Luxemburger Andy Schleck's final preparations for what he hopes will be a more rewarding Tour de France campaign in July begin in earnest at the nine-day Tour of Switzerland starting Saturday. Schleck has finished yellow jersey runner-up the past two years and, although he may yet be awarded victory from 2010, the younger brother of Tour of Switzerland champion Frank remains focused on winning this year's edition.
Beaten to the storied yellow jersey in 2010 by just 39-seconds, Schleck could yet be crowned champion if Contador is banned from the sport later this summer. The Spaniard tested positive in July 2010 for clenbuterol, which he blamed on food contamination. A final decision is expected from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in August. Despite expressing doubts on his participation, Contador is expected to race the July 2-25 epic, a little more than a month after securing his second triumph at the Giro d'Italia. If Schleck needed to shake off any cobwebs three weeks before challenging the seemingly unbeatable Spaniard, the Tour of Switzerland is the place to be.
Along with the Criterium du Dauphine in France, which ends Sunday, the race provides the chance to fine tune the myriad physical and mental details that can make all the difference come July. Five days in the mountains should also give Schleck the chance to showcase the formidable climbing skills that made last year's Tour de France duel with Contador so enthralling.
Although predominantly hilly, the race has potential for bunch sprints on stages four and eight that will give Mark Cavendish, Robbie McEwen, Andre Greipel, Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen the chance to rub elbows during their hectic drives to finish line. HTC-Highroad sprinter Cavendish is a 15-time stage winner at the Tour de France and lines up with Australian teammate Matt Goss, who out sprinted a quality field to win Milan-SanRemo in March.
"Together with Mark (Cavendish), we'll be looking for at least one stage victory and coming away with some sort of success," said Goss, who comes into his first Tour of Switzerland in fine fettle. "After the Tour of California, my last race, I've done a big block of training, my race weight is good, and I'm feeling fine."
After an opening time trial over 7km in Lugano, stage two's 149km trip from Brig-Glis to Crans-Montana begins with a 20km climb to the race's highest point, the Col du Nufenen at 2478 meters above sea level. It then heads up and over the Amonina climb before the first mountaintop finish at one of Switzerland's most popular ski resorts.
At only 107.6 km long, stage three looks easy, but two significant climbs - the category one Col du Grimsel and unclassified Gross Scheidegg – means it will be anything but. A 198.4km ride over undulating terrain from Grindelwald to Huttwil on stage four will get the sprinters champing at the bit, although they could be made to work for the privilege by ambitious breakaway riders. The undulating and technical finale on stage five, held over 204.2 km from Huttwil to Tobel-Tagerschen, provides the perfect terrain for late attacks that the sprinters' teams would do well to shut down.
Climbers like Schleck (Leopard), American Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) should come back into contention on stages six, which finishes on the summit of Triesenberg in Liechtenstein, and seven, at 222.8 km long the longest of the race and which culminates atop Serfaus Fiss-Ladis. Stage eight from Tubach to Schaffhouse is the final chance for the sprinters and comes a day before the closing time trial, held on a hilly 32.1 km course around Schaffhouse.
Tour de Suisse Stages
June 11: Stage 1: Lugano (7.3 km time trial)
June 12: Stage 2: Airolo to Crans-Montana (149 km)
June 13: Stgae 3: Brigue-Glis to Grindelwald (107.6 km)
June 14: Stage 4: Grindelwald to Huttwil (198.4 km)
June 15: Stage 5: Huttwil to Tobel-Tagerschen (204.2 km)
June 16: Stage 6: Tobel-Tagerschen to Triesenberg (Liechtenstein, 157.7km)
June 17: Stage 7: Vaduz to Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis (Austria, 222.8 km)
June 18: Stage 8: Tubach to Schaffhouse (167.3 km)
June 19: Stage 9: Schaffhouse to Schaffhouse (32.1 km)