While the Critérium du Dauphiné’s long-held reputation as the key warm-up race for the Tour de France ensures that most of the major yellow jersey candidates head there in June, the corresponding Tour de Suisse has a good track record of foreshadowing the surprise breakout stars at the Grand Boucle.
Last year, for instance, Jarlinson Pantano won a stage and finished fourth overall before going on to star in the mountains at the Tour, while in 2015 Geraint Thomas preceded his superb ride in support of Chris Froome at the Tour by finishing second overall in Switzerland.
It’s difficult to predict who exactly this year’s surprise packages will be – otherwise it wouldn’t be a surprise – but there are plenty of prospects riding the Tour de Suisse ahead of planned debut at Tour.
They include defending champion Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), for whom the race was an end in itself last year but will this time use it to prepare for a possible GC challenge at the Tour alongside Fabio Aru (if he can recover full fitness after an injury-ravaged opening to the season).
They also include Marc Soler (Movistar), a 23-year old Spaniard who looks like one of cycling’s next big things following his podium finish at the Volta a Catalunya; and puncheurs Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) and Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo).
An unpredictable GC battle
The lack of top rate GC stars also means the battle for overall victory appears to be wide open.
Among the frontrunners could be past winners Simon Spilak (Katusha-Alpecin) and Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates).
Spilak was champion in 2015 and typically performs very well in Swiss races, although has been some way off his best form this season, while Rui Costa – who returns to a race he won three times in a row between 2012 and 2014 – will be hungry for a win after narrowly missing out in stages at the Giro.
Stars of the last year’s race Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) and Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) will again fancy their chances, especially Izagirre now he has been designated outright leader of his new team.
Finally, who knows? – maybe Tom Dumoulin has enough left in the tank after his Giro triumph? A GC challenge looks unlikely given how deep he had to go to win that race, but he’ll likely be a threat in both time trials.
Returning Classics stars and sprinters
Many of the protagonists who dominated the headlines early in the season return to WorldTour racing at the Tour de Suisse, having gone off the radar during the Giro d’Italia.
They include Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), on a high after his historic classics quadruple in the spring; Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who virtually always wins multiple stages in this race; and Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), rejuvenated after a stellar spring campaign and building towards a first Tour de France appearance in four years.
The few stages that could, at a stretch, be classed as days for the sprinters all have possible complications that could suit these Classics specialists, whether it is multiple hills (stages two and five), or an uphill finish (stage three).
That won’t necessarily discourage the top sprinters on the roster, all of whom are capable of surviving hilly terrain – Michael Matthews (Sunweb), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), fresh from his four-stage haul at the Giro.
As you’d expect from this part of the world, there are mountains everywhere on the Tour de Suisse route.
Most of those are concentrated in the middle of the race, where there will be three mountain top finishes in the space of four days – the Villars-sur-Ollon ski resort on stage four, the Albula pass on stage six, and to Tiefenbachferner across the German border on stage seven.
There will therefore be ample opportunities for climbers to go out on the attack and gain time, as well as plenty of the beautiful scenery Switzerland is famous for.
An unusual final weekend
There’s nothing unusual about Sunday’s final stage, a 28.6km individual time trial starting and finishing in the historic town of Schaffhausen, that will offer riders who are stronger against the clock another chance (following the opening stage’s 6km ITT) to bounce back after all the Alpine climbing.
But it forms part of a closing weekend that does buck the trend of most stage races.
Saturday’s penultimate stage is also held is also held in Schaffhausen, in the form of a 12.5km circuit – featuring the punchy Herblingen climb – that the riders will take on eight times, amounting to an unusually short 100km.
The short distance and difficult of the climbing could prompt aggressive racing, and therefore exciting – and potentially decisive – action in between the more familiar GC battlegrounds of the mountains and time trials.