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Tour de Suisse stage 8 & 9: Sagan and Cancellara doubles, Cunego has his Fignon moment

Stage 8: Tübach to Schaffhouse, 167.3km

Liquigas‘s Peter Sagan claimed his second sprint victory of the Tour de Suisse, beating Matt Goss and Ben Swift on an uphill finish in Schaffhouse. Race leader Damiano Cunego finished safely in the front group, but Bauke Mollema dropped from second to fifth ahead of Sunday’s decisive individual time trial.

The day’s breakaway comprised Francisco Ventoso (Movistar), Luca Paolini (Katusha), Jaroslaw Marycz (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Jan Barta (Net App). They escaped in the opening kilometres and established a lead of seven minutes before the peloton started to bring them back in. Paolini and Marycz dropped the other two with 30km remaining, but were nonetheless caught 11km from the finish.

Sagan claimed his second win of the week (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Movistar’s high tempo on the third-category Hallauerberg climb 22km from the end split the peloton, with the pace proving too much for several sprinters, including Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, who would both have been hopeful of victory here. And after Mollema punctured with 15km remaining Leopard-Trek moved to the front to drive the pace in an effort to promote Fränk Schleck in the general classification, leading to not unreasonable accusations of poor sportsmanship from Rabobank.

Vacansoleil‘s Wouter Poels took a speculative flier with 2.3km to go, but was swamped as he passed under the flamme rouge. On a slightly uphill finish, Sagan was led out by Daniel Oss but found himself boxed in. However, he calmly worked his way out of trouble as Sky‘s Swift opened up the sprint with 200 metres to go. That proved to be too soon, though, as the incline sapped his effort and Sagan was easily able to sweep around him to take victory by two lengths. Goss also caught Swift before the line to steal second.

Despite a big effort, Mollema was unable to bridge the gap and slipped down to fifth overall after losing 48 seconds to the front group, which contained yellow jersey Cunego, Steven Kruijswijk, Fränk Schleck and Levi Leipheimer.

Sagan was delighted with his second win, which also guaranteed him victory in the points competition:

I’m really happy with this win, mainly because I’m capitalising on all the opportunities presented by the race. Today’s stage was a tricky one to judge due to the profile in the finale. I was expecting an attack that would split the group, and that’s what happened. Many of the riders, including some of the sprinters, lost contact.

It was a really hard finale but thankfully in the final kilometre I had Daniel Oss leading me out. I’m very satisfied with this second win and the points jersey. It’s been a huge success for me this week.

Cunego maintained his 1:36 advantage over Kruijswijk. Not the greatest of time-trialists, his greatest threat for overall victory is likely to come from Leipheimer who is fourth, 1:59 behind. However, he was hopeful of defending the yellow jersey for one last day:

I’ve got quite a good lead and I’m in great form at the moment so it’s up to the guys behind me to catch me.

Stage 8 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 3:52:00

2. Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. Ben Swift (Sky) s.t.

4. Koldo Fernández (Euskaltel-Euskadi) s.t.

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) s.t.

Stage 9: Schaffhouse, 32.1km individual time trial

Fabian Cancellara book-ended the Tour de Suisse with his second time trial victory, although he was run mighty close by Andreas Klöden. However, it was Klöden’s RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer who stole the glory. The American set an outstanding time just 13 seconds slower than Cancellara, then had to wait for eight agonising minutes for Damiano Cunego to come in. The race leader, who had been in possession of the yellow jersey since stage three, had started the day with an advantage of 1:59 over fourth-placed Leipheimer. But in a finish reminiscent of the concluding time trial of the 1989 Tour de France, where yellow jersey Laurent Fignon capitulated in the concluding time trial to lose to Greg Lemond by eight seconds, Cunego lost time throughout the 32.1km course to concede top spot by the slender margin of four seconds.

Cancellara added the final time trial stage to his stage one prologue win (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

All eyes were on the Swiss world time trial champion to set the benchmark and Cancellara duly obliged with a best of 41:01, during the course of which he overtook the three riders in front of him. However, his time was seriously threatened by Klöden, who was five seconds faster at the first checkpoint at 9km, and seven quicker at the second at 22.9km, at the top of the big climb of the day. But he faded on the descent and final flat section, ending up nine seconds slower – which would still be good enough for second.

But the real battle was between Leipheimer, who started fourth-last, and final man Cunego. Although not the best of time-trialists, Cunego’s lead – one second shy of two minutes over the American – was widely thought to be more than sufficient over the course. The fact that he lost 28 seconds to Leipheimer over the first, only moderately rising section was little more than a minor concern. But at the second checkpoint – after the steepest section of climbing, which should have suited him best – Cunego’s advantage was down to just 33 seconds. And any thoughts that Leipheimer might have burnt himself out early on in trying to put pressure on the Italian were dispelled by his time at the finish – 41:14, just 13 seconds down on Cancellara.

