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Will Chris Froome take his third win in a highly competitive edition of the Tour de Romandie?

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DE ROMANDIE

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25.04.2016 @ 17:19 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

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 de France 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. Until surprise winner Ilnur Zakarin broke the trend in 2015, no Romandie winner had 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 most of the Tour de France contenders, there is a great chance that we could see another Romandie-Tour double in 2016.

 

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, the 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 Chris Froome being the only of the current professionals to have won the race twice.

 

This year confirms recent trends. In fact, the race has gathered an almost all-inclusive list of grand tour stars and it speaks volumes about the new status of the race that Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez are the only Tour de France contenders who won’t be in Romandie this week. Apart from the top 2 from the Vuelta, the main absentees are the Giro favouries Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde, Mikel Landa, Domenico Pozzovivo, Jean-Christope Peraud and Esteban Chaves. Among the Giro contenders, only Rafal Majka, Rigoberto Uran, Davide Formolo, Ryder Hesjedal, Ilnur Zakarin, Rein Taaramae and Alexandre Geniez be on the start line and instead the race is set to be dominated by riders like Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, Rui Costa, Romain Bardet, Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen who are all set to shine in July this summer. The main Giro sprinters have all preferred to prepare themselves in Turkey, Croatia or elsewhere, with Marcel Kittel being the notable exception as the big German will try to defy gravity in a race that doesn’t suit the big German but will offer him valuable training in the mountains.

 

Last year Chris Froome’s string of wins was broken. After crashing out of Fleche Wallonne and suffering from illness in March, the Brit was hoping to get back on track but he had to settle for third. After a great start with a win in the team time trial, Froome was in the perfect position to strike but he failed to follow Thiabut Pinot and Ilnur Zakarin in the queen stage. Pinot took over the race lead but most still expected the Brit to take the win after the final time trial. However, Froome had a surprisingly poor ride for 13th and instead it was Zakarin who did the TT of his life to take third – he would probably have won if he hadn’t got a mechanical in the finale – and this was enough to step onto the podium as a hugely surprising winner of the Swiss race. With a third consecutive second place, Simon Spilak made it two Katusha riders on the podium while Froome had to settle for third. Building form for the Giro, Zakarin will be back to defend his title as he again join forces with Spilak in a very strong Katusha team and they will again be up against Froome who makes a rare appearance in a spring that has been mostly about training for the Tour champion.

 

The course

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 of the race, however, the organizers 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.

 

In 2014, 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. Last year it was a similar affair, with the only change being the decision to replace the prologue by an opening team time trial. 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 but last year the organizers made the queen stage significantly harder.

 

This year they have taken it one step further. For the first time in several years, there will be two summit finishes on the menu and this will make it a much better race for the climbers. The prologue will be back but it won’t be the usual flat affair as a tough climb makes it one for the explosive puncheurs. As the time trial also includes a stiff climb, the 2016 edition will be one of the best for the climbers in this decade and they will even have the upper hand as the final key stage is the queen stage and not the time trial which has usually been the final stage of the race. While the climbers will lick their lips in anticipation, the strong sprinters who can win stages from a reduced bunch sprint have been left disappointed as there will be fewer opportunities than usual. Only stages 1 and 5 can be expected to be decided in sprints and as they are easier than usual, they may even be options for pure sprinters who rarely have many chances in the Swiss race.

 

 

Prologue:

After last year’s unusual team time trial opener, the race will be back to its traditional format with an opening prologue. As always, it’s a very short one but it’s not the usual flat affair. As it was the case in 2013 when the race started with a real mountain prologue, the organizers have included a significant climb which means that the opener is more for the explosive climbers than for the time trial specialist.

 

The 3.95km stage takes place in the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds and doesn’t have many flat roads. After just 300m of flat riding, the riders will turn right to hit the category 3 climb of Rue de la Montagne (1.32km, 5.3%, max. 9%). The top comes at the 1.63km mark and leads straight onto the descent which includes a hairpin bend and four sharp turns on the lower slopes. The final kilometre is only very slightly descending and will see the riders travel along an almost completely straight road where it is all about power.

 

Prologues are always difficult to gauge as they usually suit a mix of TT specialists and sprinters. This one is completely different though and there will be no room for the fast guys or the big engines. As it is mainly uphill or downhill on a technical course, this is much more about acceleration and explosiveness than power and TT skills and the stage is likely to be won by a punchy rider with great technical skills. On such a short course, the time gaps will be relatively small but the stage will create the first minor differences between the GC contenders.

