riders. As it is usually the case in the Swiss race, a lumpy day ends with a few laps of a challenging circuit that includes a few climbs which will be launch pads for attacks and challenge the pure sprinters while the stronger guys will be ready to battle it out in a reduced bunch kick.

 

The 192.6km stage will bring the riders from Grosswangen to Rheinfelden and as usual in Switzerland, a total amount of climbing of 1918m means that it is far from being a flat affair. First the riders will do one lap of a lumpy 51.4km circuit on the eastern outskirts of the starting city before they will start their northerly journey towards Rheinfelden. The first part is flat but as the riders get closer to the finish, the terrain becomes hillier. The first challenge is the category 2 climb of Hauenstein(7km, 4.3%) and then the riders will tackle the category 3 Sissacherflue (3km, 8.1%) before flat roads will lead to the first passage of the finish line.

 

The final part of the race is made up of two laps of the 27km finishing circuit. It’s mainly flat but has two short, sharp category 3 climbs. The first challenge is the Sonnenberg (2.2km, 6.5%) whose summit comes with 17.5km to go, and then it’s time for the Schöneberg (1.3km , 11.5%) whose top is located six kilometres later. After the descent, flat roads along the Rhine river will lead to the finish which comes at the end of a very long, straight road. The 400m are slightly uphill.

 

The stage is another classic Tour de Suisse stage that is likely to be decided in a reduced bunch sprint. The final two climbs are tough, especially the very steep second challenge, and they will be too hard for many sprinters. Orica-GreenEDGE and Tinkoff will be gunning for the win with Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan who both have their eyes on the yellow jersey too so they will try to make the race hard on the climbs. Late attacks can be launched but with a long, straight road in the finale, it should all come back together for a reduced bunch sprint.

 

Rheinfelden last hosted a stage in 2004 when Robbie McEwen won a bunch sprint. Fred Rodirguez was the fastest four years earlier.

 

 

 

Stage 4

The first half of the Tour de Suisse is a festival for sprinters and classics riders and they will get one final chance to go for glory before the GC battle will take centre stage for the final five days of the race. The Swiss national tour usually has one flat stage where most of the sprinters can realistically go for glory and this year that stage comes on the fourth day. Stage 4 is as easy as a Tour de Suisse stage can possibly be and should all come down to a big bunch sprint.

 

The 193km course will bring the riders from Rheinfelden to Champagne and has 1912m of climbing. However, most of it comes in the long southwesterly journey when the riders tackle the category 2 climb of Breithöhe (8.0km, 4.4%) after just 38.8km of climbing. From there, it is a predominantly flat run to the finish. There will be no finishing circuit but the riders will do a small loop at the end to find the typical climb that always features at the end. This time it’s a small category 3 climb that averages 4.4% over 1.7km. The top comes with 9.9km to go and is followed by a descent that leads almost all the way to the finish. With 3km to go, the road starts to rise for around a kilometre and then it is slightly descending all the way to the line. However, there’s a very tricky finale as there’s a sharp turn at the flamme rouge and then a 90-degrre right-hand turn just 100m from the line.

 

This is the final chance for the sprinters in this year’s race so they won’t miss out. It is very rare for a Tour de Suisse to be so flat so it will be easy for the sprint teams to control things and the final climb will do very little to challenge the sprinters. The big fight will come in the end where the real sprint will happen before the final turn and it is very likely that the first sprinter through that corner will be the final sprinter to win a stage in the 2016 Tour de Suisse.

 

Champagne has not hosted a finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

Stage 5

The first part of the Tour de Suisse was a bit of a waiting game for the GC riders. Small time gaps will have opened up in the prologue but otherwise it has all been about staying safe in the relatively flat terrain. After four days of racing, it is finally time for them to test their climbing legs in the first of three consecutive summit finishes. As it has become popular, it is a short intense affair that will not just be all about the final climb as the riders will also go up the mighty Furkapass and Gotthardpass which means that the scene is set for the first big battle in the mountains.

