14-22 June 2014

While most of the top Tour de France candidates are doing Critérium du Dauphiné, the rest is taking part in Tour de Suisse, which starts this weekend.

The route
Starting out with a short but hilly time trial, we will already see significant time differences at the end of day one. They won’t be crucial but without bonus seconds to the stage winners, every gained second in the time trials will be of huge importance. The following two stages are both very demanding with numerous climbs to overcome. You can’t win Tour de Suisse here, but you can definitely lose it. It’s a cliché but it’s true.

Stage 4 and 5 are for the sprinters, while stage 6 looks good for a break to make it all the way. Stage 7 is another fight against the clock. The 24.5 km are very undulating and will create huge time differences. However, nothing is settled until the final weekend. Both stage 8 and 9 end with an uphill finish. Especially the last day is tough with many hard climbs on the menu. You can see profiles of all the stages below this preview.

The favorites
The way I see it, there are two big favorites for the overall win in this year’s Tour de Suisse. The first one is Bradley Wiggins. After a disappointing 2013-season, Wiggins is now back at a very high level. He won Tour of California after killing the competition in the time trial and staying close to his rivals on the climbs. Exactly as he did when he won the Tour de France in 2012. Despite his great condition, Bradley Wiggins isn’t set to take part in the Tour for Team Sky this year - as it stands right now. The team most likely fears that internal disputes between Wiggins and Chris Froome will ruin their chances of overall success. To me, it seems like a perfectly logical decision.

Naturally, missing the Tour is a big blow for Wiggins. According to the Brit, he’s in the same condition as when he won the Tour in 2012. Nothing is fully decided yet and therefore, Bradley Wiggins has to put in a strong performance in Tour de Suisse. The course suits him perfectly. If he really is back at his 2012 level, I think he will be able to gain at least 1:30 minutes on many of his rivals in the time trials. This means the other GC riders have to take back a lot of time on the climbs. However, these long and steady climbs are perfect for a diesel motor like Wiggins. He has an incredibly strong team to support him and without bonus seconds on the line, I think it will be very difficult to beat Bradley Wiggins overall.

To me, Rui Costa is the biggest threat to Wiggins. The Portuguese world champion has won Tour de Suisse the last two years. He usually performs well on Swiss territory. Rui Costa is still winless in the rainbow jersey. However, he has finished in Top3 no less than nine times this season. He’s very eager to finally break the spell and I think his first win will come in this race. There are many stages suited for a rider of his characteristics. Normally, Rui Costa is always best in the last part of the stage races. If he wants to win this race overall, though, he can’t afford to lose ground in the first couple of undulating stages. I can’t see him beating Bradley Wiggins in any of the two time trials but he might have a chance of distancing him in the mountains. However, it definitely won’t be easy.

Fight for the podium
Due to the importance of the time trials, I don’t think strong riders like Thibaut Pinot, Mathias Frank and Warren Barguil will be able to fight for the overall podium this time. Instead, we should look to guys like Bauke Mollema, Roman Kreuziger and especially Rohan Dennis.

Both Bauke Mollema and Roman Kreuziger finished on the podium in Tour de Suisse last year. They are amongst the best climbers in the race and very strong against the clock as well. However, both will most likely lose at least a minute to Bradley Wiggins on stage 7. I think this will be too much to take back. Despite stage 8 and 9 having an uphill finish, we must not forget that these climbs are perfect for Wiggins. The steady - not too steep - gradients mean that Team Sky can set a high pace eliminating most of the attacks. Even if Mollema, Kreuziger, Rui Costa and others manage to drop Wiggins, it probably won’t be more than a maximum of 20-30 seconds each day. Without bonus seconds, I doubt this will be enough to take the overall win from the Brit.

Rohan Dennis may not be able to follow the best climbers in the mountains, but he has a very strong time trial to bank on. After Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins, Dennis is probably the third best time trialist in this race. The young Australian finished 2nd overall in Tour of California after winning a mountain stage and finishing 2nd in the time trial. If Rohan Dennis has a great week, he might be able to repeat this performance in Tour de Suisse and finish on the podium.

For other strong candidates for the top places in this race, look to riders like Tom-Jelte Slagter, Cadel Evans, Domenico Pozzovivo and Laurens Ten Dam.

The jokers
Personally, I’m very much looking forward to following the two youngsters, Louis Meintjes (22 years) and Esteban Chaves (24 years), in this race.

Louis Meintjes showed his great talent at the U23 World Champions last year as he finished second on the demanding course in Florence. MTN-Qhubeka hasn’t been taking part in many of the big races this season. However, when they got a chance to shine in Giro del Trentino, Meintjes wasn’t late to seize the moment. The young South African finished 5th overall after taking 2nd place on the big mountain stage on Monte Bondone. He doesn’t excel against the clock, but as he proved in Coppi e Bartali that he’s not bad in a short and hilly time trial. Louis Meintjes won’t win Tour de Suisse but I’m sure he will show his huge talent on the climbs. If everything works out, he might do Top10 overall.