 

La-Chaux-de-Fonds last hosted a stage finish in 2012 when Bradley Wiggins used unusual sprinting skills to win a reduced bunch sprint, setting himself up for the overall victory. In 2009, Oscar Freire won a reduced bunch sprint while Markus Fothen was the fastest in a similar sprint in 2007. In 2006, Angel Vicioso and David Herrero held off the peloton by one second and in 2000 Laurent Dufaux won a 7-rider sprint.

 

 

Stage 1:

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 2016 edition of the Swiss race again offers such opportunities for the fast guys with good climbing legs and one of them comes on the first road stage. It brings the riders over 169km from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Moudon and includes four smaller climbs on a day full of ups and downs. With a total amount of climbing of 1865m, it is certainly not a flat stage but as the climbs are relatively short and easy, it’s a great day for the fast riders.

 

The first part of the stage is lumpy before the riders hit a descent as they travel in a southwesterly direction. It leads almost straight onto the lower slopes of the biggest challenge of the day, the category 2 Col des Etroits (5.7km, 6.2%, max. 8%) whose summit comes at the 47.9km mark. From there, they will turn to southeast as they tackle a technical descent and reach a short flat section.

 

The climbing starts again after 87.6km of racing when the peloton hit the category 3 climb to Arrissoules (2.9km, 6.7%, max. 9%) and then another lumpy section leads to the category 3 climb to Surpierre (2.1km, 6.7%, max. 9%) whose top comes with 52.9km to go. From there, they will descend to Moudon where they will cross the finish line after 127.3km of racing to contest the first intermediate sprint.

 

The final part of the stage consists of a 41.7km finishing circuit that includes a category 3 climb (5.3km, 4.0%, max. 16%) whose top comes with 28.8km to go. From there, the terrain is lumpy until the descent starts with 8.5km to go, with the final sprint coming with 13.6km to go.. The final 5km are flat and doesn’t include any technical challenges until the riders take a right-hand turn with 600m to go.

 

The stage is a typical one for the Romandie race. It is by no means flat but the hardest climbs all com far from the finish. The final climb only has an average gradient of 4% which is manageable for most of the riders here and it comes pretty far from the finish. This means that it is a perfect day for a reduced bunch sprint and we expect most of the fast riders to be there when they roar towards the finish line in Moudon.

 

Moudon last hosted a stage in 2010 when Richie Porte took a hugely surprising time trial win. In 1999, it hosted a split stage when Jeroen Blijlevens won a sprint in the morning and Laurent Jalabert won the time trial in the afternoon.

 

 

Stage 2:

In the last few years, the only mountain stage has usually come on the penultimate day but as there will be two summit finishes in 2016, the riders will already face the first serious climbing on the third day. With no major climbs in the first part, it is not a big mountain stage but a tough final climb will be enough to create the first important time differences in the overall standings.

 

The stage brings the riders from over 173.9km from Moudon to Morgins on a day with 2804m of climbing. The first part of the stage is made up of a small loop in the hilly terrain north of Moudon before the riders start their southerly journey towards the most mountainous part of the region. It is uphill right from the start as the riders go up a 6.1km uncategorized climb. Then a descent leads to another uncategorized climb but after 40km of racing, the terrain gets significantly flatter. The flat terrain will briefly be interrupted by the category 2 climb to Sorens (4.6km, 7.0%, max. 16%) whose summit comes at the 80km mark but then it’s back into the flatlands for the next part which includes the first intermediate sprint at the 102km mark as the riders are now travelling south.

 

With 60km to go, the riders hit a relatively long descent that brings them to the city of Montreux on the shores of Lac Leman and then another flat section leads to the final intermediate sprint with 22.9km to go. That’s the signal of the start of the climbing hostilities as the riders will leave the valley to head into the mountains, going up the category 2 Les Champs climb (7.1km, 7.0%, max. 10%). The top is located with 15.4km and then there are 4.4km of descending before slightly rising roads lead to the bottom of the final category 1 climb (7.3km, 7.1%, max. 9%). The top comes with 2km to go but the final part is still uphill at an average gradient of 2.85%, with the final 700m averaging 4.7%. It’s a mostly straight road but there is a right-hand turn just 200m from the line.

