Preview: Van Garderen a favorite at Tour de Suisse

This year's route is harder than in years past, with more climbs added into the course as the peloton preps for the Tour de France.

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The season’s “fourth” grand tour kicks off Saturday for the 80th edition of the Tour de Suisse. Harder mountains will make for an interesting battle among a solid crew of GC contenders.

Many of the top favorites for the Tour de France are racing this week at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but there is no lack of star quality at the nine-day Swiss tour. The race also serves as a home-road farewell for Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara (Trek – Segafredo) and IAM Cycling, the Swiss WorldTour team that is shuttering at the end of the season.

With three mountaintop finales and two short time trials, the GC fight should tip toward a better climber. In between are opportunities for sprinters and breakaways as the Swiss tour once again delivers a balanced, interesting course for an intense week of racing with a distinctive Swiss accent.

The favorites

Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), and world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) give the race star power, but all eyes will be on the GC fight.

On paper, the race should see a battle between Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Geraint Thomas (Sky). Last year, Thomas was second by just five seconds, while van Garderen was second at the Dauphiné by 10 seconds. Both will have something to prove in Switzerland.

Now 27, Van Garderen is racing the Swiss tour for the third time — he was 11th in 2011 and seventh in 2013 — and will have solid support from BMC. With teammate Richie Porte riding strong at the Dauphiné, van Garderen will be under pressure to post an equally impressive result to reconfirm his leadership credentials for the Tour. He’s never won a European stage race, and this could be an ideal opportunity to do so.

Thomas, 30, will be also riding to win after an uneven spring that saw big wins at Algarve and Paris-Nice, but rough rides at Catalunya (DNF) and Romandie (51st), two races he had on his radar. In July, he’ll be Sky’s “Plan B” behind Chris Froome, so this race is his chance to ride to win.

Behind them are several riders who could pop for the podium. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale), Warren Barguil (Giant – Alpecin), Ion Izagirre (Movistar), Robert Gesink (LottoNL – Jumbo), and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) are all solid bets. Defending champion Simon Spilak (Katusha) and Rui Costa (Lampre – Merida), back after skipping last year’s Swiss tour for the Dauphiné, where he was third, should be in the mix as well.

The key? For van Garderen and Thomas, take gains in the time trials and defend in the mountains. The others will have to attack in the climbs. It has the makings of a good race.

Sagan, Matthews, Gaviria in the sprints

The sprints will see a lively battle between some of the top names in the pack. Michael Matthews (Orica – GreenEdge) is racing for the first time since the spring classics, and will be facing off against Sagan and Fernando Gaviria (Etixx – Quick-Step).

Matthews is building toward the Tour and will want at least one win going into July. Gaviria, the explosive Colombian who took his first WorldTour win in stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico, will be hungry for more as well.

First they both will have to get around Sagan, who has won stages in the past five editions of this race.

“The Tour de Suisse is a traditional final test before the Tour de France for me,” Sagan said. “I’m going to check my current form, and of course, if it’s possible, I would like to add some stage victories to my collection. The second, third and fourth stage could be ideal, because there’s a good chance that they will end with a bunch sprint.”

As Sagan pointed out, there should be three chances for a bunch sprint. The best sprinters, such as Marcel Kittel (Etixx), André Greipel (Lotto – Soudal), and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) are not here, so the sprints should be a battle between these three. Others to try their luck will be Danny van Poppel (Sky), Juan José Lobato (Movistar), Reinardt Janse van Rensburg (Dimension Data), and Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff).

Dauphiné vs Suisse

Despite a high-profile deal with Velon, the peloton’s top GC stars have stayed with the proven path to the Tour de France by racing the Dauphiné this month. Over the past two decades, the only Tour winner to have raced the Swiss tour instead of the Dauphiné was Lance Armstrong in 2001 (both results have been erased).

Riders tend to prefer the Dauphiné because the route often mirrors some of the key stages featured in the Tour. Also, the earlier date of the Dauphiné gives riders a bit more time to recover and then build up again for the Tour. Tour owners ASO took over the Dauphiné in 2010, giving teams an added incentive to send their top riders to France.

Sky, for example, has won four of the past five editions of the Dauphiné, netting three yellow jerseys along the way. The team has never won the Swiss tour.

Riders have gone well in the Swiss tour and later performed in the Tour — in 2013, Roman Kreuziger was third in Switzerland and fifth at the Tour — but the Dauphiné remains the preferred path to the season’s second grand tour.

That’s not counting Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who is skipping both races for the second year in a row to train at altitude in Colombia. As he did in 2015, Quintana will race the Route du Sud in the Pyrénées as his only pre-Tour race.

The route: More mountains

For a nation synonymous with mountains, the Tour de Suisse has always striven for balance, and almost seemed to steer clear of some of its colossal climbs. Part of that is because race organizers try to weave all regions of the country into the race route, and not every part of Switzerland ends in glacial heights.

This year’s route is much tougher, with more climbing packed into the final half of the race.

The Swiss tour opens with a 6.4km time trial in Baar with a short climb and a rising final stretch that seems tailor-made for Cancellara. Seeing him wear yellow would be a dream opener for organizers.

The 186km second stage on a circuit course around Baar features three hard climbs that will put pressure on the sprinters, but this one has Sagan written all over it. The 192km third stage and 194km fourth stage feature less-lumpy terrain that’s perfect for Gaviria and the other sprinters.

The short, explosive 124km fifth stage to Cari, ending with a short but steep hilltop finale, will turn the focus toward the climbers. The steep climbing finish in stage 6 to Amden and the long, Tour-style summit finale at Sölden the next day should settle the GC hierarchy.

The 16.8km time trial in stage 8 over rolling terrain favors a rouleur over a pure specialist, meaning that climbers should be able to defend gains made in the mountains, putting pressure on van Garderen and Thomas to take time back if they need to. Closing stage nine into Davos over two hard climbs will give breakaway riders a chance, with the GC contenders on guard in the rear.

North Americans

Van Garderen starts as a five-star favorite to win, while Talansky is the other top North American. Since Talansky’s dramatic coup to win the 2014 Dauphiné, the Cannondale rider will be looking for a solid performance to bolster his confidence ahead of the Tour.

Ian Boswell (Sky) and Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale) will both be tapping into form and experience from the 2016 Giro d’Italia, and both will be hunting for stage victories if the opportunity presents itself.

Peter Stetina and Kiel Reijnen (Trek – Segafredo) will both have freedom to hunt for stage wins, with Stetina looking to sharpen his form ahead of a likely return to the Tour. Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data) will continue his role as road captain and could be in line for a return to the Tour if he’s on good form.

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