81st Tour de Suisse
Eight-day stage race, Switzerland
June 10 to June 18
That its Wikipedia page still states that the last winner was Simon Špilak in 2015, perhaps tells you all you need to know about the popular regard for the Tour de Suisse in the Anglophone world. But it does not tell you everything, or even very much, about the race itself.
Due to its geographical and chronological proximity to the Dauphiné, the Tour of Switzerland is typically treated as another (and a lesser) Tour de France warm-up race, when really it is deserving of greater recognition in its own right.
Hillier and altogether harder than its daintier French cousin, it’s no surprise, then, to find the line-up replete with Belgians and other veterans of the spring classics. Prologue apart, there are no naturally ‘easy’ days. Flat road is a scarcity in Switzerland and even the so-called sprint stages contain some serious bumps, so there are no guarantees of big bunch finishes.
Three summit finishes mean we could be in for some cagey, defensive riding or significant time gaps. The first of these is into Villars-sur-Ollon on stage four. The same 11.1km climb was the scene of Chris Froome’s memorable attack at last year’s Tour of Romandie, and will present a similar opportunity for a rider looking to make inroads into the GC.
Another climb to look out for is the Passo San Bernardino, which features on Thursday’s queen stage. Long but not steep, coming in the middle of the stage rather than the end, it will tempt KOM-hunters, rather than contenders. Though the racing may not be intense at that point, as the peloton winds its way through the best of Swiss scenery, it’ll nonetheless be a stage to turn on the TV for.
Nine stages is quite a lot of racing to contain within a country as small as Switzerland so, as is its wont, the Tour de Suisse dips briefly into both Italy and Austria.
As a few races are doing these days, this the first edition in which the Tour de Suisse will award a prize for the most kilometres spent in the breakaway. This one is called the ‘fou pédalent’, the nickname of home hero Ferdi Kübler, the Tour de France winner who died in December 2016. As well as winning this race three times, Kübler was famous for his bold breakaway attempts.
Tour de Suisse 2017
Prologue, Saturday June 10 Cham to Cham (6km)
Stage 2, Sunday June 11 Cham to Cham (172.7km)
Stage 3, Monday June 12 Menziken to Bern (159.3km)
Stage 4, Tuesday June 13 Bern to Villars-sur-Ollon (143.2km)
Stage 5, Wednesday June 14 Bex to Cevio (222km)
Stage 6, Thursday June 15 Locarno to La Punt (166.7km)
Stage 7, Friday June 16, Zernez to Sölden (166.3km)
Stage 8, Saturday June 17, Schaffhausen to Schaffhausen (100km)
Stage 9, Sunday June 18, Schaffhausen to Schaffhausen TT (28.6km)
Total distance: 1,164.8km
2016 Miguel Ángel López (Col)
2015 Simon Špilak (Slo)
2014 Rui Costa (Por)
2013 Rui Costa (Por)
2012 Rui Costa (Por)
2011 Levi Leipheimer (Usa)
2010 Fränk Schleck (Lux)
2009 Fabian Cancellara (Swi)
2008 Roman Kreuziger (Cze)
2007 Vladimir Karpets (Rus)
Most Overall Wins
Pasquale Fornara 1952, 1954, 1957, 1958
Ferdi Kübler 1942, 1948, 1951
Hugo Koblet 1950, 1953, 1955
Rui Costa 2012, 2013, 2014
Merckx makes his mark
There has only been one occasion when a Tour de Suisse winner has won the Tour de France in the same year; compare that to the ten times when the Dauphiné winner has gone onto victory in Paris five weeks later.
That the anomalous “one” belonged to Eddy Merckx in 1974 is neither a surprise nor a coincidence, a result of race organiser Sepp Voegeli reportedly making Merckx an offer he could not refuse.
Voegeli certainly got his money’s worth, as The Cannibal wore the leader’s jersey from prologue to finish, as well as taking three stages, King of the Mountains, points and combination classifications.
Whether the same offer was made the following year or Merckx merely developed a taste for this race, he nevertheless returned in 1975. There would be no repeating the trick, however, as compatriot Roger de Vlaeminck got the better of him in a ride he recalls as the best of his career in issue 51 of Rouleur:
“On the last day there were two half stages. In the morning one, a 120-kilometre race, Merckx came in second. Then a time-trial: Merckx came in second. Then in the overall classification, he was second. I beat him three times in one day. That was the best.”
Agnolutto’s Big Break
Another fondly-remembered victory was that of outsider Christophe Agnolutto in 1997. The Frenchman, who had broken his collarbone at that year’s Tour of Flanders, made it into a break on the third stage and put 11 minutes into favourites Tony Rominger, Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis.
Agnolutto (below) was as modest as they come on the eve of the last stage, after defending his lead manfully through the mountains: “If I arrive in Zurich with the yellow jersey, it will be the first time in my life I’ll be happy to be an average cyclist! I’m neither rouleur nor sprinter nor climber, but I cope fine everywhere.”
The 2017 Tour de Suisse line-up consists of a mixture of riders recovering from the Giro and where-have-they beens. With May consumed by the Giro d’Italia, it was easy to forget riders who weren’t there, even though they’d been entertaining us all spring.
The Belgians are back, of course, in the imposing form of Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and Tim Wellens, and can be expected to rip up the race, even if they don’t end up contesting the overall victory.
After a noisy, if not especially successful spring campaign, May was an uncharacteristically quiet month for world champion Peter Sagan (below), his Tour of California stage win aside. The Tour de Suisse presents the exciting prospect of Sagan v Gaviria. No-one could contain the Colombian in Italy, but could Bora-Hansgrohe’s leader get the better of him here?
The biggest name in the race, though, is Tom Dumoulin, who will lead the Sunweb team. The Dutchman could be forgiven for doing little more than waving at his adoring public, but he’ll certainly have some leftover form, so who knows? Certainly, the final stage time-trial will be one he’ll have his eye on.
Three-time winner Rui Costa rides for UAE Team Emirates and 2015 champion Simon Spilak leads Katusha.
The great unknown is Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez. After breaking his leg in a training accident over the winter, the climber’s first race of the year was in early June. The young (really young) Colombian was expected to co-lead the Kazakh team at the Tour de France, and Switzerland should give us an idea of how viable a prospect that still is.
CCC Sprandi Polkowice’s Jan Hirt comes fresh (or not, we’ll see) from an under-the-radar 12th place at the Giro d’Italia.
Cannondale-Drapac bring Hugh Carthy and Taylor Phinney. Having not done much this season, two time-trials give the American opportunities to kick-start his season.
Rouleur columnist Larry Warbasse is part of Team Aqua Blue, racing here for the first time. Could the breakaway prize be theirs for the taking?