While the Critérium du Dauphiné remains the traditional entrée ahead of July’s plat principal, the Tour de Suisse is no less nourishing for those looking to whet their appetite ahead of the Tour de France.
First raced in 1933 the week-long stage race affords plenty of opportunity. Riders looking to make the Tour de France selection have eight stages on which to make an impression. Those already sure of their place in the eight-man line ups will find it useful preparation, with plenty of high altitude climbing and an individual time trial mimicking the demands of the le tour. As for the teams, it’s a chance to make some final assessments, a compare and contrast exercise used alongside the Dauphiné, as they ready their troops for the three biggest weeks of the year.
In 2022 there are once again decisions to be made. There’s also a race to be won. Here are a few things to look out for at the 85th edition of the Tour de Suisse
Remco being Remco
It’s indicative of Remco Evenepoel’s (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) talent that despite him not racing the Tour de France, he still might be the most intriguing element in this year’s race.
The 22-year-old Belgian continues to live up to the hype, seemingly unperturbed by the constant comparisons to Eddy Merckx. This is no mean feat. Belgium wants another Cannibal like France clamours for a native winner of the Grande Boucle. Which is really to say they need it.
While it’s been the undoing of several Belgian wunderkinds in the past, to date Evenepeol has relished the challenge. He’s already amassed 30 professional victories despite a long layoff after his crash at Il Lombardia in 2020. For comparison, Merckx achieved his 30th win in his second year as a professional, when he was also just 22 years old. This year alone Evenepoel has won eight times, often in spectacular fashion, including last month's Tour of Norway, where he took three stages on his way to the GC title.
The Tour de Suisse will be the fifth stage race of Evenepoel’s season. Among these his worst performance is 11th overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. It speaks to his consistency as well as his ability to perform across varied parcours. However, if he’s to win this week he’ll need to overcome his relative struggles in the high mountains, the undoing of his only grand tour outing to date at the 2021 Giro d’Italia.
This year’s race features several excursions over 2000 metres as well as three climbs that are at least 15km in length. It’s the kind of alpine terrain made for pure climbers and where the GC battle will also be hotly contested. Evenepoel will need to ensure he stays in touch with the leaders on the two consecutive mountain stages, six and seven, ahead of the final day’s time trial. The ITT is a flat-ish 25.6km that’s right in his wheelhouse and where he’ll surely gain time over the majority of the other GC contenders.
His performance at the Tour of Norway should give him plenty of hope. While that race didn’t feature mountains comparable to those he’ll face this week it did have plenty of vertical metres to deal with. On stage 3, which included the race’s highest point, he was able to ride away from his rivals, including Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) who’s also racing here, attacking with 6km to go.
It was typical of Evenepoel, a display of power and confidence and willingness. The kind of showing that won him Liège–Bastogne–Liège in such memorable fashion. The kind that makes the comparisons to Merckx more than just wishful thinking. If he can do it again this week, he’ll be a hard man to beat.
Ineos Grenadiers go for the hat-trick
The British team has performed strongly in the Tour de Suisse in recent years, issuing an impressive show of strength ahead of the Tour de France. In 2019 Egan Bernal did the double, while last year Richard Carapaz took the title ahead of his podium finish in France.
This year the seven man squad includes several Tour hopefuls in the shape of Geraint Thomas, Dani Martínez , Adam Yates, Dylan van Baarle, Luke Rowe and Omar Fraile, while Tom Pidcock could be left to hunt for stage wins. The opening three stages look well suited to his strengths. The opening day is a hilly circuit with five categorized climbs that will be raced four times. Stage two is another undulating day with a spiky profile that includes three cat 3 climbs in the last 80km, while stage three is again a punchy affair, featuring over 3,000 metres of climbing.
However, the real interest will be in those riders likely heading to France, and more, specifically, those with GC ambitions. At last year’s Tour de France Ineos came into the race with a four-pronged attack, the idea being that weight in numbers would tip the scale in their favour. By the end of a brutal first week of racing their plan was in tatters and their fork sufficiently blunted. The aftermath left Carapaz as the lone challenger, and with the unenviable task of trying to unseat Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) in the mountains.
The showing here by Martínez, Thomas and Yates should go someway to deciding the team’s strategy this time around. A dominant performance by any of the three could see them secure the nod as designated leader at the Tour. If they all deliver it could convince Ineos to try and play the numbers game again as they try to solve the problem that is Pogačar.
Certainly you can make a case for both, but last year’s Tour showed just how difficult it is to protect numerous riders, particularly during that first week when nerves have yet to settle. Of course, the counter argument is that putting all your eggs in one basket can leave you equally exposed should bad luck or a crash befall your chosen one.
History has shown that Ineos, and Sky before them, have been at their best going all-in behind a single leader. Whether they have a dominant enough GC rider to do this now remains to be seen. They only need to look back as far as the recent Giro to see how this can unfold, no matter how much in control you appear to be.
Whatever their chosen approach is come July, this week should see them in a buoyant mood, with a team full of riders willing and eager. Given the position of the time trial, expect to see Martínez and Yates try and create a buffer in the two proceeding mountain stages. If either can do this successfully then it could be enough to seal a hat trick of wins, with Martínez perhaps the more likely to achieve this.
Sepp Kuss looks to impress as Jumbo-Visma finalise their tour line-up
Given the strength of Jumbo-Visma’s line-up at the Dauphiné, you could forgive Sepp Kuss and for being a little nervous about his chances of riding this year’s Tour de France. Of the seven men that started stage one in La Voulte-sur-Rhône, only Chris Harper is unlikely to be at the Grand Départ in Copenhagen.