 

The final climb is not very long but an average gradient of 7.1% is pretty tough. It may never get really steep but the climb can do some damage. It’s the first big GC day so the stage is likely to be pretty controlled and then the best riders will decide the race on the final climb. With the final 2km being relatively easy, the riders will have to attack a bit earlier. It’s definitely possible for the strongest rider to take a solo win but with hard stages coming later in the week, it could also come down to an uphill sprint from a handful of riders.

 

Morgins last hosted a stage finish in 007 when Igor Anton beat Thomas Dekker, Chris Horner and John Gadret in a four-rider sprint. In 2004, Alexandre Moos beat Leonardo Piepoli and Tyler Hamilton when that trio arrived together.

 

 

Stage 3:

A few years ago, the time trial often came in the middle of the race but in the last few years it has very often been held on the final day, giving the time triallists the upper hand. This year it will be held on the fourth day and with the queen stage still to come, the climbers will know how much time they need to take back in the toughest stage. On certain occasions, the time trials in Romandie have been flat but due to the nature of the terrain, it has often been a hilly affair. This year it will be no different as the stage includes a mix of flat roads and a tough climb at the midpoint, making it very similar to the time trial that was used two years ago.

 

At 15.11km, the stage has the usual length of a Romandie time trial and this year’s stage will take place in the city of Sion. From the start, the riders will follow a long, straight, flat road along the river, passing through a few roundabouts, until they will take the first right-hand turn after 4.15km of racing. From here, the road is slightly uphill as the riders go through a few turns that lead to the bottom of the climb which starts after around 5.3 of racing.

 

The next 3.7km are uphill at an average gradient of 5.7% and leads to the top of the climb at the 8.98km mark. Then it’s straight onto the descent which includes two hairpin turns and ends around 2km from the finish. From there, it is predominantly flat but as there are a total of five turns, there won’t be much room for the powerful riders to get their engine going.

 

The time trial is an exciting mix of a first section that really suits the specialist, a pretty hard climb, a technical descent and a flat, technical finale. As the first part is relatively short, the stage suits the GC riders better than the specialists and we can expect the contenders for the overall to come to the fore. However, there is still enough flat sections for the stronger riders to make a difference and the pure climbers will lose some time here. A 15km time trial can create some significant time gaps, especially on this kind of tough course, and the stage will have a huge impact on the final standings.

 

Sion last hosted a stage in 2014 when Michael Albasini won the first road stage in a reduced bunch sprint. In 2012, Luis Leon Sanchez won the sprint from a select group of climbers and in 2010, Alejandro Valverde was the fastest in a four-rider group (he has since been disqualified from that stage due to his involvement in the Operacion Puerto). In 2008, Andreas Klöden won the time trial here while Valverde again won a sprint from a small group in 2006. In 2004, Fabian Jeker was the fasest in a five-rider group of climbers.

 

 

Stage 4:

In recent years, the queen stage has mostly come on the penultimate stage and even though there will be two mountain stages in 2016, that won’t change. Saturday will again be the day of the hardest stage and unlike the previous mountain stage, stage 4 includes several big mountains which makes it a really big day with 3311m of climbing. With a flat stage on the final day, this is where the race will be decided.

 

The stage brings the riders over 172.7km from Conthey to Villars and has a relatively flat start as the riders head along the river in an easterly direction, passing through the city of Sion along the way. Then terrain briefly changes as they go up a small category 3 climb (2.7km, 7.5%, max.10%) at the 15.4km mark before they descend to the city of Sierre where they will turn around and head back along the flat road on the other side of the river.

 

After 66km of racing, they will contest the first intermediate sprint just before they get to the city of Martigny. Here they will leave the valley to tackle a small circuit with the category 1 Col des Planches (10.4km, 8.9%, max. 12%) which is a very tough climb whose top is located at the 78.3 mark. Then they will descend back to Martigny where they will follow the flat river road in the valley in a northerly direction. Along the way, the flat terrain will briefly be interrupted by the category 3 climb of La Rasse (1.6km, 9-5%, max. 12%) whose top comes with 57.7km to go. After the descent, they will continue along flat roads while contesting the final intermediate sprint with 49.4km to go just before they get to the city of Les Devens.

 

Here they will hit the 32.3km finishing city which mainly consists of the category 1 climb to the finish in Villars and its descent. With 45.3km to go, they will hit the bottom of the climb for the first time. It’s an 8.9km ascent with an average gradient of 7.8% and a maximum gradient of 12%. The top comes 4.1km from the line and is followed by 2.5km of rising roads that average around 1%. Then a short descent leads to the final 400m that are uphill at 4.7%. There are late turns with 1km and 400m to go. Having crossed the line for the first time, the riders will do a full lap op the circuit, meaning that they will go down the descent back to the valley where a very short flat section leads to the bottom of the climb.