There then followed an eight-minute wait as Leipheimer watched Fränk Schleck and Steven Kruijswijk – neither a threat – finish, before a labouring Cunego finally came into view down the closing straight. Seconds ticked agonisingly by, but Cunego’s target time passed with him still 50 metres from the line. Four seconds passed before he finally crossed the finish – the four seconds which provided Leipheimer with his overall margin of victory.

It was not so much that Cunego’s ride had been awful – 39th overall, 2:16 down on Cancellara was perhaps only marginally down on where he would have expected to finish – more that Leipheimer’s had been superb. The American had ridden a quiet and conservative race throughout the week, always there or thereabouts but hardly ever attacking. But on the one occasion when he did show some aggression, in the final few hundred metres of stage six after Cunego had had to give everything chasing down that day’s winner Kruijswijk, he took nine seconds out of the yellow jersey – a seemingly inconsequential amount at the time, but critical in the final analysis.

Leipheimer produced one of his best-ever time trials to snatch victory from Cunego by just four seconds (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

In the high drama of the finish, it is easy to overlook that in Klöden, Leipheimer and Nelson Oliveira, RadioShack placed second, third and fourth on the stage. And while Leopard-Trek had three of the final top ten on general classification, their highest placed finisher was not defending champion Schleck, but one of his senior foot-soldiers, Jakob Fuglsang, who was fourth overall.

Leipheimer was delighted with his morale-boosting win:

What a race. I really didn’t know how close it was with Cunego. All I heard was my director yelling at me in the last corner “Sprint! Sprint!” and I could hear in his voice that it really was a question of seconds.

“This Tour de Suisse has really been tough this year. Very mountainous, very hard. I had some good days, but also bad days, but without Team RadioShack there was no way I could win today. I am very happy I did not disappoint. Now it’s time to take some rest and start in the Tour de France.

Cunego said that he had suspected the course might not suit him, but also praised Leipheimer’s performance:

I’m really sorry I lost but that’s sport, you have to learn to lose before you can enjoy victory.

This morning I watched the path of the chrono and immediately I realized that was not suitable to my characteristics with the long straight into the wind. We must give credit to the big performance today of Leipheimer, who has once again demonstrated his strength in this speciality.

Stage winner Cancellara was delighted with his week’s efforts, which confirmed his as favourite for the Tour’s sole individual time trial on its penultimate day:

What can I say? It’s a time trial, I gave it 100 percent as I usually do and I won. To start and finish the race the way I have done, with two victories, makes it a perfect Tour of Switzerland for me.

So, who is in good form ahead of the Tour de France? Klöden showed well in both time trials and can be expected to form a formidable one-two punch with Leipheimer. Andy Schleck was anonymous for much of the week, but had two good workouts on mountain stages that suggested his best form is not that far away. Rabobank showed they will be a team to reckon with in the mountains, although their highest-placed finisher Kruijswijk is unlikely to race in the Tour having already ridden the Giro. And Peter Sagan showed that he will be a contender on the uphill sprints and lumpy stages scattered throughout the first week of the Tour which may favour the strong-man sprinters over the pure speedsters. Many have chosen not to show the true strength of their hand this week, but we have seen enough to know that there will be plenty of contenders for the various jerseys when the Tour kicks off in two weeks’ time. We will find out soon enough.

Stage 9 result:

1. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) 41:01

2. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:09

3. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +0:13

4. Nelson Oliveira (RadioShack) +0:25

5. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:38

General classification:

1. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) 31:45:02

2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +0:04

3. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)+1:02

4. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +1:10

5. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +2:05

6. Mathias Frank (BMC) +2:24

7. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:35

8. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) +3:11

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +3:17

10. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +4:12

Sprint classification:

1. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R La Mondiale) 27 pts

2. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 12

3. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Syep) 11

4. Luca Paolini (Katusha) 10

5. José Iván Gutiérrez (Movistar) 10

Mountains classification:

1. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 44 pts

2. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) 35

3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 30

4. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo) 21

5. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) 20

Points classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 86 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 50

3. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 44

4. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 39

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 36

Links: Tour de Suisse official website (French/German), Steephill.tv

Tour de Suisse recaps

Stage 1: No surprise as Cancellara wins opening time trial

Stage 2 & 3: Soler and Sagan win on up-and-down days

Stage 4 & 5: Hushovd and Božič triumph in uphill sprints

Stage 6 & 7: Soler crash overshadows Kruijswijk and De Gendt wins

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Tour de Suisse stage 6 & 7: Soler crash overshadows Kruijswijk and De Gendt wins

Stage 6: Töbel-Tägerschen to Triesenberg/Malbun, 157.7km

Rabobank‘s Steven Kruijswijk claimed his first major win with a solo attack on the hors catégorie climb to Malbun in Liechtenstein, but a dark shadow was cast over the day after a serious accident involving the Colombian Juan Mauricio Soler.