 

The short 236.4km stage will bring the riders from Brig-Glis to the uphill finish in Cari and has no less than 3386m over the short distance. The first part of the stage consists of a long northeasterly run and it is uphill right from the start. The road will climb gradually until the HC climb of Forkapass officially started at the 40.3km mark. It averages 6.6% over 16.1km and the summit comes at a mighty 2436m above sea level. Then there’s a short descent before the riders climb back up to more than 2000m of altitude via the 8.3km long category 1 climb to the top of the Gotthardpass, an ascent that averages 7.1%.

 

From the top, only 43.6km remain that will see the riders head west to the final climb. It’s a long, gradual descent that only has one technical part along the way. The easy part comes to an abrupt end at the bottom of the final HC climb which starts with 11.2km to go. It averages 7.5% over 10.1km and is pretty regular with gradients of 7-8% for most of the time. The hardest part comes in the middle and then a flat plateau leads to another regular section. One kilometre from the top, it has its steepest part of 11.2%. The KOM sprint comes with 1.2km to go but the climb continues all the way to the finish. There are multiple hairpins turns in the final kilometres but the final 1500 are mostly straight with just one sharp turn 700m from the finish.

 

This is the first big test for the GC riders and stage 4 will offer the first clear indication of who’s going to win the race. The final climb is pretty hard and can do a lot of damage and it comes at the end of a short, intense stage with lots of climbing which will make it even harder. As time gaps are still small, it is unlikely that a break will have a chance but this kind of stage is very hard to control. However, none of the good climbers will be given any freedom so it should come down to a battle between the favourites even though they may for a cautious and defensive approach as there are two big mountain stages still to come.

 

Cari har not hosted a finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

Stage 6

In the past, the Tour de Suisse has only had one or two summit finishes but the brutally tough 2016 course leaves no room for recovery for the GC riders. After the first test in the mountains, there’s another tough summit finish in store on the sixth day and it is even harder than the one in the previous stage. The climb to Amden-Arvenbühl may only be a category 1 climb but with gradients of more than 10% for most of the times, it will create huge time differences.

 

The 162.8km stage has no less than 3045m of climbing and will bring the riders from Weesen to the top of the Amden climb. In fact, the starting city is located at the bottom of the ascent so the first part of the stage consists of a big 153.3km circuit on its western outskirts. It is mainly flat, with just a single uncategorized climb to get the legs going in the early part. However, it includes a very difficult challenge in the second half where the riders will go up the HC climb of Klausenpass (23.3km, 6.2%) whose summit comes at the 100.2km mark. From there, they will descend back to flat roads that lead back to Weesen.

 

Having returned to the starting city, the riders will hit head to the final climb which starts with 7.8km to go. The 6.9km category 1 mountain averages a massive 10.7% and leaves no room for recovery as the gradient stays above 10% for most of the time. There’s only a short, easier section with around 4km to go and then the climb again becomes steep. The KOM sprint comes with 1200m to go but that doesn’t mean that the climbing hostilities are over as the final part is uphill at an average of 7.9%. The climb follows a winding road, with the final turn coming 500m from the line.

 

It’s a bit deceptive that the final climb in stage 5 was of the HC category while the climb to Amden is only of the first category. Of course the climb is shorter but it has some brutal gradients that will make it a very challenging affair suited to pure climbers. As time gaps have opened up and there’s an even harder mountain stage to come, this could be a day for a breakaway but in any case, the final climb will be the scene for a big battle between the best riders. Again the fear of the Rettenbachferner in stage 7 may prompt the riders to be a bit conservative but on such a steep climb, there will be no hiding and time gaps will definitely be created.

 

The final climb has not been used for a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

Stage 7

The climbers have often been disappointed with the number of mountain stages in the Tour de Suisse but they have no reason to complain in 2016. The first two mountain stages were tough but things will only get worse in the final of three consecutive summit finishes. After the successful debut in 2015, the race wil return to the brutally steep Rettenbachferner which is known as one of the hardest climbs in Europe. The climb was often visited by the defunct Deutschland Tour and now seems to become a more regular feature in the Tour de Suisse. The brutal climb will make huge time gaps and even though there are still two hard stages to come, we could very well know who’s going to win the race at the end of this stage.

