In March, when Remco Evenepoel endured a chastening encounter with Tadej Pogačar at Tirreno-Adriatico, he appeared to dampen some of the wilder expectations. Winning events like the Volta ao Algarve was one thing, went the thinking, but applied against Pogačar et al at WorldTour level was something else altogether.
Evenepoel being Evenepoel, Hezulia Basque Country into the final day en route to fourth overall. That performance doubled as the warm-up for his career so far, his remarkable solo triumph at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After a short break, Evenepoel returned to action at the Tour of Norway last month, landing four out of six stages and the overall title.
Point duly made. Those expectations are being dialed up all over again, a process – unwittingly? – accelerated by QuickStep-AlphaVinyl manager Patrick Lefevere’s estimation that his Evenepoel’s watts per kilo in Norway exceeded anything produced by Pogačar so far this year.
“It’s very encouraging for the second part of the season,” Evenepoel said with considerable understatement, and the next major rendezvous of his campaign – and of his development as a stage race contender – comes next week at the Tour de Suisse.
The bulk of the overall contenders line up at the Tour de Suisse with an eye to building form ahead of the Tour de France. Evenepoel, currently scheduled to skip the Tour and race the Vuelta and España, will have little reason to hold much in reserve here. The Swiss race serves as a fresh examination of his credentials in the high mountains and that will form one of the key narratives of the week.
There are others, of course, most notably that of Ineos Grenadiers, who will field the bulk of their Tour selection in Switzerland. Daniel Martínez and Adam Yates, both riders set to lead in July, headline their line-up here, and this race should provide some indication as to the hierarchy in France next month. Tom Pidcock and Geraint Thomas also feature in a squad of considerable depth.
Traditionally, Team Sky prioritized the Dauphiné over the Tour de Suisse, but that emphasis has shifted in the Ineos era. After the triumphs of Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz in the past two editions of the race, this year will be a useful gauge of Ineos’ ability to take on Pogačar and Primoz Roglič without their two best stage race riders in July.
Neither Pogačar, slated to ride the Tour of Slovenia, nor Roglič, currently in action at the Dauphiné, will race in Switzerland, of course, but there is depth to the field all the same. The Jumbo-Visma squad, for instance, includes Rohan Dennis, who is so impressed with the Tour de Romandie, and Sepp Kuss, who is still the Tour de France selection.
The man who won Romandie, Aleksandr Vlasov, has been one of the season’s outstanding performers and his Bora-Hansgrohe squad will have drawn encouragement from Jai Hindley’s exploit at the Giro d’Italia. The Russian has understandable ambitions for July, and he is supported here by Sergio Higuita and Max Schachmann. Bahrain Victorious’ provisional line-up lists both Mikel Landa and Gino Mäder.
Others looking to hone their form for July include Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Michael Woods, Jakob Fuglsang (Israel Premier Tech), Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Qazaqstan), while the Tour de Suisse also marks a return to WorldTour competition for Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies) after a spring ruined by illness. The Slovakian lined out on gravel in Kansas last week, but as the Tour approaches, the serious business of winning bike races calls.
When Bernal scored overall victory three years ago, he became only the second rider after Eddy Merckx to win the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France in the same season (or the third, if one considered Lance Armstrong’s rescinded results from 2001). The proximity to the main event in July can sometimes have a curious effect on how the racing unfolds, but therein lies part of the attraction. The final weekend, in particular, has a habit of throwing up the unexpected.
Rather than the traditional prologue, this one is a 176km road on a circuit around Küsnacht on the shores of Lake Zurich. The ascents of Pfannenstiel and Küsnachter Berg are tackled three times apiece for a total of 2,810 meters of elevation gain. If the Giro’s circuit stages in Naples and Turin are any guide, this should provide a thunderous start to the Tour de Suisse.
The following day’s 199km run from Küsnacht to Aesch is similarly undulating, with the category 2 Challpass (6km at 5.5%) providing a springboard for attacks in the finale. Stage 3 to Grenchen brings the race into the Jura, taking in the category 1 Côte au Bouvier, but while there is over 3,000m of climbing on the day, the relatively flat run-in lends itself to a reduced bunch finish.
The fast men ought to have more than four miles of climbing along the way, including the short but wicked steep ascent of Satten (2.8km at 8.5%) in the closing kilometres.
The terrain turns more rugged again on stage 5 from the Canton Ticino with a finishing circuit that takes three ascents of the sharp Pedrinata climb before the uphill finale in Novazzano.
That stage serves as the most demanding day of the Tour de Suisse. While this is a foray into the high Alps in recent editions, the high mountains will still leave an indelible mark on the race. Stage 6 from Locarno scales the mighty Nufenenpass, which climbs for 21km to the altitude of some 2478m. After a long fall into the valley, the peloton faces into another mammoth, hors categorie climb to the finish at Moosalp.
The scarcely climbing abates on the penultimate stage from Ambri to Malbun, which brings the Tour de Suisse across the border and into Liechtenstein. The winnowing process could start early on the category 1 Lukmanierpass, but the key attacks should come on the final, hors categories ascent to Malbun (12.8km at 8.4%).
The Tour de Suisse remains in Liechtenstein for its final stage, a 25.6km trial time in the hinterland of the capital Vaduz. If Evenepoel is still content by this point, the terrain is more than amenable to his talents against the watch. In other words, the grand finale.