 

With three big climbs, this is a real mountain stage and as the final climb is tougher than the one in stage 2, this is the day when the biggest differences can be made. With a maximum gradient of 12%, the final climbs has some very steep sections and an average gradient of 7.8% can do a lot of damage. Like in stage 2, the top of the climb comes a little far from the finish and this time there is a flat section where a small regrouping can take place. However, the climb will rip the peloton to pieces and it is very likely that the best climber will win the stage that’s going to decide the winner of the 2016 Tour de Romandie.

 

Villlars has not hosted a stage finish for more than a decade.

 

 

Stage 5:

Usually, nothing is decided until the very end as the Tour de Romandie has mostly had a mountain stage or a time trial on the final day. This year things will be different as the grand finale will be an unusually flat stage compared to usual Romandie standards. Of course there’s some solid climbing along the way on a day that has 1808m of total climbing but none of the climbs are hard and they all come very far from the finish, meaning that there may for once be a stage for the pure sprinters in the Swiss race.

 

The 177.4km stage brings the riders from Ollon to the major city of Geneve. The start and finishing cities are located in opposite ends of the Lac Leman and the stage consists of a mix of lakeside roads and a brief trip into the hilly hinterlands. The first 20km are made up of flat roads along the lakeside before the riders head into the hills to go up the category 3 climb to Chatel-St-Denis (7.2km, 2.8%, max. 11%) whose summit is located at the 30.5km mark. From here the terrain is lumpy as the riders head to the west before a long descent leads to the first intermediate sprint at the 85.2km mark.

 

Shortly after the sprint, the riders will hit the bottom of the category 3 climb to Mont-la-Ville (6.2km, 4.2% max. 8%) whose summit comes with 77km to go. From there they will head down the descent back towards the lake which they will reach in the city of Mont-sur Rolle with 46.3km. Then they will briefly head back into the hills for another lumpy section before they descend back to the lake. They will be back at the lakeside with 18.5km to go and then they will follow the flat road to Geneve while contesting the final intermediate sprint with 12.8km to go. The final part of the stage is completely flat and the final turn comes with 1.1km to go in what will be a technically uncomplicated finale.

 

The sprinters haven’t had many chances in this year’s race so they are unlikely to let this opportunity slip away. This stage is unusually easy compared to normal Tour de Romandie standards and it even gives some real sprinters a target in the race. This means that it is probably a very controlled stage that will be decided in a big bunch sprint on a big avenue in Geneve. For the GC riders, it will be all about staying safe and maintaining their positions on a day that should pose no threat for them.

 

Geneve last hosted a stage in 2013 when Tony Martin won a flat time trial. In 2011, Ben Swift won a reduced bunch sprint on the final day while Oscar Freire was the fastest on the final stage in 2009. In 2008, Mark Cavendish won the prologue, a feat that Bradley McGee had achieved in 2004 and Fabian Cancellara in 2003. Rik Verbrugghe won the prologue in 2002 while Mario Cipollini won sprints on the final stage three years in a row from 1999 to 2001.

 

 

The weather

The Tour de Romandie is famously known for its rainy, snowy and harsh conditions and unfortunately it seems that the 2016 edition will be marred by bad weather.

 

For the prologue, a temperature of 4 degrees is forecasted and the 3-7cm of precipitation could very well fall as snow. It will be less rainy on Wednesday where there may even be some sunshine and a maximum temperature of 7 degrees on the menu. Luckily, it seems that the riders will have bright sunshine for the first mountain stage on Thursday where the temperature in Morgins is forecasted to be seven degrees and it should be similarly good for the time trial.

 

Unfortunately, the bad weather is set to return for the weekend where a total of 11mm of rain is forecasted in Villars-sur-Olon, meaning that there will be snow on the climbs. Finally, it will be another rainy day in Geneve on Sunday when 6mm of precipitation are forecasted but with a temperature of 11 degrees, there will be no risk of snow.

 

The favourites

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 race against the clock has often been the most important. In 2013 and 2014, Chris Froome and Simon Spilak slightly managed make it less important 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.

