Aside from the grand tours, the Tour de Suisse is probably the most prestigious national tour a rider can add to his resume. At nine days, itâ€™s also one of the longest. And while some recent editions have tended to favor riders of a different sort, this yearâ€™s difficult parcours favors a true all-rounderâ€”someone who can time trial and survive high alpine passes. All in all, the race covers over 1200 kilometers, offers three summit finishes, and has two trials to test many of pelotonâ€™s best. For some, this is the final stop before an all-out assault on the Tour de France; for others, itâ€™s the perfect chance to take what many consider to be an impressive victory in itâ€™s own right.
Here are some teams to watch at this yearâ€™s race:
Whether he likes or not, Frank Schleck is not Leopard Trekâ€™s most important rider right now. And while some might say the team can take a two-prong approach to the Tour de France, itâ€™s clear that younger brother Andy is the faster, more proven option. That makes a race like the Tour de Suisse all the more important to Frank. The defending champion, Frank will likely be given the green light to try and win the race again for himself, with full knowledge that heâ€™ll be expected to play the role of dutiful lieutenant in France. For some, itâ€™s a sacrifice; to me, itâ€™s an important compromiseâ€”one that could reap dividends come July. With Linus Gerdemann, Jakob Fuglsang, and Fabian Cancellara racing as well, the Tour de Suisse could be a banner week for the team.
HTC-HighRoad brings a premier squad to Switzerland, headlined by Mark Cavendish and Matthew Goss making what might just be their final appearance together. Both riders will be hunting for stage wins, supported ably by Bernie Eisel and Bert Grabsch. Michael Albasiniâ€”fresh from a stage win in the Bayern Rundfahrtâ€”is another man looking for daily success, albeit from a breakaway. For the GC, Tejay Van Garderen and Peter Velits are the teamâ€™s best options. Van Garderenâ€™s third place in last yearâ€™s DauphinÃ© shows the American knows how to handle himself in June, while Velits will be looking to prove his podium place in the Vuelta was no fluke. He might just be the raceâ€™s best all-rounder in that he can time trial as well as he climbs.
Another team taking a multi-pronged approach to the Tour de Suisse, Radio Shack hopes that Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer have the legs to contend for the overall victory. Chris Horner was originally slated to participate, but convinced team management that he would be better served by staying at home and training on his own. After his dominant win at Mayâ€™s Tour of California, can you blame him? For Kloden and Leipheimer, their performances will likely determine the length of the GC leash they will be given by DS Johan Bruyneel at the Tour de France. With Janez Brajkovic on his way to another high finish at the DauphinÃ©, thereâ€™s little margin for error if these two veterans want the support of their squad in France.
Omega Pharmaâ€“Lotto comes to Switzerland led by sprinter Andre Greipel. The Swiss tour offers the German a fine chance to prove himself against some of the fastest men in the world. Look for Giro-animator Jan Bakelants to do his best to take a stage or two as well.
Rabobankâ€™s Matti Breschel continues his return to racing at the Tour de Suisse, but his team will likely rely on Oscar Freire for stage wins. In the GC, Robert Gesink is racing the DauphinÃ©, leaving Bauke Mollema and Giro-revelation Steven Kruijswijk to lead the team here. While Kruijswijk might be at the tail-end of his fitness, Mollema could be poised for a breakout ride of his own.
Next we have Garmin-Cervelo, a team my gut tells me isnâ€™t as harmonious as one might think. Taking a two-tiered approach to the Swiss tour, Garmin brings Heinrich Haussler and Thor Hushovd for stage wins and Ryder Hesjedal, Christian Vande Velde, and Tom Danielson for the GC. For these three North Americans, their Swiss performances will tell us a lot about their prospects for the Tour de France. Will Hesjedal improve upon his stunning ride last year? Will Vande Velde bounce back from his injury-riddled 2010? And will Danielson finally earn a spot on the squad for the French race? As for Thor and Haussler, theyâ€™re likely looking to assert themselves ahead of Tyler Farrar in Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s sprint hierarchy.
Last but not least, Quick Step comes to Switzerland with the bulk of Tom Boonenâ€™s lead-out train in tow in an attempt to assess the Belgianâ€™s sprint form. And donâ€™t forget cyclocross star Zdenek Stybarâ€”heâ€™s making an appearance in what will certainly be his most challenging road test to date. Saturdayâ€™s Prologue suits him well.
So there you have itâ€”the teams I expect to make the most noise next week. Who are your picks?