 

Just like last year, the organizers have made things even tougher by having the climb come at the end of a mammoth stage of 224.3km and it even includes more climbing than it did 12 months ago. The total amount of vertical metres is 4294 which clearly indicates how tough the long southeasterly run from the Swiss city of Arbon to the top of the Rettenbachferner Glacier on the outskirts of the Austrian city of Sölden is. The first part of the stage is flat but then the road gradually starts to climb towards the bottom of the category 1 climb Hochtannbergpass (11.8km, 6.4%). Then there’s an undulating section that leads to a gradual descent to another flat part of the stage.

 

The flat riding will end after around 180km when the road again starts to climb lightly. That will serve as a warm-up for the brutal finale. The HC climb of Rettenbach ferne may only be 10.1km long but it is the average gradient of 11.0% that makes it so extremely brutal. Again the KOM sprint comes with 1300m to go but the climb continues all the way to the finish as the final part averages 8.8%. The climb leaves no room for recovery as the gradient barely drops below 11% before it finally levels out a bit for the final 2km. There are several hairpin bends along the way but the final 2km follow a winding mountain road with no major turns.

 

It is no coincidence that the Rettenbachferner is regarded as one of the hardest climb in Europe. The gradients are brutal and the race usually explodes to pieces already on the lower slopes. This means that it’s a day that can create huge time gaps and will go a long way in determining the winner of the race. It’s a stage that everybody would love to win so a breakaway is unlikely to make it. On the other hand, it is a very long stage so if a single team has to control everything, an escape may have a chance to battle it out for the stage win before the GC riders engage in what will be the most important fight in the 2016 Tour de Suisse.

 

The Rettenbachferner was twice used as a summit finish in the now defunct Tour of Germany. In 2005, Levi Leipheimer set himself up for the overall win when he led teammate Georg Totschnig across the line to make it a 1-2 for Gerolsteiner. Two years later David Lopez took the first big win of his career but it was an impressive Jens Voigt who defied all expectations on the steep slopes by finishing second just 12 seconds behind the Spanish climber and ahead of riders like Robert Gesink, Damiano Cunego and Leipheimer. In that way, he defended the overall lead and he went on to take a second consecutive overall victory in the race.

 

The climb made its debut in the Tour de Suisse in 2015 when Thibaut Pinot gauged his effort perfectly to come back from a slow start before launching a lethal solo attack to ride himself into yellow by winning the stage.

 

 

 

Stage 8

The Tour de Suisse always includes a long time trial of 30-40km and as the climbs in Switzerland are not very steep, it has always played a huge role in determining the overall winner. Mostly it has been held in rolling terrain in the flatter part of the country but in certain editions, the race has been decided in a mountain time trial – most recently in 2013. Most often it has been held on the final day, giving the time triallists the upper hand over the climbers.

 

However, things have been shaken up completely for the 2016 edition. While the lumpy nature of the time trial is the same as usual, everything else has changed. Most notably, the TT is much shorter than usual as it only covers 16.8km around the city of Davos. Furthermore, it has been moved to the penultimate stage and as there’s a mountain stage on the final day, it gives the climbers a chance to strike back if they have lost time in the stage that has traditionally done them the most damage.

 

The 16.8km stage both starts and finishes in Davos and has a total amount of climbing of 262m. It mostly consists of an out-and-back run on the southwestern outskirts of the city but there’s a small digression along the way which allows the riders to tackle a small climb. The first part of the stage is mainly flat and without any technical challenges as the riders travel in a southwesterly direction until they get to the turning point. Then they will travel back towards Davos along an equally flat road before they briefly leave the river to head up a small climb which averages 5% over 3km. The top is located with 4.4km to go where the time check will be taken and then the riders will turn around to head down the descent back to the river. From there, it’s a flat run for the final 2.5km. There aren’t any major technical challenges in the finale, with just two turns coming just before the flamme rouge.