 

After last year’s relatively tough course, the organizers have gone one step further by designing a much harder race than usual and for once the climbers and the time triallists seem to be on a more level playing field. Furthermore, the opening prologue is by no means flat and should suit the punchy riders better than the real powerhouses. This year the Tour de Romandie really lives up to its reputation as one of the most mountainous races of the year. At the same time, it is a bit of a paradox that there may be better opportunities for the sprinters than usual as stages 1 and 5 appear to be easier than the typical sprint stages in Romandie and so it is a better race for both climbers and fastmen than we have seen in the past few years.

 

As said, bad weather is set to mar the prologues and stages 1, 4 and 5 which means that there is a risk that the queen stage may be altered. Probably they will be able to do the final climb but they may have to skip some of the earlier ascents. We base this preview on the assumption that everything will go ahead as planned.

 

Stages 1 and 5 should have little impact on the GC but the prologue, the time trial and the two mountain stages will all create gaps between the overall contenders. The differences in the prologue will of course be minor so the GC will mainly come down to stages 2, 3 and 4. The two mountain stages are definitely harder than usual but the finishing climbs are still relatively short and easy compared to what is found in the grand tours – especially the climb in stage 2. They will definitely create some differences but the time trial will still be hugely important. On the other hand, that stage is a bit shorter than usual and the tough climb means that the climbers should be able to defend themselves pretty well on stage 4. However, there are still a bit of flat roads for the bigger riders to make a difference so it requires a quite versatile skillset to win this race which is a bit of a mini grand tour for real stage race specialists.

 

That’s refelected in the start list which is impressive and clearly one of the best for a one-week stage race this year. As said, Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez are the notable absentees among the Tour de France contenders but apart from those two riders, it seems like we will get the perfect dress rehearsal for La Grande Boucle. With such a formidable line-up, there is a big chance that the recent trend of Romandie-Tour doubles will be resumed in 2016.

 

That also means that it is hard to look beyond Chris Froome as the favourite. The Swiss race has always been one of the biggest goals of the Brit’s spring season and it is no different in 2016. Froome is searching for an important confidence boost after a spring that has seen him race very little and he will be eager to return to the top step of the podium after last year’s frustrating defeat.

 

There is little doubt that Froome will be going all out in an attempt to take the win but he is not the dominant force that he once was. In 2013 and 2014, he was very hard to beat in the spring races but in the last few years he hasn’t been his usual consistent self. In fact, he failed to win a single WorldTour race in the 2015 spring and this year his only win came early at the Herald Sun Tour which was a very small race that only had two WorldTour teams at the start.

 

The lack of victories is partly due to the fact that Froome has barely raced but no one can deny that the Brit was far from his usual level at the Volta a Catalunya which is the only stage race he has done in Europe so far. Sky went into the race with most of their A team and did nothing to hide that they were gunning for the win, with Froome riding very aggressively and attentively in the first summit finish. However, he quickly had to realize that he was not at the level of the best climbers and he had to settle for a modest 8th place.

 

The poor result in Spain doesn’t mean that Froome won’t be competitive in Romandie. In the last few years, he has always been off the pace in Catalonia but his usual training camp in Tenerife has brought him to a much higher level for the Swiss race. Unlike in the last two years, he has even had a much better preparation as he hasn’t had to deal with any health issues so if anything we can expect him to be better than he was in 2015 and 2014.

 

Froome has often proved that he is the best climber in the world and so the harder course is definitely a big advantage for him and he will be supported by a formidable team of climbers that will be able to set him up for his trademark attacks. The presence of Geraint Thomas, Mikel Nieve and Michal Kwiatkowski means that Sky can be expected to have strength in numbers in the two summit finishes and they will be able to set the brutal pace that Froome likes.

 

The big question mark is the time trial. In the past, the TTs were a big advantage for Froome who was one of the best time triallists in the world and able to gain significant time on all his main rivals. However, he has not done a single good time trial since the 2014 Dauphiné and it is very hard to explain why his TT skills have worsened so much. Last year the lack of TTs in the Tour meant that he focused less on the discipline though and he is likely to have spent a lot more time on his TT bike in 2016. Nonetheless, it still remains to be seen whether he can return to his former level.

 

Despite the TT concerns, Froome has to be the favourite. He looked pretty strong in Liege before he eased off in the finale to save energy for this race. If he is close to his best level, he should be one of the very best in the mountains and he should definitely be able to defend himself well in the TTs. It remains to be seen whether he can still base his stage race victories on the time trials but he doesn’t have to. If he has his best legs, he will be unstoppable in the mountains and claim a third Romandie victory.

