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Whenever Chris Froome lines up in a stage race, he is the major favourite, and it is hard to argue that it should be any different this week. The Sky captain has taken over Wiggins' habit of being competitive in all races, and the Tour...

Photo: Sirotti




















26.04.2013 @ 09:26 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The classics are done and dusted and while the explosive one-day specialists take a well-deserved rest, the stage racing season kicks off in earnest with the Giro d'Italia starting in less than two weeks. The Tour de Romandie offers one opportunity to gauge the form ahead of the Italian grand tour but the Giro contenders will have to battle it out with Tour de France riders looking to add one last prestigious stage race to their palmares before they start the build-up to their summer objective.


Held on a mountainous course close to the Giro start, the Tour de Romandie was once the preferred final preparation race for riders looking to impress on the Italian roads. A hard week of racing followed by one week of rest was by many seen as the perfect build-up to the first of the three grand tours.


That has all changed in recent years 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.


However, this development 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. It is no coincidence that the last two editions have been won by the riders who later went on to win the Tour de France and with a very competitive line-up containing among others the man who seems to emerge as the Tour favourite, the Swiss could very well make it three in a row.


It is no coincidence that the race is attractive to some of the world's most formidable stage race riders. Held in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the race takes in the roads of the Alpine heartland and there are very few kilometres of flat roads during the six days of racing. Furthermore, organizers have mostly included both a prologue and a longer - often very hilly - time trial in the parcours and the race has all the characteristics of a mini-grand tour - without many opportunities for the sprinters. Hence, it is no surprise to see the fast men turn their back to Switzerland in the last week of April 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.


This year seems to confirm recent trends. Among the Giro favourites only Ivan Basso, Ryder Hesjedal, Robert Gesink, Robert Kiserlovski and Jose Rujano will be on the start line tomorrow while Tour de France contenders Chris Froome, Jean-Christophe Peraud, John Gadret, Igor Anton, Thibaut Pinot, Tom Danielson, Andrew Talansky, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Alejandro Valverde, Tony Martin, Pierre Rolland and Thomas De Gendt will all travel to Switzerland for a final week of racing this spring. Among the fast men only Elia Viviani, Francisco Ventoso, Giacomo Nizzolo, Mark Cavendish and Matthew Goss see the Swiss roads as the perfect site of preparation for their Giro participation.


Last year Bradley Wiggins took his second big stage race victory in what turned out to be an amazing lead-up to his Tour de France triumph. On a not overly difficult course, the race came down to the final uphill time trial to Crans-Montana  and the Brit managed to fight back from a mechanical to hold off Andrew Talansky by less than a second. He took both the stage win and the overall victory to finish a race in which he had also shown new talents as a sprinter by winning the bunch kick from a reduced group in stage 1. Preceded by an overall win in the Paris-Nice and followed by a victory in the Criterium du Dauphine, the Brit's performances on the Swiss roads was just one of several indication that he was on track for a big result in July and his early season was very similar to the one of Cadel Evans in 2011 who used overall victories in the Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandy and a 2nd place in the Criterium du Dauphine as preparation for his Tour triumph.


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.


This year organizers seem to have reinvented the course somewhat. The traditional short sprinter-friendly prologue has been rethought and the hilly time trial has been replaced by one for the specialists. While the sprinters will once again have limited opportunities, the climbers will lick their lips in anticipation of the hard, 1752m Col de la Croix in the final part of the penultimate stage. This year the climbers and time trial experts seem to battle on a much more level playing field.


Since 2002 the race has kicked off with a very short prologue with a length between 1,9 and 4,3km, and it has been a perfect opportunity for sprinters, prologue experts and track specialists to get an early stint in the leader's jersey. These riders will be disappointed to see that trend being bucked as the opening day will now see riders tackle the very rare discipline of an uphill prologue. The 7,45km route starts out with a gentle rise during the first 4km but after the intermediate check the climbing gets serious. The last 3,39km have an average gradient of 6,2% but the last 2,5km will be much steeper. The stage is certainly not one for the time trial specialists and seems to be the perfect stomping ground for the race's explosive climbers. Significant gaps are certain to open up already on the opening day.


