COMPETITIVE FIELD AND COVID MAKE FOR ROLLER-COASTER GC RACE
Unlike the Critérium du Dauphiné, where Jumbo-Visma never looked like they could be beaten, the general classification at the Tour de Suisse was a wide-open affair, with the leadership changing hands on all of the last four stages.
One of these changes was the result of unwanted drama, as the spectre of Covid once again haunted the peloton to force a host of high profile abandons.
Peter Sagan (Team TotalEnergies) announced that he had tested positive on Saturday, after stage seven - the Slovakian sprinter reported that he had no symptoms; this is the third time he has tested positive in 18 months.
Other abandons due to Covid included Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates), Stefan Bisseger, Alberto Bettiol, Rigoberto Urán and Hugh Carthy (EF Education–EasyPost) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
It can only be hoped that riders who have caught the virus can get fit in time for the Tour, and that there aren’t any more big outbreaks before the Grand Depart.
Vlasov’s absence didn’t deny us another edition of Ineos Grenadiers v Bora-Hansgrohe, however, as Sergio Higuita emerged as Thomas’ main rival on GC, having already defeated Ineos’ Richard Carapaz at Volta a Catalunya earlier this year. Higuita was the best of the GC men on the queen stage, but did not gain enough time for a necessary buffer over Thomas going into the final time trial, and finished second overall.
The inclusion of that long final time trial also added an intriguing element to the GC race, as it continued to give specialists Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) an outside shot at overall victory even as they lost some time on the climbs. While Evenepoel’s climbing meant even a win in the time trial was only enough to move him up to eleventh, Küng was a revelation, finishing fifth overall, and only missing out on podium finish due to the time he lost on the queen stage.
GERAINT THOMAS INEOS’ IN-FORM RIDER AS TOUR APPROACHES
In the space of just one week, Geraint Thomas has answered doubts about whether he has the form to merit a spot in Ineos Grenadiers' Tour de France line-up, and instead posed a new question: is he capable of winning the yellow jersey again?
It’s no surprise that an Ineos rider won the overall classification at the Tour de Suisse; while Jumbo-Visma sent their best resources to Critérium du Dauphiné instead, and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) rode his home Tour of Slovenia, Ineos brought much of their Tour de France A-team.
What was not expected was that it was Thomas, rather than either Adam Yates or Dani Martínez, who delivered them victory. Based on their form so far this season, Thomas was very much the third fiddle rider to the other two, and a generational transition appeared to be under way at the team as the powers of the 36-year-old former Tour de France winner waned.
But after Martínez was dropped and lost time on the first stage, and Yates abandoned prior to the first mountain top finish on stage five due to a Covid positive, Thomas found himself as the team’s best hope for success.
It was one last chance for the Welshman to prove himself prior to the Tour de France, having gone over a year without either a win of a top 15 finish at a stage race, and he took it with aplomb. This was the best Thomas has looked since the run-in to last year’s Tour, as he kept up with the best climbers on the mountain stages, and then trounced the other GC contenders in the final time trial to take overall victory by an emphatic 1-12 ahead of runner-up Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe).
As a word of caution, it should be noted that a similar sense of optimism around Thomas came undone this time last year when he crashed during the opening week of the Tour. But his resurgence does give the team another genuine candidate for leadership duties at the Tour de France, and provides much-needed strength in numbers as they prepare to take on the mighty Slovenians in July.
SAGAN AND PINOT BACK WITH A BANG
One of the stories of the week was the resurgence of two of the sport’s most compelling characters.
On stage three, Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) sprinted for his first win since last September, following a torrid spring in which illness had rendered him a shadow of his former self. We can only hope that the symptom-less positive Covid test he announced on Sunday morning doesn't set him back once again.
On stage seven, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) proved to be the best climber from a strong breakaway group to claim his first win at World Tour level in almost three years — despite the stage, and the whole race, taking place in the kind of hot weather than has in the past been his undoing.
Both these rides feel especially timely with the Tour de France just a couple of weeks away, but we shouldn’t get too carried away about what they might achieve at that race.
Both of their performances could be best described as partial comebacks. As quickly as Sagan sprinted in the finale of stage three, and as expertly as he manoeuvred himself in the run-in to that finish, it is telling that that was the only stage he was able to sprint in, as he had been dropped on the climbs in each of the other bunch finishes — the kind of climbs that Sagan at his best would have no problem negotiating.
And though Pinot’s victory was a further step back to his best following his stage win at the Tour of the Alps earlier this year, it was one achieved by losing time and getting into the breakaway, rather than competing consistently to ride for a high GC finish.
Even if we shouldn’t necessarily expect a green jersey push from the former or a yellow jersey push for the latter, it’s still great to see both of them back to winning ways. If they can build on this benchmark (fingers crossed that yet another Covid positive for Sagan does not affect his form in July), then emotional stage wins at the Tour could be on the cards.
RESURGENT COMEBACKS IS THE THEME OF THE RACE
The success of Thomas, Sagan and Pinot was part of an overarching theme of the race that saw resurgent performances from riders who had been thought of by many to be past their best.
In third-place on GC behind Thomas and Higuita was 37-year-old Jakob Fuglsang, registering his highest finish in any stage race since finishing in the same position at last year’s Tour de Suisse. The Dane has always excelled in June, having twice won the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier in his career, but underwhelming showings in the Ardennes Classics this year suggested that might not be the case this year.
Add to his performances the stage win from 37-year-old Daryl Impey, and Israel-PremierTech’s policy of relying on older riders no longer seems quite so unfruitful.
Arguably the most transformed rider this week was Bob Jungels (Ag2r Citroën). The former Liège–Bastogne–Liège winner has faded into obscurity following several years of underperforming, but in finishing sixth on GC, this was the best he has looked since spring 2019.
For other riders, the Tour de Suisse was a return to form following slow first halves of the season. Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Easypost) was quick in the sprints, even if he was made to look foolish by celebrating on stage two having forgotten that Andreas Leknessund (DSM) had already won from the breakaway; Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) was back competing for stages and making the top ten on GC having been hampered by illness and bad form earlier in the year; and Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost) enjoyed the kind of form that saw him win San Sebastian last year, and climbed better than ever to take fourth on GC.
NEW BRITISH STAR IN STEPHEN WILLIAMS
From resurgent older riders to mass Covid withdrawals, this year’s Tour de Suisse was full of surprises, but nothing surpassed Stephen Williams’ shock victory on the opening stage.
Having not even placed in the top 75 of a race this season, the Welshman triumphed from a reduced bunch sprint to take the stage win, outsprinting elite fast-finishing puncheurs like Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Marc Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates), having out climbed the likes of Dani Martínez and Thibaut Pinot, who had been dropped in the hilly terrain.
The result was a deferred realisation of the 26-year-old’s talent, that was prevented from flourishing for many years because of lingering knee injuries.
The way he rode to defend the jersey for four days was especially impressive, and suggests he has the racing smarts to match his strong legs. Many others with his lack of experience would go into the red in order to defend the jersey upon getting into difficulty, but Williams allowed himself to be dropped on a climb during stage four, instead riding at his own pace and saving up enough energy so that he was fresh enough to rejoin the leading group on the descent.
The following stage would be his last in yellow, as he was dropped during the mountain top finish, and his race ended prematurely as the whole Bahrain-Victorious squad were among those to fall victim to the Covid outbreak. But on the basis of this showing, this won't be the last we see of Williams’ shining at World Tour level.
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