The Tour of Switzerland is the final big test before the Tour de France, the last piece of the ‘Who’s in form?’ jigsaw. Here’s how the pieces fell.

Words by Kenny Pryde

Monday June 18

The Tour of Switzerland was won by Rui Alberto Faria da Costa, Movistar’s Portuguese rider which, while something of a surprise, can’t be classed as a massive shock. The race has an eclectic, almost weird list of previous winners. From Sean Kelly through Andy Hampsten via Fabian Cancellara and Vladimir Karpets, it’s hard to predict a winner of this mini-Grand Tour.

But, in many ways – more than ever perhaps – the Tour of Switzerland is an event warped by the perspective of the Tour de France. For some, this race is the perfect length with just enough variation and difficulty to make it possible to race without too much fear – a prologue, eight stages, a few sprints, a reasonable-length time trial with a couple of mountains thrown in to complete its well-rounded profile. The Swiss Tour is a decent race in itself, but its proximity to the Tour de France inevitably makes it a barometer for what we are about to see in July.

With 20 per cent of the gruppo made up of national riders, 20 per cent coming out of the Giro d’Italia, another 10 per cent French riders desperately looking for a ray of hope and the other 50 per cent either building up to the Tour or bursting themselves to get a berth in their respective Tour teams, there are a weird mix of motivations lining up every day. With less than two weeks to the start of the Tour in Liege, what did the 2012 Tour of Switzerland tell us?

The winners, in more ways than one, were Movistar. Costa gave the team a huge boost, coping with cold, wet weather and plenty of aggression in the final two mountain stages. When the proper climbing started, there was only Alejandro Valverde to help him and the star of Operacion Puerto looked like he wasn’t finding it that easy.

However, with wee Colombian Nairo Quintas winning the Route du Sud (on the six hour, 4,400m of climbing day over the Tourmalet) following his solo stage win in the Dauphiné, Costa’s victory in Switzerland means Movistar has had a decent run up to the July showdown. Costa rode out of his skin in the time trial, limited his losses in the highest mountains and looked OK on the cat two climbs with das gelb tricot on his back, bluffing his rivals on the final climb of the final stage. It’s hard to see him repeating in the Tour, where he will no doubt swap places with Valverde but he’s given Movistar some morale, which is probably more than can said for Rabobank. The Dutch team had numerical superiority in the final stage but still couldn’t find the wherewithal to unsettle two Movistar riders. It doesn’t bode well.

Rabobank’s would-be Tour stars, Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk, came to Switzerland fresh back from a win in the Tour of California and tailored high-altitude training in Spain’s Sierra Nevada. The duo were a disappointment and seemed to be as confused by their performances as much as anyone else. With the best will in the world, if Gesink can’t ride (comfortably) at the front in Switzerland, how is he going to get on in France? On paper it didn’t look like the team were far off, but in the mountains every acceleration caused Gesink to have to dig deeper than you imagine he wanted to.

But it could have been worse, look at Omega Pharma. Ah, Omega, verdomme. All you needed to do to gain an insight into the morale inside the team is to follow team manager Patrick Lefevere’s Twitter feed. His 140 character ruminations started out disappointed, almost angry, before moving to bewildered. By mid-race a hint of begging entered his ruminations before being finally resigned to a grim trek around France next month. Levi Leipheimer might have finished third at only 21 seconds, but he was isolated in the mountains and not the force he once was in time trials either. You rather suspect he’s got other things on his mind, too, what with the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong going on in the background.

The surprise, ironically, came from the beleaguered RadioShack team. After being sent to the Giro against his will/plans (and failing to finish in Milan), Frank Schleck went to the Swiss Tour in God knows what state of motivation, but the Luxembourger looked like a man who wanted to win the race, finishing second at 14 seconds after testing his climbing legs on every summit finish. Frank made a number of big attacks, even if they were more entertaining than effective.

In spite of the imbroglio surrounding team manager Johan Bruyneel, deeply implicated in the latest round of the USADA investigation, Schleck left Switzerland in a better frame of mind than he started it in. In fact, if Bruyneel is sidelined by the USADA investigation, well, maybe Frank  will be happier at the Tour?

In summary? Schleck and Movistar on the up, Rabobank back to the (training) drawing board and Omega back into the transfer market for a GC rider, unless Velits comes good. But the French – here en bloc – demonstrated that they could be set for another crappy Tour of fruitless epic breaks and the meagre consolation of ‘Most aggressive rider’ awards. They had nobody in the general classification and couldn’t buy a stage win. Unlike Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, who couldn’t stop winning.

The Slovak rider won the prologue and three stages before remembering that he really can’t climb. If he or his coach ever work out a method to transform him into a mountain goat, the 22-year-old will be something else. As it is, he’s not bad. What the French media wouldn’t give for someone like Sagan. He’s unlikely to ever win a Grand Tour, but anyone who can win stages at will and wheelie a road bike as part of his celebration has got a lot going for him.

Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cyclesportmag
www.twitter.com/kenbobpryde