OLD BRITISH STALWARTS HOPING TO REDISCOVER FORM
Twelve months ago, Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) appeared to be approaching somewhere near his Tour de France-winning form of old when he won the overall title at the Tour de Romandie.
Since then, however, the Welshman’s results have regressed. His continued strong form following another promising podium finish at the Critérium du Dauphiné did not carry through into the Tour de France, where he crashed, and he has made a slow start to racing this season.
In defending his Tour de Romandie crown, he’ll have a chance to again bounce back. There were signs at Itzulia Basque Country that he was riding into some kind of form, as he placed fifth in the opening time trial and did sterling work for Dani Martínez as a domestique, and now he’ll lead Ineos Grenadiers in the absence of their other stage race stars.
We might have a clearer picture of whether or not the 35-year-old is still capable of challenging for overall victories at the end of this week.
Another former winner hoping to rediscover something like his old form is Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech), who won back-to-back titles during his heyday in 2013 and 2014. For Froome the prognosis appears more pessimistic, considering just how long it’s been since he’s ridden at a competitive level.
But the 36-year-old has not given up on being able to ride the Tour de France this summer, and will be motivated to perform here to open up the possibility of doing so.
A PARCOURS FOR STRONG TIME TRIALLISTS
With UAE Team Emirates, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers all sending under-strength line-ups, there’s a real opportunity for other, less-fancied GC riders to claim a WorldTour stage race title at the Tour de Romandie this week.
In particular, those with a strong time trial must be getting especially excited, as there’s a total of 21km raced against the clock spread across two stages, a flat opening prologue in Lausanne, and a final stage split between a flat first half and uphill second.
It’s a route that certainly suits Damiano Caruso, who recently won the overall title at the Tour of Sicily. Whereas other top teams look noticeably weaker than usual, Bahrain-Victorious have the likes of Jack Haig, Gino Mader and Dylan Teuns to support Caruso, so if he can gain an advantage in the time trials, he should be well looked after on the climbs.
There’s also a chance for Ion Izagirre to achieve what would be a rare and hugely-appreciated WorldTour title for Cofidis. The Basque rider has a consistent record here, having placed in the top-10 on GC on four of his last five appearances, and could go better than his career-best finish of third considering the form he brings following a runner-up finish at Itzulia Basque Country.
In the absence of Tadej Pogačar, Brandon McNulty is likely to lead the line for UAE Team Emirates. Young prodigy Juan Ayuso is another contender for the team, but McNulty’s proven time trialling prowess might make him the team’s chief protected rider. This could be a first-ever WorldTour stage race victory for the young American rider.
And one outside bet to look out for is Rohan Dennis. Without his usual leaders Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard to work for, the Australian may have a rare chance of team leadership, and will surely be up there in the time trials. The big question is whether he can cling on the GC candidates on the climbs.
HIGUITA AMONG CLIMBERS HOPING TO STAY IN GC CONTENTION
While the amount of time trialling will make it difficult for the pure climbers to stay in contention for overall victory, there are opportunities for them to make up enough time.
In particular, stage four looks like a real brute, with five climbs in total classified as category one, including a mountain top finish at Zinal. The time gaps here ought to be big, and possibly enough for any climber who manages to limit their losses in the time trials to take overall victory.
Following his overall victory at the Volta a Catalunya, Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) is arguably the most in-form climber at the race. Though the Colombian had to pull out of the following Itzulia Basque Country, he returned to racing on Sunday to place a very impressive fifth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the punchy attributes he demonstrated there might also bid him well should he try to gain time on some of the hilly stages either side of the key mountain top finish, especially stage three.
Ben O’Conor (Agr2r Citroën) won a comparable mountain stage to Romandie’s queen stage at La Molina during the Volta a Catalunya, so should therefore also be a top contender, especially taking into account his win at the Tour de Jura Cyclist classic last week.
Depending on how the race unfolds, UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma may switch strategies to rally around their more natural climbers, the former with Juan Ayuso, and the latter with Steven Kruijswijk, even if it has now been a long time since the Dutchman had his best climbing legs.
EXPECT MORE DRAMA AS PINOT IS BACK RACING
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is back, and with him the usual fanfare of drama and emotional roller-coasters that always seem to accompany him.
His Tour of the Alps last week featured a vintage Pinot arc, beginning with the heartbreak of a near miss to Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan), and ending in elation as he made up for that defeat a mere day later with a stage win.
In many ways the Tour of the Alps outcome was the reverse of what normally happens with Pinot, as it involved a great comeback following a setback, rather than huge promise deflated by a collapse.
The next step for Pinot, who is only just returning to his best following almost two years beset by injury, is to challenge for an overall title, which may be his ambition at the Tour de Romandie considering his very impressive condition during those final two days at the Tour of the Alps.
This is a race he has usually excelled at, never finishing lower than 12th in any of his last five appearances here, and placing second behind Nairo Quintana the last time he rode here (albeit way back in 2016).
If a sustained GC bid is beyond the Frenchman for now, then team-mate Michael Storer would likely make a very capable deputy for Groupama-FDJ, and has arguably earned the right to be the protected rider having finished second overall at the Tour of the Alps.
PUNCHY BATTLES FOR STAGE WINS
As has been the case in recent editions of the Tour de Romandie, there really isn’t much on offer for the sprinters. Sandwiched between the two time trials and the queen stage are three rolling stages, of which only stage two looks like it could finish in a sprint, and even then only at a push.
There is therefore a paucity of sprinters on the start list, although young Brit Ethan Vernon (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) is set to ride, and will therefore be a favourite to repeat his recent breakthrough success at the Volta a Catalunya, along with the more experienced sprinter Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates).
Instead of the sprinters, it’s the puncheurs who should be the leading contenders for a haul of stage wins. The uphill finish at the climax of stage one in particular suits recent Flèche Wallonne winner Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Victorious), March Hirschi (UAE Team Emirates) - who’s coming into form again having made the top ten at Liege-Bastogne-Liege - and Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers).
Those riders are likely also to be vying for the honours on the rolling stage three, which is pitched somewhere between a day for the puncheurs and for a GC contest. The likes of Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Ruben Guerreiro (EF Education-EasyPost) could all come into their own here, and possibly also ride their way into GC contention.
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