 

When it comes to the profile, it’s a pretty typical Tour de Suisse time trial but the length is much shorter than usual. Hence, the time gaps will be smaller and the stage will have less of an impact than usual. The climb will allow the climbers to limit their losses but the rest of the TT is made up of long, straight, flat roads where the powerful specialists can make a difference. The course is suited to Fabian Cancellara who would love to win the final Tour de Suisse time trial of his career. Meanwhile, the GC riders will battle it out for seconds and even though there’s still a mountain stage to come, we could very well know the winner of the race at the end of the time trial.

 

Davos last hosted a stage of the Tour de Suisse in 2009 when Bernhard Eisel won a reduced bunch sprint after a hilly ride. In recent years, the long Tour de Suisse time trials have been won by Tom Dumoulin (2015), Tony Martin (2014, 2010), Rui Costa (2013), Fredrik Kessiakoff (2012) and Fabian Cancellara (2011, 2009).

 

 

 

Stage 9

Like in 2014, the organizers have decided to give the climbers the upper hand. Usually, the final stage has been a time trial but in 2016, the riders will face a tough mountain stage on the final day. Stage 9 may not have a summit finish but as it offers two big climbs in just 117.7km which have a total of 2633m of climbing, nothing will be guaranteed until the end of the race as everything can be lost on what will be a short, intense ride over some of the legendary Swiss climbs.

 

In recent years, it has become popular for organizers to design short, mountain stages and the 2016 Tour de Suisse will offer such a stage on the final day. The 117.7km stage both starts and finishes in Davos and consists of a big circuit on the southern outskirts of the city. After a slightly descending first 30km, the road will gradually start to rise until the riders reach the bottom of the mighty HC climb of the Albulapass (17.4km, 6.9%).

 

The top comes with 66.1km to go and is followed by a short descent and a flat section that leads to the bottom of another HC climb, the Flüelapass (12.9km, 7.4%). It’s a relatively irregular climb with several sections of more than 10% and some flatter sections along the way too. The hardest part comes on the lower slopes and in the middle part while the road levels out near the top which is located just 17.5km from the finish. The descent isn’t too technical and ends with around 6km to go. From there, the road is mainly slightly descending. The riders will follow a winding road until they take two sharp turns in quick succession just before the flamme rouge.

 

This kind of short mountain stage at the end of a one-week race often has the potential to be very exciting and aggressive. Most riders have nothing to lose and the race leader and his team can be put under pressure already on the Albulapass. That means that the race is likely to explode already on the first climb and we could very well see some of the GC riders attack very early. If the race leader is isolated, this stage can become really dangerous even before we get to the Flüelapass where the final big battle will unfold. It’s a tough climb that can do a lot of damage but with a non-technical descent, there is time for some regrouping. Hence, it’s not a day for a lone rider to ride away from the rest but it’s a day when you can very well lose everything if you are not at 100%. At the same time, it’s a stage that is very hard to control and depending on the GC, it is very likely to be won from a breakaway.

 

Davos last hosted a stage of the Tour de Suisse in 2009 when Bernhard Eisel won a reduced bunch sprint after a hilly ride.

 

 

 

The favourites

Having traditionally been regarded as the fourth biggest stage race in the world, the Tour de Suisse is a kind of mini grand tour that has a bit of everything. With a number of big mountain stages and two time trials, it usually suits the grand tour specialists that can both climb and time trial and that recover sufficiently to handle 9 days of racing. From year to year, the balance changes a bit, with some years suiting time triallists and others being more for climbers, but it is usually won by one of the biggest stage race riders.

 

In recent years, the time triallists have clearly had the upper hand. A modest number of relatively easy mountain stages have made it hard for the climbers to make a difference while a 30-40km time trial always creates rather big time gaps. Only in the years with a mountain time trial has the balanced tipped towards the climbers.

 

Last year things were expected to change as the inclusion of the brutally steep Rettenbachferner was expected to do huge damage. As expected, big gaps were created, with just 5 riders finishing within a minute of the time of stage winner Thibaut Pinot. However, the time trial still turned out to be more important as Pinot was unable to even defend his podium spot and Tom Dumoulin who had lost 1.37 on the queen stage almost took the overall win.