The 176,4km stage 1 is a hard one with some tough climbing along the way from Saint-Maurice to Renens. No less than 2054 vertical meters await the riders with three categorized climbs all providing plenty of opportunities for attacks. The race starts off with a short, sharp, uncategorized climb before the peloton hits a 35km flat stretch. Two category 3 climbs are on the menu in a hilly zone starting after 40km of racing before the riders hit the day's main challenge, the 1174m category 2 climb Col du Mollendruz. The 14,8km ascent is not overly steep with an average gradient of 3,3% but has much harder sections along the way. From the top 41,3km of gradual descending remain and the long distance form the final climb to the finish means that it will not be a day for the favourites to make a difference. The stage seems suited to a strong breakaway but with no big GC gaps in place the race should be controlled by the favourite teams and the most likely outcome is a sprint from a reduced group. However, it would be a huge surprise to see the likes of Cavendish remain in contention at the end of such a long hard day of racing.


The sprinters may find Thursday's second stage more to their liking. The 190,3km route from Prilly to Granges is mostly flat but some severe obstacles could destroy the day for the fast men. The first of those is the uncategorized climb to Rochefort after 70km of racing and after 88,5km the riders reach the summit of the steep category 2 climb to Chaumont (3,1km, 11,6%). The sprinters will be happy that this leg-breaker is located too early to have any influence on the final outcome but that may not be the case for the day's final ascent, the category 3 climb to Plagne (2,1km, 7,4%). The hill has some steep parts and from the top only 17,3km remain. After a fast descent, the final 13km are mostly flat and some kind of bunch sprint is expected in the streets of Granges - the main question will be which of the sprinters are still in contention at that point of the race.


Friday's 181km third stage starting and ending in Payerne is another one with plenty of climbing but once again the climbs are not severe enough to make any difference between the overall contenders. The route contains no less than 1981m of climbing and it goes up and down most of the day. Besides a number of uncategorized rises, the riders will tackle two category 2 and two category 3 ascents. The former are located in the middle part of the race after a rather easy opening and are followed by a gradual descent and some flat roads. The final kicks off with the category 3 climb to Sassel (2,6km, 5,8%) whose top is located with 40,6km remaining and after some undulating terrain the category 3 climb to Chables (2,2km, 4,7%) awaits the riders. From the top 17,3km remain but the mostly downhill run-in will be interrupted by a 900m long climb with an average gradient of 7,3% to Aumont. The final 10,5km will be an opportunity for riders to rejoin the group before we could once again see some kind of sprint at the end of the stage. It could be another chance for a successful breakaway but with the GC still expected to be relatively close, there is a big chance that the race will be kept under firm control by the major teams.


The GC battle will heat up in the weekend which offers an opportunity for both the climbers and the time trial specialists. The former will be the first to kick into action in Saturday's extremely hard 188,5km stage from Marly to Les Diablerets. Containing to less than 3981m of climbing, the riders will tackle no less than 4 category 1 mountains with two of those located in the final half of the race. The start will be a gentle one but when the riders hit the lower slopes of the Col des Mosses (13,8km, 4,0%) after 52km of racing there will be no time to rest throughout the remainder of the stage. After a short descent, the riders pass the finish line and start to climb the crucial stretch that they will descend inside the final 10km of the stage. With 99,5km to go they reach the top of the Col de la Croix (8,2km, 7,2%) and from then it is a long descent until the bottom of the day's penultimate ascent. The summit of the Pas de Morgins (15,8km, 5,4%) is located with 52,8km to go and after a long descent the riders hit the day's crucial climb, the Col de la Croix (23,5km, 5,7%).There is no doubt that the slopes will be the scene of a big battle between the GC riders as the climbers try to distance the best time triallists. From the top only a fast 9,7km descent remain and it will offer limited opportunity for dropped riders to get back on.


The final day of racing is the perfect scene for the race's specialists against the clock as the 18,7km final time trial is held on a completely flat course on the shores of the Lake Geneva. The route has no technical difficulties and will be one for big gears and high speed. The stage will see a big battle for the stage victory between the likes of Tony Martin and Taylor Phinney while it will also determine the man to succeed Bradley Wiggins as the overall winner of the Tour de Romandie.