Which perhaps leaves Kuss with something of a point to prove if he wants to be sure of joining the Jumbo juggernaut assembling around Primož Roglič and his Tour de France challenge. The eight-man squads now used at Grand Tours means that Kuss is likely penciled in to race in France but he’ll want to make that indelible. A strong showing here would do just that.
For race fans it should make for plenty of exciting racing. Kuss usually rides in the support of others but if he’s unleashed here it could result in quite the showing, particularly in his favoured mountainous terrain. Stage wins in both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España are evidence of his ability to win the biggest races and to do so in style. In Switzerland he’ll have plenty of support when the road points up too. Rohan Dennis, Robert Gesink and Sam Oomen have all the credentials you’d wish for in mountain domestiques, although the latter will need to shake off any post-Giro fatigue if he's to be a factor at the sharp end of the climbing stages.
Like Kuss, Dennis is likely to make the Tour de France team. He formed part of the line-up that won Paris-Nice in March and alongside his ability as a dogged and selfless rider he also gives the team a shot at winning the opening TT in Denmark, and with it the yellow jersey.
Arguably Gesink still has an outside chance at making the tour too. With twenty grand tours under his belt, ten of those at the Tour, the Dutchman provides an alternative option for Jumbo-Visma to Steven Kruijswijk in the veteran climbing domestique role.
An open GC race should make for plenty of excitment
While Ineos seem to have superior numbers, the race for the general classification isn’t theirs alone. The aforementioned Kuss is joined by a slew of riders who have the potential as well as the incentive and impetus to win this week.
Bora-Hangrohe are now a grand tour winning outfit. Jai Hindley’s win at the Giro showed the team is ahead of schedule as they transition from the Peter Sagan years into a more rounded outfit capable of winning on multiple fronts. They refused to be bullied in Italy, often providing stinging counter blows of their own as they got the better of both Ineos and Bahrain-Victorious. And they have a good chance of furthering their big race credentials here.
The German team is headed by Aleksandr Vlasov, who’s quietly having a stellar year. He looked impressive in winning the recent Tour of Romandie, where he also picked up a stage victory in the time trial and a second place on the mountainous stage four behind teammate Sergio Higuita. He also won the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana stage race to start the year, finished third and fourth overall at the Itzulia Basque Country and UAE Tour stages races respectively as well as making the podium at La Flèche Wallonne. He’ll be aided again by Higuita, giving Bora a one-two combination that could deliver in the mountains once again.
Israel - Premier Tech and UAE Team Emirates also offer potential dual threats in the GC race. Jakob Fuglsang and Michael Woods are IPT’s leading charges, although both may be better suited to stage hunting, with Woods a good bet for one of the early lumpy stages and Fulgsang the latter romps at high-altitude. His win at the recent Mercan'Tour Classic Alpes-Maritimes, a brute of a race that resembles a queen stage in a grand tour, proof that his climbing legs are working well.
As for UAE, they bring the two Marc’s - Hirschi and Soler. It’s a duo that can be as frustrating as it is exciting, and certainly one that’s unpredictable. Like Woods, Hirschi has the game for the opening stages, while Soler should enjoy the rare opportunity to race as the team leader. However, the double act could just as easily fluff their lines. Whether they sidle off the stage to polite applause or get to take a bow with all eyes watching remains to be seen.
Other potential GC riders to look out for include Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana Qazaqstan Team) and Ion Izagirre (Cofidis); it will be particularly interesting to see how Lutsenko fares given his lack of racing this year but also his ability to both climb and produce a strong time trial. Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix) will fly under the radar but could impact the top-10, while it would be amiss to not include a Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux rider considering their superb season to date. Hot off his eight place at the Giro, the evergreen Domenico Pozzovivo looks the best bet for the over performing Belgian squad.
Is Pinot ripe and ready?
While we live firmly in the era of Pogačar and Roglič, Van Aert and Van der Poel, there’s no rider who draws the attention in June quite like Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
His relationship with his home grand tour reads like a soap opera and with every passing year his chances of adding another high to help balance the lows diminishes. But while he's still competing racing fans will be checking in on his legs as the Grand Départ grows nearer.
The outpouring of support for Pinot after he won a stage of the Tour of the Alps in April demonstrated just how well-liked the French rider remains. Partly it was due to the 1000-odd days that separated this win from his last. He’d also lost in agonizing fashion the day before, pipped at the post by a fast charging Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan Team). Cycling glorifies suffering and Pinot has done plenty in his career, a bad break here, a bad back there, all adding to his appeal as both an underdog and a rider most deserving.
But Pinot tugs at the heart strings too because of the way he rides a bike. That suffering? It’s etched on his face with every big effort he makes. Those bad breaks? He demonstratively tries to ride them off his wheel whenever the opportunity arises. Even if he’s as data-driven as the next pro, he appears to us as a throwback, harking back to a time when you left it all on the road because managing your effort by the numbers wasn’t an option.
A fit and inspired Pinot makes the Tour de France a better race, it’s as simple as that. If there’s an inevitably to the Pogačar versus Roglič script then lets at least hope for a few intriguing subplots too. This week we should get an idea of whether Pinot is likely to play his role. Since his win he’s flattered to deceive, finishing 13th in the Tour of Romandie and just inside the top-20 at the Mercan'Tour Classic Alpes-Maritimes race. He’ll need to go better here.
You can probably read into him choosing the Tour de Suisse over the Dauphiné as you so wish. Is he avoiding the spotlight of home roads because he’s in great shape and doesn’t want any additional pressure? Or is he unsure of his form and is looking to find something away from the clamour of the French media? Maybe Groupama GM Marc Madiot just saw value in sending David Gaudu to one race, Pinot to the other, hoping that both men excel and arrive in Denmark full of confidence? Gaudu already has his stage win at the Dauphiné. If Pinot follows suit this week come Tour-time the roadsides of France will be just a little more alive, and with it his hope of glory too.
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