 

However, things will definitely be different in 2016. First of all the time trial is a lot shorter so it won’t play the same massive role. Furthermore, the Rettenbachferner is back and that fact in itself would probably be enough to give the climbers the upper hand. If one adds the fact that there will be another two very hard summit finishes and a tough mountain stage on the final stage, there is no doubt that this race is likely to be won be the best climber.

 

At the same time, picking favourites for the Tour de Suisse is made more complicated by the fact that it is some kind of a clash between two worlds. Several riders return to competition after a long period of training and no one really knows how they are going and how they will adapt to the higher intensity after their break. For the Giro riders, it is always a big question whether they will be able to maintain their condition all the way to the end of the race three weeks after the conclusion of their grand tour.

 

This year the main difficulties all come pretty late in the race which should clearly favour the Tour riders over the Giro riders. The former will have time to find their rhythm before things get serious while the latter will start to feel the fatigue towards the end of the 9-day race. History proves that the Tour riders usually have the upper hand and it will be a big surprise if it is any different in 2016.

 

This year the race has gathered a field loaded with versatile riders who can both climb and time trial and it is a bit of a surprise that a lot of pure climbers have turned their back to the race. This was a great chance to win a WorldTour stage race without having to do a long time trial but the list of contenders is dominated by riders who would only have liked the TT to be longer. At the same time, the best grand tour riders are all riding the Dauphiné or the Route du Sud which means that the playing field is pretty level and this makes the race hugely exciting.

 

BMC go into the race with one of the strongest teams and they are fully committed to supporting Tejay van Garderen. The American is set to share leadership at the Tour with Richie Porte and the team have decided to split their leaders, with Porte going to the Dauphiné and van Garderen leading the team in Switzerland which is a very important race for the squad due to its Swiss ties. Van Garderen has followed a very similar schedule to what he did last year and that worked out really well. Back then, he came out from his post-spring break with all guns blazing, beating Froome in a mountain stage at the Dauphiné and nearly taking the overall victory in the tough French race.

 

Nothing suggests that it will be any different in 2016. Van Garderen was on track for a great Tour de France until he fell ill so there is really no reason to change a winning formula. If anything, he will be even more motivated to do well here to prove to the BMC management that he deserves to have the same status as Porte who realistically is the team’s best podium candidate at the Tour.

 

A few years ago, we were not too impressed by van Garderen’s climbing skills. The American always seemed to go into the red zone way too early and often exploded spectacularly. However, in the last two years, he has really stepped up his level. In the past, he always to defend himself in the mountains but nowadays he is one of the best on the climbs and can even go on the attack. He has become a master in gauging his efforts and very often finishes with the very best in the high mountains.

 

The season has been solid for van Garderen. He rode really well in Andalusia in February where he won the time trial and finished second overall. The cancellation of the queen stage destroyed his Tirreno-Adriatico but he was back at a high level in Catalonia. Things didn’t really work out in Romandie but in general the season has confirmed his status as a great climber.

 

At one point, it looked like van Garderen had lost the edge in the time trial and it’s definitely true that he’s not as strong in a flat TT as he once was. However, his performance in Andalusia proved that he is still very strong on a hilly course so stage 8 is not too bad for him.

 

The big question relates to the steepness of the climbs. Van Garderen has had most of his success on the long, gradual ascents. The Rettenbachferner is a beast and it could be a bit too much for the American. In the past, he would definitely have blown up but that may no longer be the case though. Based on recent history, van Garderen is the best climber in this race and if he can handle the steepness of the Austrian glacier, he will win this race. Hence, he is our favourite.

 

Last year Geraint Thomas got one of his first chances to lead Sky in a WorldTour race at this event. He finished second overall and was only a few seconds from taking the overall victory. That performance set him up for his great Tour de France and now he is back in Switzerland to confirm his potential as a stage race.