 

His biggest rival could very well be a former teammate. Richie Porte has had a very strong start to the year despite several health concerns that have set him back. It is testament to his huge class that he dominated the Tour Down Under queen stage at a time when he had done much less training than usual to be fresher for his big objectives and he had even entered the race claiming that he was not in racing condition. He fell ill in Oman and went into Paris-Nice with almost no expectations but again he surprised himself by taking third overall, being the second best rider on the climbs behind Alberto Contador. He ended the first part of his campaign in Catalunya where he just missed the podium as Daniel Martin picked up several bonus seconds in the final three rather easy stages.

 

With that kind of results already in the books, it must be a scary prospect to his rivals that he now feels ready to go for victory for the first time this year. He has just finished a training block at altitude and goes into the race with confidence. He will share the leadership with Tejay van Garderen and is part of a formidable team that includes Damiano Caruso, Amael Moinard and Brent Bookwalter who has been really impressive this year. In Catalonia, Porte and van Garderen proved how they can benefit from each other and if they can isolate their rivals they will have cards to play.

 

The big question mark is the fact that he comes straight from altitude training and even though he now has Liege in his legs – he took it easy in that race – he has not always been good after such a block. However, in recent years, he has proved that he is able to match the very best on the climbs and he is an excellent time triallist too, especially on hilly courses. He has dominated the Col d’Eze time trial in the last few years and last year he beat no less of a figure than Rohan Dennis at his national championships. If he can deliver that kind of effort in a TT that suits him well, he will be very hard to beat in this race.

 

Last year we made Ilnur Zakarin a 2-star favourite for the race but we had never expected him to win a race that had attracted the likes of Froome, Quintana and Nibali. However, the Russian caught everybody by surprise by claiming the victory. Of course he benefited from a lack of attention from the race favourites when he surged clear in the queen stage but in the final time trial, he proved that he was the strongest rider in the race. There is little doubt that he would have beaten Tony Martin in that stage if he hadn’t had a mechanical.

 

Zakarin never reached the same kind of form later in 2015 and honestly we were wondering whether his results were a fluke when he rode pretty poorly throughout the autumn. However, he has put out doubts to rest by climbing better than ever in the first part of 2016. He won the queen stage in Paris-Nice and he was among the strongest in Catalonia.

 

Since then, he has been training for the Giro and he seems to be much stronger now. He was probably the best rider in Liege-Bastogne-Liege where it was only his light weight that made him suffer on the cobbles. On the paved climbs, he was the best and he will even find the terrain in Romandie much more to his liking.

 

Furthermore, Zakarin is a very good time triallist. He is no longer the specialist that he once was as he has lost too much weight but as he proved 12 months ago, he is excellent on hilly courses. Hence, he should find stage 3 to his liking and if he can deliver a TT like last year, he will be very difficult to beat. As he also likes the bad weather, he could very well make it two in a row.

 

One of the big question marks for this race is Tom Dumoulin. The Dutchman is gearing up for the Giro d’Italia which is his first big goal of the year and he is aiming for the GC in this race. However, his goal at the Giro is different as it will be all about the time trials in Italy where the GC won’t be a goal. Hence, his training is likely to have been more focused on time trialling than climbing and this could have an impact on his chances in this race.

 

On paper, Dumoulin is the best time triallist in this race. He prefers hilly, technical courses and he should find both the prologue and stage 3 to his liking. Less than two weeks from the Dutch time trial in the Giro, there is little doubt that Dumoulin will be the big favourite for the two TTs and then it will all depend on what he can do on the climbs. He admitted that he was not at a competitive level at Amstel Gold Race and Brabantse Pijl but still left the former race disappointed after a puncture had taken him out of contention at a time when he was feeling good. He is likely to be a lot better in Romandie and the climbs here should suit him pretty well. He probably won’t be able to hang onto the very best but if he can limit his losses, this is definitely a race that he can win.

 

Nairo Quintana returns to racing after a mixed performance at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. After his dominant performance in Catalonia where he managed to distance an in-form Contador on the climbs, he fell ill and so he was not at his best in the Basque Country. However, he bounced back with an excellent time trial in the end and so secured a podium place. It is important to remember that the nature of the TT in Pais Vasco meant that it was more about climbing legs than TT skills so while the result can’t be used to hail Quintana as a TT specialist, it was another confirmation that he is climbing extremely well at the moment.