The 28-year old, who won stage two and started the day second in the general classification, crashed after 33km and was airlifted to hospital with a reported broken ankle, punctured lung, fractured skull and blood on the brain. He was put into an induced coma.

Saxo Bank-Sungard‘s Baden Cooke said Soler struck a raised kerb and was thrown into a spectator and a fence:

[He] had no time to brake at all. The fence did not move at all so Soler took the full impact.

Soler’s injury is an additional blow to a Movistar team still coming to terms with the death of Xavier Tondó in a freak accident last month, and marks the second major crash in the last six weeks after Wouter Weylandt‘s fatal crash.

The race was neutralised for a while as medics ascertained Soler’s condition, but was soon restarted. After 75km, a three-man break of Ángel Madrazo (Movistar), Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) had established a lead of nearly five minutes over the peloton. As they started the final punishing 14.4km climb they still maintained an advantage of 2½ minutes over a Leopard-Trek-led peloton driven by the familiar faces of Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt.

With Izagirre now on his own at the front, Leopard-Trek kept up the tempo, quickly shedding riders from the favourites’ group until there were no more than a dozen left, with Maxime Monfort and then Jakob Fuglsang taking over the pace-making duties. Izagirre was caught with 5.4km remaining, but the expected attacks failed to materialise as the favourites warily eyed the severity of the ramps still ahead of them.

Cunego successfully defended - and indeed extended - his overall lead (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

There were less than 3km remaining when Kruijswijk’s teammate Bauke Mollema finally attacked, drawing an immediate response from overall leader Damiano Cunego. Kruijswijk then made his decisive move, pulling a few seconds ahead and maintaining that gap all the way to the finish despite the best efforts of Cunego, Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) to chase him down. With Cunego forced to do the bulk of the work in the pursuit Leipheimer was able to jump ahead in the run to the finish, but he could do no more than put a small dent into Kruijswijk’s lead. Cunego was third while Fränk Schleck, for whom Leopard-Trek had worked so hard to set up, was a distant sixth, 30 seconds down.

The 24-year old Kruijswijk’s only previous win was in the prologue at the minor Tour d’Alsace in 2007. However, he has shown strong form at the Giro d’Italia, where he followed up an 18th-place finish in 2010 with an impressive ninth last month.

He said after the stage that he had been confident he was the strongest climber on the day:

For me it was clear that I was the best of the group. Then it was a matter of going full out through to the finish line. The last kilometre was very steep, but I felt very strong. Winning here is great, but the terrain and the opposition make it very special indeed.

Although he had been unable to follow Kruijswijk’s attack, Cunego was pleased with his performance – it was a fine and well-judged defensive ride – which put time into his closest rivals:

What a tough climb, with high speed in the first part, it was not so simple to face it. I think I put in a quite good performance, since I increased the gap over my immediate followers.

Rabobank had the advantage of relying on three athletes, so I decided to focus my attention on Mollema. When he attacked, I chased him and then I tried to counter attack, paying attention on pedalling smoothly. My action soon ended and so I kept my pace, but Leipheimer was on a very good day.

Stage 6 result:

1. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) 4:12:03

2. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +0:09

3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +0:18

4. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:21

5. Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) same time

Stage 7: Vaduz to Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis, 222.8km

The longest stage of this year’s race took the riders out of Liechtenstein via Switzerland to Austria, where a Belgian held off a Luxemburger after a long solo break on the day’s final climb. Vacansoleil‘s Thomas De Gendt rode strongly all the way to the finish to keep Andy Schleck at arm’s length, as the latter proved his doubters wrong about his form and fitness with a solid lone ride to take second place. Damiano Cunego again produced a solid defensive ride, keeping all his key rivals at arm’s length to maintain an 83-second advantage at the end of the last high mountains stage.

Firstly, the overnight prognosis on Juan Mauricio Soler was promising, with his condition being described as ‘stable’. Movistar team doctor Alfred Zuniga said:

The news today is good. Mauricio is still at the ICU and his progress is being favourable.

The cerebral edema, which is the most worrying thing, has gone through a slight improvement and that’s why we have to stay optimistic, even though we have to keep reservations because recovery in such processes is unpredictable. The 48-72 hours following the accident are crucial, but he has gotten over the first hours, which are even more critical.