 

Thomas is set to be the plan B for Sky at the Tour de France and he has been preparing himself for the grand tour with his teammates at Tenerife. That usually works really well and the Sky riders often come out with all guns blazing for the month of June. Thomas did so in 2015 and if anything, he should be even better in 2016. After all, this year has been all about stage racing and the Tour de France has been the big goal since the start of the year. The Tour de Flanders was his only classic and instead he focused on stage racing in the spring.

 

Things didn’t work out too well though. He won Algarve and Paris-Nice but he was far from his best level in both Catalonia and Romandie. That raises several questions but it would be unwise to base too much on those performances. The Sky formula usually works and we expect Thomas to be climbing better than ever in this race.

 

The main question is whether the climbs are too tough for Thomas. After all, he is not a born climber and three consecutive summit finishes are really a tough ask. It is worth remembering that he has failed to maintain his high level until the end of Paris-Nice in both 2014 and 2015 and that he cracked near the end of last year’s Tour. It may be a sign that such a heavy burden could make him crack and that’s what makes us doubtful about his chances. On the other hand, we expect him to be flying right from the start and if he can maintain that level, he could very well win the race.

 

Rui Costa is Mr. Tour de Suisse and it was a bit of a surprise that he decided to skip last year’s race and so broke his excellent string of victories. However, his third place at the Dauphiné proved that he is simply the man for the month of June and he seems to always be flying at this time of the year.

 

In 2016, we can even expect him to be better than ever. He has never been as strong as he was in the spring where he surprised himself on the climbs in Pais Vasco which are usually way too steep for him, and on the Mur de Huy which doesn’t suit him at all. He was on the podium in Liege and rode well in Romandie to end the spring of his life.

 

There is little doubt that Costa will be in great condition for this race. However, we have some doubts about his ability to win on this course. Costa is not a pure climber and so he won’t benefit from four tough stages in the mountains. More importantly, he doesn’t like very steep climbs and the Rettenbachferner could very well be too much for him. Luckily, none of the very best climbers are here so he may still be able to hang onto the best. Furthermore, Costa is not a pure time triallist either and he doesn’t have the level of van Garderen and Thomas in a relatively flat TT like this. The course definitely doesn’t do the Portuguese many favours but on the other hand, you can never rule the former world champion out in his preferred race.

 

Simon Spilak goes into the race as the defending champion. The Slovenian has developed into one of the best and most consistent riders in one-week stage races. Last year he was on the podium in Paris-Nice, Romandie and Switzerland and he would probably have won Pais Vasco if he had not had a mechanical in the time trial.

 

However, the 2015 season has been a disappointment for the versatile Slovenian. He suffered from illness in the spring and never found his best form for the races where he usually shines. He still finished 8th in Pais Vasco and 7th in Romandie but he was a shadow of his usual consistent self.

 

Now he has prepared for the Tour de Suisse and he has not had to deal with any health issues. He rode solidly in the Belgium Tour when he made his comeback but unfortunately the bad crash prevented us from seeing what he could do in the queen stage. However, Spilak never fails to time his condition so he should be riding well here.

 

Spilak is very similar to Costa. He is not a pure climber but he defends himself very well on the climbs. He is usually better on steep climbs than his Portuguese rival which he proved with a solid third place on the Rettenbachferner in 2015. He is very consistent and won’t be afraid of the tough course. On the other hand, the relatively flat time trial is not in his favour. On hilly courses, he is one of the best time triallists in the world but he has never done that well on flat routes. He may come up short compared to more powerful guys like Thomas and van Garderen and if one adds the fact that he has had a relatively poor spring, he is not one of the biggest favourites as he would usually have been.

 

Warren Barguil has never had much success in one-week stage races. The Frenchman is a pretty bad time triallist and as TTs always play a big role in these events, he has always come up short. Furthermore, he is pretty inconsistent and always seems only to get into peak condition for the grand tours.

 

However, things have been different in 2016. Despite being involved in the training crash, he quickly returned to form and rode very well in Pais Vasco. He had an excellent Ardennes campaign where he was clearly one of the strongest riders.