The weather

The Tour de Romandie has had a reputation of being a very rainy affair and with numerous descents in the mountains, the harsh weather conditions have made the event rather treacherous. This year seems to be mostly a lucky one for the riders as they will enjoy plenty of sunshine, temperatures between 15 and 20 degrees and almost no wind during the opening 4 days of the race.


However, things are forecasted to become much worse in the race's queen stage on Saturday. Temperatures below the 10 degree mark are expected on a very wet day in the Swiss mountains and it will only turn an already hard stage into a truly epic affair. It would be no surprise to see plenty of riders abandon if the forecasts are correct. Unfortunately, the bad weather and the high climbs imply some risk that organizers will have to modify the course and we can only cross our fingers in the hope that the race's most anticipated stage will go forward as planned.


The final day's time trial should be held in dry and sunny conditions but it will be slightly colder than it is expected to be during the opening days of the race.


The favourites

Whenever Chris Froome lines up in a stage race these days, he is the major favourite, and it is hard to argue that it should be any different in this week's Swiss event. The Sky captain has taken over Bradley Wiggins' habit of being competitive in all races during the spring, and like his fellow British Sky captain did last year he has marked out the Tour de Romandie as his final major objective before he starts the build-up for the Tour de France.


The course is perfectly suited to the versatile Brit. The hard mountain stage will make it possible for him to distance world time trial champion Tony Martin while he will be superior to most of his rivals in the flat final race against the clock. He has won both of the hard summit finishes he has contested in Europe this year as he came out triumphant in the queen stages of both the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Criterium International and he will relish the long, steady climbs as opposed to the short, steep ascents that became his undoing in the Italian stage race earlier this year.


His diesel engine would have preferred a longer time trial and a more hilly profile but his 3rd place on the completely flat Olympic route last summer shows that rough terrain is not needed for the Brit to shine. He has never been a prologue specialist but the difficult nature of the opening day of racing will make sure that he should be in with a chance to distance his rivals on the very first occasion. As usual he will be surrounded by an incredibly strong team and the likes of Richie Porte, David Lopez and Vasil Kiryienka will be a guarantee for a strong Sky presence as the British team line up their famous train on the hardest climbs.


The Tour runner-up has been on fire all season and with a win in the Tour of Oman and the Criterium International and a 2nd place in the Tirreno-Adriatico he has not finished outside the top 2 in any stage race this year. He has had a long absence from competition but got back into racing rhythm in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday. He had a disappointing performance in the classic but he has never been a one-day specialist and is not a fan of the short, steep climbs of the Ardennes. This week he will be back in his preferred terrain and with three easier days to get back into competition mode he will be very hard to beat in the final weekend. As the most versatile athlete, he is simply the most obvious winner on a course containing most of cycling's different disciplines.


To beat Froome one opportunity is to drop the Brit in the mountains and limit the losses in the time trial and there are a number of in-form climbers who could be able to do just that. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) stands out as one obvious contender for the overall victory as he tries to take one last top result before a short rest and a build-up for the Tour de France. He was the most consistent performer in the Ardennes classics and finished on the podium in both the Amstel Gold Race and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege. After having shown superior strength on the Cote de Saint-Nicolas in Sunday's race, he faded, however, in the final part of the race, and it could indicate that his form is already on the decline.


Nonetheless, the Spaniard has been incredibly strong all season and despite his limited racing and an unfortunate crash in the Volta a Catalunya, he has been right in the mix whenever he has lined up for a race. In Catalonia he seemed to be the strongest in the mountains and if he has kept that kind of power, he could be the man to trouble Froome on the Col de la Croix. The last time he finished off his classics campaign  in Romandie was in 2010 when he ended up winning the race (even though he was later disqualified due to his involvement in the Operacion Puerto case).


The course is well-suited to the Spaniard with a hard mountain stage as his most important opportunity to take time out of Froome. He has always been a good prologue rider and the hard nature of the opening race against the clock could even mark him out as the favourite to take the first leader's jersey of the race. He even won on a flat route in February's Vuelta a Andalucia. He has found it difficult to rediscover his earlier strength in the time trials after his comeback from suspension and the flat course on the final day does not suit him at all. However, he has gradually been regaining some of his former abilities and the final race against the clock will be the first opportunity to check out his progress in the discipline that is still his main weakness.


Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) seems to have timed his build-up for his title defence in the Italian grand tour perfectly. After a late and slow start to the season, he was one of the strongest in the Ardennes classics. In the final part of the Amstel Gold Race he single-handedly closed the gap to the chase group behind eventual winner Roman Kreuziger before being swallowed up on the lower slopes of the Cauberg. In the Fleche Wallonne he managed to take 19th despite a long chase due an extremely untimely puncture, and in yesterday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege he was instrumental in setting up Daniel Martin for the win and was maybe even the best man on the day. As time goes by, his diesel engine only gets stronger and stronger, and there is no reason to believe that he will be any weaker in this week's Swiss race.


The main question surrounding the Canadian may be the effect of his Giro ambitions. Last year he was strong in the early part of the Romandy race before fading on the race's queen stage and he could be reluctant to go too deep just a week before his big objective. He has been reassured by his condition in the Ardennes and he does not need to prove his readiness in the Swiss mountains.


If he chooses to fight for the victory, he will, however, be a danger man. The long climbs in the queen stage suit him perfectly and while he is not a time trial expert, he is certainly able to defend himself in the discipline. Like most of the overall contenders he will have to drop Froome on the Col de la Croix but with his current condition he could be the man to do it. And if he enters the final time trial with a solid advantage, the Sky captain will have to fire on all cylinders to take back the time on the lanky Canadian.


Robert Gesink (Blanco) is another rider using the race as his final Giro preparation. While the Dutchman has always struggled to be in the battle for victory in the grand tours, he seems to be incredibly talented in the one-week stage races. In 2010 he crushed the opposition in the mountains in the Tour de Suisse just prior to his grand tour objective and only a bad final time trial prevented him from taking the overall win. In 2011 he was on fire in the early season with a win in the Tour of Oman, 2nd in the Tirreno-Adriatico and 3rd in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, and last year he took a hugely convincing win in the Tour of California.


This year he was strong in the early part of the season and seemed to be on track for a top performance in his first objective, the Paris-Nice. After a strong prologue he was, however, hampered by health problems and he chose to abandon the race. He bounced back in the Volta a Catalunya where he ended 6th despite his recent troubles and since then he has carefully prepared his Giro campaign with teammates Steven Kruijswijk and Wilco Keldermann who will be his key support riders in both the Giro and this week's race.


His main strength remains his climbing prowess but no rider seems to have improved as much in the time trials in recent years as the lanky Dutchman. While he had modest abilities in the race against the clock earlier on in his career, something had changed at the start of the 2011 season and since then he has had some amazing performances even on flat courses. There is no doubt that he will lose time to Froome on the final day of racing but he should be able to limit his losses and a good overall result in Romandy will be the perfect confidence booster ahead of his Giro campaign.


In a short race with a flat time trial no one can ever write off the world champion in the discipline, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). The German would without any doubt have preferred the easier courses of the recent editions and the climbing in stage 4 could be too much for the Panzerwagen. However, he is not bad a bad climber in shorter stage races and when he won the Paris-Nice in 2011, he even seemed to be the strongest on the ascents. 2nd places in the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie prove that he has what it takes to be competitive even in mountainous week-long stage races.


He had a terrible 2011 season in which he never found the form that made him almost unbeatable in the time trials in 2011. This year he seems to be back to his best and he has crushed the opposition in the race against the clock whenever he has lined up in his rainbow jersey. He even won the very hilly individual effort in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which is just a further testament to his current strength.


In the Tirreno-Adriatico he still missed something in the mountains but he had planned to show plenty of improvement in the Basque Country. However, a bad crash took him out of contention on the opening day and he chose to keep his powder dry for the time trial throughout the mountain stages. The Tour de Romandie will be his opportunity to show that he is also back to his best on the ascents before he starts his build-up for the Tour de France. He would have preferred a flatter prologue and it will be hard for him to win on the difficult route. From then on it will be a question of minimizing his losses in the mountains and then take back as much time as he can on the final day of racing. He will the only man that Froome really needs to drop if the Brit wants to take the overall victory.