On the road, a 17-man break set the agenda for the stage, establishing a maximum advantage of 8:25. The large escape group contained some serious big names and rouleurs such as Andy Schleck, Christian Vande Velde, George Hincapie and De Gendt, who took a notable breakaway victory at Paris-Nice earlier this season. Rabobank and Lampre led the chase on behalf of the peloton and the yellow jersey, but seemed content to settle for damage limitation at the tail end of a tiring week rather than a whole-hearted pursuit. Shortly before the final first-category climb to Serfaus, De Gendt broke free of the lead group, ekeing out an advantage of one minute over his former breakaway comrades. Only Schleck had the legs to follow him up the road, and although he proved his climbing legs by halving the gap, De Gendt was always able to maintain his advantage at around half a minute.

Behind them in the ever-decreasing yellow jersey group, Cunego had a surprisingly comfortable ride despite some hectic skirmishes (as opposed to all-out attacks) among his fellow riders which frequently worked in his favour rather than against him. There was certainly no series of concerted attacks on the race leader, as every dig by one rider was almost immediately responded to by another, allowing Cunego to make relatively untroubled progress simply by following wheels.

De Gendt was rewarded for an early solo attack with the stage win

At the end, a fresh-looking De Gendt was able to celebrate for fully 35 seconds before Schleck crossed the line. with the surviving breakaway members gradually appearing in ones and twos. The yellow jersey group, containing not only Cunego but nearest rivals Mollema, Kruijswijk, Fränk Schleck and Leipheimer, finished 4:39 down. It had been an exciting final climb, but one which was largely inconsequential in terms of the overall race due to the stalemate among the top five.

While still not at his very best, Andy Schleck was happy to put in a decent display ahead of the Tour de France. One suspects that the 14 minutes he lost the previous day – which had led some to question his conditioning ahead of the Tour de France – may have been a deliberate ploy to allow him to slip away in the break here, rather than an indication of poor form. Add this performance to his sustained tempo on the Grosse Scheidegg on Monday, and I suspect Schleck is exactly where he needs to be right now – in good enough form, but with the opportunity to find that final few percent in advance of the second half of the Tour.

After the stage he said:

When De Gendt went, I considered my options. It wasn’t the perfect spot for me on the downhill, so I waited. As soon as we reached the base of the final climb, I made my move.

Going all-out on that climb felt good. It was reassuring today to see that my form is there. I still have two weeks to add to my fitness level, and I had confirmation today that I am in a good spot in my final build-up to peak condition.

With nothing more challenging than a third-category climb remaining, Cunego holds a lead of 1:23 over Bauke Mollema, with Kruijswijk, Fränk Schleck and Leipheimer all within two minutes of the yellow jersey. In reality, though, barring a major mechanical problem or physical collapse, Cunego’s advantage should be enough to guarantee overall victory. In addition to Mollema, Rabobank have three riders in the top eight overall, with Kruijswijk third and Ten Dam eighth.

The penultimate stage of the race is largely flat, but features back-to-back third and fourth-category climbs in the last 25 kilometres, followed by a 13km dash to the finish. The combination of those two hills and weary legs mean a large bunch sprint is unlikely, although any sprinters who can maintain contact over the climbs should be able to contest the finish. It is more likely to be a day for the Classics men such as Hushovd and Freire than pure speed merchants Cavendish and Greipel.

Stage 8 profile

The race concludes on Sunday with a 32km individual time trial around Schaffhausen, which includes a nasty, testing climb at two-thirds distance which is sure to burn tired legs. Fabian Cancellara will start as favourite to book-end his ‘home’ race with stage wins but expect the majority of riders, who are neither top 20 contenders nor time trial specialists, to have a relatively easy spin before heading off for a well-earned rest before their respective national championships and, in many cases, the Tour de France.

Stage 9 profile

Stage 7 result:

1. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 5:38:42

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:35

3. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) +0:48

4. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:51

5. Alberto Losada (Katusha) +0:54

General classification:

1. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 27:09:49

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +1:23

3. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)+1:36

4. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:41

5. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +1:59

6. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +2:38

7. Mathias Frank (BMC) +3:10

8. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) +3:10

9. Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) +3:11

10. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) +3:22

Sprint classification:

1. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R La Mondiale) 27 pts

2. Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) 12

3. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Syep) 11

4. José Iván Gutiérrez (Movistar) 10

5. Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 9

Mountains classification:

1. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 42 pts

2. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) 35

3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 30

4. Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervélo) 21

5. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank) 20

Points classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 61 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 40

3. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 38

4. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 37

5. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) 34

Links: Tour de Suisse official website (French/German), Steephill.tv

Tour de Suisse recaps

Stage 1: No surprise as Cancellara wins opening time trial

Stage 2 & 3: Soler and Sagan win on up-and-down days

Stage 4 & 5: Hushovd and Božič triumph in uphill sprints

Tour de Suisse stage 4 & 5: Hushovd and Božič triumph in uphill sprints

Stage 4: Grindelwald to Huttwil, 198.4km

Garmin-Cervélo‘s Thor Hushovd powered past Peter Sagan on a difficult uphill finish in Huttwil to take the win on stage four of the Tour de Suisse. It was the Norwigian’s first victory since he claimed the world champion’s rainbow jersey last October.