 

Now he has been preparing for the Tour where he is targeting a top 10 and he has just returned from a training camp in Sierra Nevada. There are no guarantees that he will already be good in this race – after all he has never really been at his best in the build-up to a grand tour. However, he has really stepped up in 2016 and we won’t be surprised to see a much stronger Barguil. Among the pre-race favourites, he is the only pure climber and so he should find the course to his liking. Of course he will lose time in the TT but he has plenty of room to take it back.

 

Ion Izagirre is developing into one of the best riders for one-week stage races. After several near-misses, he won the Tour de Pologne in 2015 and 12 months ago he even beat his leader Nairo Quintana in Pais Vasco. This year he has been even stronger, finishing fifth in Paris-Nice and on the podium in Romandie. Unfortunately, he fell ill on the eve of Pais Vasco and so we never got the chance to see what he could do there.

 

Izagirre was not planning to do a grand tour but apparently his great showings have made Movistar consider a change of plans. In any case he is on the shortlist for the Tour and his performance in Switzerland will play a big role in the decision. Personally, he has done nothing to hide that his big goal is to shine in one-week races and there is no doubt that he is fired up for this race.

 

The main challenge for Izagirre will be the length of the climb. While he has done well on shorter ascents, he has always been on the defensive in the high mountains. This course could very well be a bit too tough for him and he will have to gain his time in the relatively short time trials. They don’t do him many favours either. While he is one of the best in the world on hilly courses, he doesn’t have the best results in flat TTs. The 2016 Tour de Suisse is not the perfect race for Izagirre and it is hard to imagine that he will win the race. However, he could very well confirm his gradual improvement by finishing on the podium.

 

For IAM, this race is one of the most important events on the entire calendar and after a one-year absence their grand tour leader Mathias Frank returns. He was very close to victory in 2014 and will be eager to do better this time. Luckily, he seems to be back at his best level. In 2015, he finished in the top 10 at the Tour but he was never really at his 2014 level. This year he has been much better. In Romandie, he would have done much better if he hadn’t made a mistake on the very cold queen stage where he took off his jacket and so got too cold to deliver his best.

 

Frank returned to racing in Luxembourg where he proved that he is in great form as he finished third in the queen stage after having bridged across to a strong break on the hardest climb of the race. As he is not a time triallist, he should find the course in Switzerland to his liking and it may offer him one of his best ever chances to win his home race. Whether he is climbing well enough to do that remains to be seen but  a reinvigorated Frank will be dangerous here.

 

Is Andrew Talansky back on track? In 2013 and 2014, he seemed to be one of the future grand tour stars, most notably with his Dauphiné victory, but since then nothing has worked for the talented American. He still finished 11th in last year’s Tour but he was far from the rider he once was.

 

This year he has done things differently and it seems to pay off. He rode poorly in the spring but at the Tour of California he suddenly looked like his former self. He rode in service of Lawson Craddock and set the pace for most of the time on the final climb in the queen stage. He turned out to be much stronger than his leader whom he even had to pace to the finish and then he finished second in the time trial to take fourth overall. He is likely to be even stronger in this race which is the big test of whether we can expect him to return to his former self. If he has the legs he had at the 2013 and 2014 Dauphiné, his versatile skills could very well make him a winner of this race.

 

One of the big question marks for the race is Miguel Angel Lopez. The Colombian had a fantastic neo-pro season in 2015 as he beat several stars on a tough stage in the Vuelta a Burgos and rode with the best on the Rettenbachferner in this race. When he won the queen stage in San Luis in January, it looked like his was on track for a fantastic 2016 season but nothing has worked out though. He has had to deal with health issues and has been nowhere to be seen on the climbs. However, this race has always been his big goal for the first half of the season and he has prepared meticulously. Last year he was really strong when he arrived in Switzerland and there is little doubt that he is one of the greatest climbing talents in the world. The mountainous course is tailor-made for him so if he is finally back at his real level, he could very well deliver a massive surprise here.