 

However, Quintana will have a harder time in Romandie than he had in Pais Vasco. He is definitely much better suited to the longer climbs in Switzerland but the time trial has a flat section where he will lose time to the specialists. On that kind of hilly course, he will be able to limit his losses but he won’t be able to keep up with the likes of Froome, Porte, Ilnur Zakarin, Simon Spilak and Tejay van Garderen. To win this race, he has to be the best climber in the race which is definitely not easy in a race that is loaded with grand tour stars.

 

However, Quintana’s climbing has been really impressive this year. He beat Contador in Catalonia and as the Spaniard claims to be at his 2014 level, that speaks volumes about his level. Compared to the likes of Froome and Porte, he deals well with the cold weather which should be a big advantage for him. If he has the legs he had in Catalonia, he could add another big stage race to his growing palmares.

 

Simon Spilak has built a reputation as Mr. Romandie. He has been second three years in a row which is definitely no coincidence. He is by far the most consistent rider in the one-week stage races of the spring and is usually always in the top 5 in Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tour de Suisse. Last year he was even better than ever as he was on the podium in Romandie and Paris-Nice, won the Tour de Suisse and would probably have won Pais Vasco as well if he hadn’t been taken out by a mechanical in the time trial.

 

The Tour de Romandie is probably the race that suits him the best. He excels in bad weather and on the climbs that are found in this part of the world. Despite not being a real specialist, he is one of the very best on hilly courses and this year’s TT definitely suits him pretty well. Unfortunately, he has had an illness-marred start to the year and he hasn’t been at his usual level yet. However, he showed signs of progress in Pais Vasco and left the race with an important confidence boost, knowing that he would be competitive in Romandie. His difficult preparation makes him a bit more of an outsider than usual but if he is at his highest level, it may be time for him to turn the many second places into a win.

 

Thibaut Pinot has never done anything to hide that this is his favourite race in the spring. That makes absolutely sense as it is tailor-made for him. He excels in bad weather, he likes the long climbs and he has turned himself into a TT specialist who now benefits from the presence of TTs. This means that he will find the course for this year’s race to his liking.

 

Pinot has always been a great climber and it speaks volumes about his level that he won the queen stages in both Romandie and Switzerland last year. However, those two races also proved that he is still not time trialling well enough to beat the best, even on hilly courses. This year he has taken another step as he won the Criterium International time trial but he was still disappointed not to be closer to the best in the Pais Vasco TT where he had to settle for fourth.

 

Pinot has been flying on the climbs all year and did pretty well in the Basque Country where the short, steep ascents don’t suit. Hence, there is little doubt that he will be one of the very best in the mountains. The TT in Romandie should suit him better than the one in Spain as it is less technical. If he can add that extra bit to his TTs compared to last year, there is no reason that he can’t win this race.

 

Tejay van Garderen has never really had much luck in this race as he has been set back by crashes. However, it is clearly a race that suits him well. In the last few years, he has improved his climbing massively and as he proved in last year’s Dauphiné where he even managed to beat Froome in one of the stages, he can match most when he is at his highest level.

 

In the past, van Garderen always suffered in the mountains while he gained lots of time in the TTs. His improved climbing has cost a bit in the flat TTs but he is still one of the very best on a hilly course. He proved that by winning the Ruta del Sol TT and he should find the course in Romandie to his liking. Furthermore, he is part of a strong BMC team that can play a tactical game with Porte in the mountains. He has been riding well all year and confirmed his consistent growth. If he can repeat his TT performance from Andalusia and climb like he did in last year’s Dauphiné, this is a great race for him.

 

Rui Costa is in the form of his life and he really likes this race. He was third three years in a row until his string was broken 12 months ago. This year he has been riding better than ever before, defending himself better than ever in Pais Vasco where the steep climbs don’t suit him, and riding amazingly well in the Ardennes where he crowned it all with a third place in Liege.

 

Costa likes the bad weather and even though he is no TT specialist, he has done some very good hilly time trials, most notably at the Tour de Suisse. However, he is not a pure climber and he will have to defend himself in the mountain stages. As there are better time triallists here, it will be hard for him to win the race but he can definitely finish on the podium again.

 

Geraint Thomas won Paris-Nice where he was the team leader but here he has to work as domestique for Froome. However, it’s a big test of how the pair can ride together at the Tour where they both aim for the GC and there is little doubt that Thomas goes into the race with personal ambitions. He has been preparing for this race at altitude and we can expect him to be back in form after he had a small decline in his condition after his win in Paris-Nice.