On a largely flat stage featuring two closing laps around Huttwil with a tricky 3.1% incline in its final two kilometres, Quick Step‘s Sylvain Chavanel and NetApp’s Cesare Benedetti broke away from the peloton after 13km and were soon joined by AG2R‘s Lloyd Mondory to form a trio which established a maximum lead of 7:40. However, the sprinters’ teams, determined to give their fast men their first sniff of a bunch sprint, reeled them in with 18km still remaining.

However, the earliness of the catch afforded plenty of opportunities for speculative attacks. Vacansoleil‘s Sergey Lagutin initiated the first just as the peloton crossed the summit of the final, third-category climb 12km from the finish, but the three-man break survived barely 3km. NetApp’s young Czech Leopold König then launched an immediate but again short-lived counter. And finally fans’ favourite Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) took a flier with 4.5km, forcing the bunch into one final chase which was only concluded with 1.8km remaining.

Hushovd finally claimed his first win in the rainbow jersey

That set up the inevitable sprint finish, despite one final, futile flourish by Voigt’s teammate Stuart O’Grady at the kilometre banner. BMC‘s Alessandro Ballan tried a long-range attack from 350m out, but the slope quickly took the sting out of him and it was Sagan, who had won with a courageous climb and descent in the Alps the previous day, who seemed to have launched the decisive sprint with 250m to go. Hushovd was the only rider able to respond, and the world champion displayed his power to overhaul him in the final 50m and ease to a half-length victory. The relief on his face as he crossed the line for his first victory in eight months was all too obvious.

Marco Marcato was the best of the rest, at least a dozen lengths behind the front two. Britain’s Mark Cavendish, along with other pure sprinters such as Robbie McEwen and André Greipel, did not contest the sprint, having realised on the ascent during the first lap of Huttwil that he would not have the power to compete for the win. The overall leaders all finished in the bunch, meaning there were no significant changes in the general classification.

Hushovd was elated to have finally won in the rainbow jersey:

That was incredible. Sagan got five, ten metres on me and at first I struggled to get up to him but in the end I just managed to get the jump on him.

He talked about the pressure of wanting to honour his status as world champion:

The cameras are on you and people expect things of you. And previous world champions have honoured the rainbow jersey by winning a lot of races, so naturally you want to do the same. You always feel like you have to win and show this jersey in a respectful way.

And he also talked about the boost this victory would give him ahead of the Tour de France:

This is the perfect time for me to get this victory, a few weeks before the Tour de France. It gives me extra motivation.

I don’t know what the team’s big goals are, but normally the green jersey is (an objective) for Farrar. I would like to win a nice sprint, I might have two, three or four chances in the race on the more challenging stages.

It will be interesting to see exactly what Garmin-Cervélo’s plans are for the Tour. They have already confirmed Heinrich Haussler will not form part of the nine-man squad, and with Tyler Farrar in disappointing form, the significant changes made to the scoring for the points competition might well favour Hushovd, who is by far the superior climber, being the main focus on the flatter stages.

Stage 4 result:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 4:46:05

2. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:02

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) s/t

5. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

Stage 5: Huttwil to Tobel-Tägerschen, 204.2km

For the second day in a row, a supposedly flat stage ended in a small bunch finish favouring the power sprinters. In a chaotic, every-man-for-himself last kilometre in which the sprinters’ trains melted away to nothingness, Slovenian sprinter Borut Božič stole the stage win from under Óscar Freire‘s nose, catching him on the line after Vacansoleil teammate Marco Marcato had nearly pulled off a victory for himself with a daring break in the final 500 metres.

The day’s four-man breakaway was afforded a nine-minute lead before the inevitable chase by the peloton reeled them in with 14km to go. A brief attack by Euskaltel-Euskadi‘s Alan Pérez was easily caught with 5km to go, at which point the sprinters’ teams took over proceedings. The HTC-Highroad and Sky trains moved to the fore, conspicuously joined by André Greipel’s Omega Pharma-Lotto lead-out and the rainbow jersey of Thor Hushovd. However, it all began to fall apart as the road started to kick up in the final 1.5km. First Mark Cavendish found himself boxed in, and gradually the various sprint trains were torn asunder as their leaders fell away.

Božič ensured the win for Vacansoleil after Marcato was caught within sight of the line

As the now ragged peloton passed under the kilometre banner, Quick Step‘s Tom Boonen found himself isolated on the front and elected to try a long attack for home. But with the road kicking gradually up, he was effectively a sitting duck. Marcato came over the top of him with 500 metres left and kept going, and as Freire, Hushovd and Sagan all watched each other and hesitated, it looked like his courageous counter-attack might just work as he pulled out a gap of maybe 25 metres.