 

Robert Gesink originally planned to focus on stage wins at the Tour as the Olympic road race was his main goal. However, he wasn’t selected for the Dutch team so now he has decided to go for GC in La Grande Boucle. He will use this race to prepare and there is no reason to rule him out in France this summer. Last year he was the best of the rest behind the former grand tour winners and rode to an excellent sixth place, confirming that h is still a very capable stage racer. He is not the rider he was when he rode to a storming solo win in the queen stage here in 2010 and he doesn’t have the great TT skills he suddenly showed back then so he is unlikely to win the race. Furthermore, his initial focus on the Olympics means that he is probably a little bit behind in his preparations but he should still be up there in Switzerland.

 

Samuel Sanchez is mainly here to support van Garderen but the Spaniard will be ready to take over if his leader fails. Last year it seemed that Father Time had caught up with him but this year he has silenced his critics. Sanchez has been better than he has been for several years. He won a stage in Pais Vasco where he finished sixth overall and he was sixth in Fleche Wallonne and fourth in Liege. After a short break, he showed his good form in California where he rode for his leaders but still finished sixth overall. He should be even better in this race and he should find the course to his liking. He can be pretty strong in this kind of relatively short time trial and he is a great climber who is a master in gauging his effort on the steep gradients of the Rettenbachferner. As said, he is mainly here to support his leader but if he gets a chance, he will be ready to strike.

 

Izagirre is not the only Movistar card. Winner Anacona has flown under the radar as he hasn’t had many personal results. However, it is hard to forget that he was one of the very best climbers in the final week of last year’s Tour and this year it has been all about La Grande Boucle for the Colombian. He has been preparing himself for a support role in France but in this race he could get his chance. He hasn’t raced for a long time but his form can’t be too bad. In any case, he is a bad time triallist so this mountainous course is tailor-made for him. If he has the legs of last year’s Tour he could very well deliver a surprise.

 

Joe Dombrowski is one of the few riders coming from the Giro. The Italian grand tour was a bit of a WorldTour breakthrough for the American who finally proved his huge climbing talent on the biggest scene. He no longer has any health issues and he is destined for greatness in the future. With a short time trial and lots of mountains, the course in Switzerland suits the pure climber down to the ground so it will all be question of his recovery. He was very strong in the final week of the Giro and he has a very big engine. He claims not to be very tired but history shows that the Giro-Suisse double is difficult. He may come up short against the fresher riders but Dombrowski is one of the select few who can do it.

 

With his great 2014 Giro, Wilco Kelderman seemed to be a grand tour star of the future but for some reason his progress has stalled. He has never been even close to that level since he did so well at the 2014 Dauphiné and it is a bit of a mystery what has happened. At the start of his career, he was a good time triallist but then he became a climber while losing the edge in the TT. Now he is probably time trialling better than ever but he is nowhere near his former level on the climbs. That’s a pretty bad combination for this course and unfortunately his performances in the spring don’t really suggest that he is ready to turn things around. However, Kelderman has proved that he has the talent and as he is building form for the Tour, it is still too early to write the Dutchman off.

 

Finally, Laurens ten Dam deserves a mention. The Dutchman had a bad 2015 season and even stepping down to pro continental level. However, he chose to serve as a key support rider for Barguil and Tom Dumoulin at Giant-Alpecin and apparently that change has done him good. He has always been a slow starter so it was no surprise that he did nothing in the spring. However, his performance in California was very encouraging. Even in his best years, he has never been so good in May and this bodes well for the future. He was very strong in the queen stage and would have finished higher if he hadn’t been caught up in crashes in the final two stages. He is a bad time triallist so this course is great for him. He is mainly here to support Barguil but if he has improved since California, he could very well achieve a solid personal result.

 

***** Tejay van Garderen

**** Rui Costa, Geraint Thomas

*** Simon Spilak, Warren Barguil, Ion Izagirre, Mathias Frank, Andrew Talansky, Michele Scarponi

** Miguel Angel Lopez, Robert Gesink, Samuel Sanchez, Winner Anacona, Joe Dombrowski, Wilco Kelderman, Laurens ten Dam

* Rafael Valls, Pieter Weening, Kanstantsin Siutsou, Riccardo Zoidl, Victor de la Parte, Darwin Atapuma, Pierre Latour, Hubert Dupont, Jan Hirt

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