Andrew Talansky (Garmin) got his major breakthrough as a stage race rider in Romandie last year when he was only narrowly beaten by Wiggins in the time trial and took a formidable 2nd place. Later in the year he showed further improvement with a fine 7th place in the Vuelta a Espana, and this season he was the best of the rest behind a fantastic Richie Porte (Sky) in the Paris-Nice. At the finish of the French stage race he pointed to this week's Swiss stage race as his next objective and it will be his last big race before he starts to prepare for his debut Tour de France.


After his strong showing in the Paris-Nice, he was less impressive in the Criterium International and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but it could very well be a deliberate choice to keep his powder dry for the race in Romandy. Unlike most of the GC contenders, his main strength is the time trial and Froome will find it hard to take out much time on the young American in the race against the clock. With his improvement in the mountains making him a hard challenger in the queen stage his versatility marks him out as a dangerous man. He may still be unable to follow the strongest climbers on the Col de la Croix but if he manages to minimize his losses he will be in with a short at a podium spot on the final day of racing. He is just another option in a very strong and confident Garmin line-up in which Hesjedal and Talansky are joined by the likes of Tom Danielson, Peter Stetina and Christian Vande Velde.


Veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) started his road career rather late and as a consequence he is a late blossomer. This year he has stepped up a level and has produced formidable results in his previous stage race outings. He started the year with a win on the Mont Faron in the Tour Mediteraneen and was 3rd overall in the Paris-Nice. He climbed with the best in the Criterium International on his way to an overall 5th place finish and he was about to take another top result in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco before he had a bad day on the penultimate stage. His main strength remains the time trail, and the former mountain bike rider will relish the opportunity on the final day of racing. He will be another to take a defensive approach throughout the week and if he manages to limit his losses, the Tour de Romandie could be another race in which the Frenchman confirms his possibilities in week-long stage races. Assisted by the likes of John Gadret, Rinaldo Nocentini, Carlos Betancur and Maxime Bouet he lines up as part of a formidable Ag2r team which could very well turn out to be one of the strongest in the race.


Finally Rui Costa (Movistar) deserves a mention. As another option in the impressive line-up form the Spanish squad, the Portuguese has managed to build up a strong condition after he crashed out of his early-season objective in the Paris-Nice. He returned to competition with a solid 13th place in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and since then he has only improved. He won the Klasika Primavera and in Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege he was the most active rider of the entire race. He was part of the move that went clear on the Redoute, he was once again present when the Hesjedal group went clear on the Colonster climb and he still had the power to finish 9th as part of the group that sprinted for 6th. His current strength makes him a danger man and he is a solid time triallist. To be really competitive last year's 3rd overall would need a tougher course on the final day of racing but he will not be too far off and will be another option for the Movistar team when they try to put Sky under pressure.


***** Chris Froome

**** Alejandro Valverde, Ryder Hesjedal

*** Robert Gesink, Tony Martin, Andrew Talansky, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Rui Costa

** Jurgen Van Den Broeck,  Simon Spilak, Tom Danielson, Roman Kreuziger, Janez Brajkovic, Richie Porte, Lieuwe Westra, Daniel Moreno, Thibaut Pinot

* Igor Anton, Alexandr Dyachenko, Peter Velits, Carlos Betancur, Steven Kruijswijk, Wilco Kelderman, Steve Morabito,  Johann Tschopp, Robert Kiserlovski, Pierre Rolland, Wouter Poels, Tiago Machado


Stage winner picks:

Prologue: Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, Richie Porte, Tony Martin, Andrew Talansky

Stage 1: Gianni Meersman, Alejandro Valverde, Francesco Gavazzi, Giacomo Nizzolo, Michael Albasini

Stage 2: Mark Cavendish, Matthew Goss, Elia Viviani, Roberto Ferrari, Giacomo Nizzolo

Stage 3: Matthew Goss, Mark Cavendish, Elia Viviani, Roberto Ferrari, Giacomo Nizzolo

Stage 4: Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde, Ryder Hesjedal, Robert Gesink, Thibaut Pinot

Stage 5: Tony Martin, Taylor Phinney, Chris Froome, Adriano Malori, Lieuwe Westra



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