But it was not to be. With the incline sapping his legs and the others belatedly hitting the gas, he suffered the heartbreak of being swamped in the final 30 metres as Freire led the charge past him, only to be pipped on the line by Božič. It was the 30-year old’s first win of 2011, and his biggest since taking a stage of the Vuelta a España two years ago.

All the top riders in the general classification came home safely in the bunch. Damiano Cunego continues to lead Juan Mauricio Soler by 54 seconds.

The next two days takes the race back into the high mountains and will certainly shake up the top of the GC. Stage six is all about the final hors catégorie climb to the summit of the Malbun, a 14.4km ascent with an average gradient of nearly 9%.

Stage 6 profile

Stage seven starts with a long, uphill grind towards the HC Fluelapass (13km, 6.4%) at its midway point, followed by a second-category mountain and one final battle to the summit of the first-category Serfaus. This will be the final realistic opportunity for the GC contenders to gain an advantage ahead of Sunday’s concluding time trial.

Stage 7 profile

Stage 5 result:

1. Borut Božič (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4:44:48

2. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) same time

3. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) s/t

5. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) s/t

General classification:

1. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 17:14:11

2. Juan Mauricio Soler (Movistar) +0:54

3. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +1:16

4. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) +1:19

5. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) +1:21

6. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:25

7. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +1:32

8. Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) +1:53

9. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)+2:00

10. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +2:10

Sprint classification:

1. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R La Mondiale) 27 pts

2. Alessandro Bazzana (Type 1) 7

3. Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 6

4. Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) 6

5. José Iván Gutiérrez (Movistar) 6

Mountains classification:

1. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) 34 pts

2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 24

3. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) 20

4. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R La Mondiale) 17

5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) 15

Points classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 61 pts

2. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 38

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) 31

4. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 27

5. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) 26

Links: Tour de Suisse official website (French/German), Steephill.tv

Tour de Suisse recaps

Stage 1: No surprise as Cancellara wins opening time trial

Stage 2 & 3: Soler and Sagan win on up-and-down days

Tour de Suisse stage 2 & 3: Soler and Sagan win on up-and-down days

Stage 2: Airolo to Crans-Montana, 149km

Movistar‘s Juan Mauricio Soler announced his return to form as he proved to be the strongest man on the uphill finish at Crans-Montana. The Colombian climbing specialist accelerated away from an elite group to earn both the stage win and the yellow jersey. It was his first win in four years and came a year after a knee injury sustained at the Critérium du Dauphiné put him out of the 2010 Tour de France.

There was no easing into the first full day’s racing at the Tour de Suisse, with the peloton facing the hors catégorie Nufenenpass, with its summit at 2,478m, right from the gun. Rabobank‘s Matti Breschel led over the summit, while on the descent AG2R‘s Lloyd Mondory and Soler’s Movistar teammate José Iván Gutiérrez combined on the descent to build a four-minute lead on the long run to the base of the Crans-Montana climb.

The peloton heads for the lofty Nufenenpass on stage 2 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

At the start of the final climb with around 19km to go, the duo’s advantage was barely two minutes as the peloton, led by the familiar figure of Jens Voigt at the front, bore down on them. Although the gradient was far from the steepest the riders will encounter this week several riders, including the yellow jersey of Fabian Cancellara, were soon distanced. The winner of the first stage would finish over 17 minutes down, no doubt conserving his energies for next Sunday’s concluding individual time trial.

The first major attack came from Rabobank’s Pieter Weening, who shot off the front of the peloton and quickly passed the breakaway pair with 14km to go. But a couple of accelerations by Fränk Schleck soon brought Weening back and whittled the peloton down to a selection of about 15 riders. Sky‘s Chris Froome was the next to attack, with Andy Schleck sitting up either unable to follow or opting not to, and a further burst by his elder brother piled further pressure on the elite group.

Soler's first win since 2007 put him in the yellow jersey

Another Rabobank rider, Steven Kruijswijk (who was ninth at the Giro last month) then broke away at the front, taking Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) and Mathias Frank (BMC) with him. They were able to stretch out a lead of over 20 seconds, but were eventually brought back with 2.6km remaining. Now numbering 15 again, the reintegrated lead group attacked the final uphill kick to the finish. Fränk Schleck kicked yet again at 1.5km, reducing the contenders for the stage win to five, but it was two attacks by Soler in the final 1,100 metres – either side of a dig by Lampre‘s Damiano Cunego – which finally decided the race. His second acceleration came with about 600 metres to go, and none of the others were able to respond as he pulled out a 12-second advantage to claim the win. Cunego outsprinted Frank for second.