 

Thomas is a good time triallist and even though there are better riders than him, he seems to have improved his level in 2016. If he can beat Froome in stage 3 which is definitely not impossible, he may get more freedom in the queen stage. The long, gradual climbs in Romandie suit him down to the ground and he should be one of the best in the mountain stages. Everything will depend on Froome’s form but if the leader is not able to win, Thomas definitely has a chance to do so.

 

Ion Izagirre goes into the race to support Nairo Quintana but he may be able to take his own chance. The Basque is an excellent rider for one-week stage races which he proved by beating Quintana in Pais Vasco last year despite working tirelessly for his leader. After his great start to the year and fifth place in Paris-Nice, he was set to share leadership with Quintana in Pais Vasco but as he fell ill on the eve of the race, he didn’t even make it to the start. That was a big shame as he had shown great form by winning the GP Miguel Indurain just two days earlier.

 

Izagirre is back in form as he proved with his great ride in the Ardennes and this is a race that suits him well. He is one of the very best in hilly TTs where he rarely fails to finish in the top 10 and this year he has even taken another step. In fact, he would probably have won the Valencia TT if he hadn’t gone down in a crash. Unfortunately, the longer climbs in Romandie don’t suit him too well so it will be hard for him to win. However, if he can do a very good time trial and beat Quintana in stage 3, he may get the freedom to target the podium.

 

We are curious to see what Rigoberto Uran can do in this race. On paper, it suits him excellently. In 2014, he suddenly turned himself into a real TT specialist and it all started when he nearly beat his then-teammate Tony Martin in this race. He crushed the opposition in the Giro TT that year but unfortunately he was not at the same level in 2015.

 

Uran has had a difficult start to the year and he has been far from his best level. That’s a bit of surprise as he has usually been pretty consistent in the spring. He should be a lot better now as he is aiming for the Giro. On the other hand, he has never been able to climb with the best in this race which has always been his final build-up. We still have some doubts about his ability to return to his 2014 level in the TTs and so he is no more than an outsider for this race.

 

Andrew Talansky is the second Cannondale card. He nearly won this race in 2012 and when he won the 2014 Dauphiné, he seemed to be destined for greatness in the stage races. Since then, nothing has gone right and he has been far from his best level. This year he has had a different approach with less racing. Instead, he has been training at altitude and no one knows how this will influence him. At his previous level, he would be one of the favourites for his race whose hilly time trial suits him down to the ground but he still needs to prove that he can get back to that kind of form.

 

Rafal Majka is also aiming for the Giro. It is always hard to tell how he will react to a block of altitude training but he looked very strong in Liege until he was taken out by a crash. Unfortunately, that tumble may set him a bit back in this race and it remains to be seen how he has recovered. However, if he is climbing as well as he did in last year’s Vuelta, he will be one of the best in the mountains. Unfortunately, that is probably not enough to win the race as he will lose too much time in time trial. He has improved a lot and last year he did an excellent TT in this race. However, this one probably suits him a bit less and as there are so many specialists here, it will be very hard for him to win the race.

 

The same can be said for Romain Bardet. This is the final big goal of his spring season and he did very well here last year when he had a similar programme with Trentino, Liege and Romandie. In Trentino he was probably stronger than he was in 2015 and he was also very good in Liege even though he – like many other light guys – had a hard time on the cobbles. He wasn’t at his very best in Trentino but we expect him to be better in this race. Unfortunately, the TT will make it hard for him to win the race. Last year he did the TT of his life here but as this year’s less technical course suits him less it will be very hard to repeat that performance.

 

Finally, Bauke Mollema deserves a mention. The Dutchman was very strong in the early part of the year but then he fell ill before Pais Vasco. That meant that he wasn’t at his best in the Ardennes which prompted him to skip Fleche Wallonne. However, he showed clear signs of improvement in Liege where he rode to 9th and we expect him to be even better here. In general, he seems to have improved since joining Trek, most notably in the time trials. He should definitely find the hilly course to his liking but he is probably not time trialling well enough to win the race.

 

***** Chris Froome

**** Richie Porte, Ilnur Zakarin

*** Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana, Simon Spilak, Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen

** Rui Costa, Geraint Thomas, Ion Izagirre, Rigoberto Uran, Andrew Talansky, Rafal Majka, Diego Rosa, Romain Bardet, Bauke Mollema

* Wilco Kelderman, Sebastien Reichenbach, Mathias Frank, Rein Taaramae, Davide Formolo, Miguel Angel Lopez, Louis Vervaeke, Rafael Valls, Pierre Latour

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