Soler was delighted to find himself back among the contenders in the mountains, and said he hoped to defend the yellow jersey after taking it over from Cancellara:

I’m really happy, this is an important win for me because this is a top-ranked race and because I had spent four years without winning. I was in need for it.

This tour has just started and it will be difficult to keep the yellow jersey, but I have a strong team and we’ll try to stay on front.

This was a good stage for Soler but also for Fränk Schleck, who displayed some punchy accelerations to prove his form, and for Rabobank as a team, with Breschel, Weening and Kruijswijk all featuring strongly and confirming them as a force to be reckoned with in the Tour de France’s high mountains next month. The jury is out on Andy Schleck and Cancellara, who will save their efforts for other days.

Stage 2 result:

1. Juan Mauricio Soler Hernandez (Movistar) 4:23:20

2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +0:12

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) same time

4. Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) +0:16

5. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:18

Stage 3: Brigue-Glis to Grindelwald, 107.6km

A second day of spectacular towering climbs, but one in stark contrast to the preceding stage, as rain and mist made life miserable for the riders on the first-category Grimselpass, and the critical action of the stage took place on the descent from the hors catégorie Grosse Scheidegg. Liquigas‘s Peter Sagan won the stage after a courageous high-speed chase into Grindelwald. But the riders of the day were Andy Schleck, who set the tempo for long spells at the front, and Damiano Cunego, who rode solo to bridge across to the leaders and then flew down the descent to take second place and, more importantly, the yellow jersey.

Cold, wet and miserable conditions, combined with a long, gruelling ascent from the start all the way up to the summit of the Grimselpass shattered the peloton on the climb, with a large group of 31 riders going clear early on and eventually splitting into three smaller groups. Two Dutchmen, Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), were the first over the summit. Thankfully conditions improved as the riders approached the Grosse Scheidegg, a 16.3km climb with an average gradient of 7.7% and steeper sections of up to 22%.

Andy Schleck gave his climbing legs a good run-out on the two major climbs on stage three (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Andy Schleck, who had sat up on the previous day’s final climb, had been prominent at the front of the pack on the Grimselpass and was so again on the Scheidegg, setting the tempo on the front of the leaders’ group in pursuit of Jan Bakelants, who had attacked at the base of the climb but was caught with 20km to go, with more than half the climb still to go. Schleck continued to tap out a steady rhythm which kept the pressure on and discouraged any attacks. It was an impressive show of sustained pace from one of the big favourites for next month’s Tour de France, and one which suggests his form is not bad at all.

Meanwhile Cunego, who was stuck in the yellow jersey group around two minutes behind, decided to make his move, launching an audacious attack in the final kilometres of the climb in an attempt to bridge the gap on his own. He rapidly closed in, overtaking stragglers who had dropped off the back of the lead group, forcing a reaction from Soler, who gave chase on his own to try to protect his overall lead. Such was Cunego’s pace that he caught the leaders before the summit and continued straight past them to continue the 10.5km descent to the finish solo.

Sagan ambushed Cunego to take stage three (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

What then followed was a spell-binding and occasionally terrifying display of descending on a road full of tight bends and switchbacks with occasional patches of standing water and frequent open drops ready to catch anyone who misjudged their lines and speed. On several occasions Cunego and his pursuers Ten Dam, Sagan and the latter’s Liquigas teammate Cristiano Salerno, slipped and slithered on damp patches, struggling to keep their bikes pointing in the desired direction. BMC‘s George Hincapie said he hit 90kph at one point, while sprint ace Mark Cavendish tweeted that he had touched a mind-boggling 107kph.

Ten Dam was passed by Salerno early on the descent, who effectively acted as a pilot fish for Sagan on the descent – at least until he crashed heavily, suffering a suspected broken collarbone. But Sagan continued undeterred, catching Cunego with 2.5km to go and then sitting on his wheel, safe in the knowledge that the Italian would have to continue at pace in his pursuit of the overall lead. Sure enough, Cunego piled on in time-trial mode, allowing Sagan to sweep around him with 200 metres to go to snatch the win. Jakob Fuglsang and Ten Dam arrived together 21 seconds later, with the Dane edging out the Dutchman for third.

Nonetheless, with Soler losing 1:04 to him, Cunego received the not insignificant consolation prize of the yellow jersey. Afterwards he said:

I surprised myself how good I was going up the [second] climb. When you have good form, you just don’t feel the pain as much.

I hope to keep the yellow jersey over the next two days, which are not too difficult, but there are some tough mountain stages left and a finishing time trial.

Stage winner Sagan thanked his injured teammate:

I knew that I was feeling good, and since the first kilometres I felt that it could be a good day. When I saw the break go I reacted instinctively and I went with it.

With the invaluable assistance of Salerno, I got over the climbs without wasting too much energy then, when Cunego went I preferred to wait for the descent to catch him up. In the last four kilometres I managed to catch him and join him; just enough time to draw breath and launch my final sprint.

It had been a thrilling climax to a stage which provided a useful workout for Andy Schleck, who is clearly not overly concerned about his overall position here, and Cunego, who skipped the Giro this year to focus on the Tour. Fränk Schleck will also be pleased with his efforts – although not in the attacking mode he had been the previous day, he rode strongly to finish alongside Soler. The defending champion is sixth, 1:25 behind Cunego.

The next two days should see the focus switch over to the sprinters, although neither stage features a simple flat finish. Stage four includes a third-category climb just 12km for the finish, followed by a couple of awkward uphill kicks which may favour Classics specialists over pure sprinters such as Cavendish. Stage five is the more likely of the two to conclude with a more traditional mass sprint. Neither is likely to present many problems for Cunego and the other top GC men, for whom hostilities will resume on Thursday.

Stage 4 profile

Stage 5 profile

Stage 3 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 3:09:47

2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) same time

3. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:21

4. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) same time

5. Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) +0:48

General classification:

1. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 7:43:16

2. Juan Mauricio Soler (Movistar) +0:54

3. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +1:16

4. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) +1:19

5. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) +1:21

6. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:25

7. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +1:32

8. Danilo Di Luca (Katusha) +1:53

9. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)+2:00

10. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +2:10

Sprint classification:

1. Lloyd Mondory (Ag2R La Mondiale) 12 pts

2. Jan Bakelants (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 6

3. Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) 6

4. José Iván Gutiérrez (Movistar) 6

5. Daryl Impey (NetApp) 3

Mountains classification:

1. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) 31 pts

2. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 24

3. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) 20

4. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) 15

5. Mathias Frank (BMC) 12

Points classification:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 25 pts

2. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 25

3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) 24

4. Juan Mauricio Soler (Movistar) 19

5. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 18

Links: Tour de Suisse official website (French/German), Steephill.tv

Tour de Suisse recaps

Stage 1: No surprise as Cancellara wins opening time trial

Tour de Suisse stage 1: No surprise as Cancellara wins opening time trial

Stage 1: Lugano, 7.3km individual time trial

If there is one thing more reliable than the proverbial Swiss watch, it is the knowledge that Swiss time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara can be relied on to win in his specialist event. Sure enough, the Leopard-Trek ace duly won the short opening time trial at his ‘home’ race, the Tour de Suisse, by a commanding nine-second margin over HTC-Highroad‘s promising young American Tejay Van Garderen.

The 7.3km course around Lugano featured a technical 2km climb after a flat opening kilometre, with a sharpish descent leading into a flat run to the finish. The 22-year old Van Garderen, who was third at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, set the early benchmark with a time of 9:50. Saxo Bank Sungard‘s Gustav Larsson put in an impressive run to come in just eight seconds slower, while RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden, a big contender for overall victory here, was a second further back having set what would stand as the fastest time at the 3km overall split.

Cancellara eased into the overall lead after stage 1

However, nothing would stop the rainbow jersey of Cancellara from claiming a fifth prologue win in Switzerland. He reached the intermediate checkpoint just two seconds adrift of Klöden’s time, and had plenty in reserve for the second half of the course to stop the clock in 9:41, to move him into the lead by nine seconds.

His Leopard-Trek team leaders, Andy and Fränk Schleck, did not fare quite so well. Andy had to change bikes after a mechanical problem and finished 1:18 down while Fränk, the defending champion and therefore the last man to go, saw his run affected by rain, forcing him into a more conservative approach.

Liquigas‘s Peter Sagan, a four-time stage winner already in 2011, was third behind Van Garderen, 17 seconds down on Cancellara.

Cancellara was pleased to win, and relieved that he had suffered no major problems on his run:

I’m very happy because I was feeling a little bit nervous before the start. I had two big fears today: suffering a mechanical problem and having to do the downhill section like a man possessed. It’s a bit like doing a hard downhill in skiing — you have to stay in control while taking risks and not losing any speed.

After a relatively gentle introduction to the race, stage two throws the riders straight in at the deep end as they tackle the hors catégorie Nufenenpass, with its summit at 2,478m, right from the gun. Over 100km of descent and flat in pursuit of the inevitable breakaway should then follow ahead of the first-category climb to the ski resort of Crans-Montana. Although the last 10km is undulating, this is definitely a day for the climbers and overall contenders, with the sprinters bringing up the rear a long time after the leaders have finished.

Stage 2 profile

Stage 1 result:

1. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) 9:41

2. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) +0:09

3. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:17

4. Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank Sungard) +0:17

5. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:18

6. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:20

7. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:21

8. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:22

9. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +0:22

10. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) +0:22

Links: Tour de Suisse official website (French/German), Steephill.tv

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