Esteban Chaves is one of the greatest climbing talents coming out of Colombia in recent years. Probably only surpassed by Nairo Quintana. It’s a bald claim, but this kid really gets wings on the steep gradients. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia at 2400 meters above sea level and is used to climbing in high altitude. At least once a week, Chaves rides down to Villeta (at around 1300m) and then climbs the 40 km up to Alto de la Tribuna (at 2600m). A horrible crash ruined his 2013-season, but he still managed to secure a World Tour contract with Orica-GreenEdge. Something I’m sure the Australian team will never regret. Last month, in Tour of California, Chaves won the big mountain stage after a long breakaway. He seems to be in great shape right now and I’m confident we will get to see him on stage 8 and 9 of Tour de Suisse. Especially the finish on Verbier looks good for the young Colombian.

For other interesting jokers, look to Ion Izagirre, Linus Gerdemann and the young Italian Davide Formolo (21 years) of Cannondale. Mark his name. After Fabio Aru, Formolo is probably the biggest Italian talent in the peloton right now.

Stage previews
Due to limited time, I won’t be writing the usual daily stage previews of the race. However, below, you will find the profiles of all stages. I will write a quick preview about each stage, the evening before it starts. Therefore, remember to tune in evert day to get my winner and joker picks for the stage. For additional thoughts and updates on the race, make sure to follow me on Twitter at @mrconde.

For live coverage of this year's Tour de Suisse 2014 go to steephill.tv

Stage 1

This is a very demanding start to Tour de Suisse. The first 5 km are flat. Then, the riders take on a 2 km climb with an average gradient of over 7.5 %. Especially the last part of the climb is steep. The final 2.4 km are downhill towards the finishing line.

To me, Bradley Wiggins is the prime pick today. A flat time trial would have better for him, but if he’s really in 2012-condition, he will have no problems coping with the climb. The descent is very fast and Wiggins will be flying down towards Bellinzona in a big gear. It will be very interesting to how the other GC favorites will do today. Without bonus seconds, you can’t afford to lose out in the beginning of the race.

Winner pick: Bradley Wiggins
Joker: Ion Izagirre

Stage 2

This is a very difficult stage to call. Four tough climbs will make sure only the strongest riders will survive up front. On paper, a breakaway seems to have good chances of making it all the way. However, it all depends on how well Peter Sagan copes with the climbs. Cannondale will do whatever they can to set up the strong Slovakian for the final sprint. Still, the last climb of the day, Brünigpass, is very hard. Sagan really needs to bring his A-game if he wants to fight for the win today.

There are only 20 km to go from the top of Brünigpass. A head wind means it won’t be easy to rejoin the peloton if you get dropped on the climb. The wind direction also means that a late breakaway won’t have many chances of succeeding.

There are no bonus seconds in Tour de Suisse. Therefore, the GC riders don't have to risk anything in the sprint. However, if riders like Peter Sagan, Ben Swift and José Joaquin Rojas aren’t represented in the front group, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Rui Costa, Bauke Mollema and Tom-Jelte Slagter sprinting for the win. Especially, Slagter is a very dangerous outsider today. Even with Peter Sagan in the bunch, Slagter will most likely try his luck. He’s very fast within a reduced group and he’s one of my personal favorites for this stage. The same goes for Michael Albasini. On home soil, Albasini always delivers. He won’t beat Peter Sagan or Ben Swift, but without those two, Albasini is probably the best finisheur in the bunch for this kind of stage.

Stage 3

The morning breakaway made it all the way on stage 2 and this could very well happen again today. Tony Martin knows these roads very well from his training and, naturally, he wants to keep the yellow jersey. The German would be happy to see a break fight it out and take the tension of winning the stage out of the equation. Strong riders like Michael Albasini and Linus Gerdeman are around 10 minutes behind Tony Martin in the GC. I would expect both of them to try to make it into the early breakaway.

The final 80 km are constantly up and down with six climbs to overcome. However, only two of these are categorized. The gradients aren’t very steep and we shouldn’t see any of the overall favorites losing ground today. I expect Peter Sagan to stay near the front and try his luck against the GC riders on the short uphill finish.

The final 3.4 km kick up with an average gradient of about 5.5 %. There are no bonus seconds in this year’s Tour de Suisse, which means that even a small time gap can turn out to be of huge importance. Every second counts! If the GC riders end up fighting for the stage win, my personal favorite is Tom-Jelte Slagter.

Stage 4

This is the first stage for the pure sprinters in this year’s Tour de Suisse. There are a few un-categorized climbs to overcome before the peloton enters Ossingen. Here, the riders take on two laps of 28 km. The circuit includes a 1.5 km category 4 climb with an average gradient of 5.4 %. Cannondale and Giant-Shimano may want to try to drop a few of the other sprinters on the climb. However, there are still 15 km to go from the top. Anything but a bunch sprint will be a huge surprise today.

Mark Cavendish won two stages in Tour of California last month and is the prime pick today. Cavendish has his complete leadout team with him in Tour de Suisse. In theory, OPQS should have the best leadout in the peloton. The reality, however, is something completely different. Renshaw and Petacchi have had numerous problems getting the leadout right this season. Still, even without a perfect train, Mark Cavendish is strong enough to win.

While OPQS has been struggling with their leadouts, Giant-Shimano has often made it look easy. No matter which riders the team picks for the races, their leadout train always performs to perfection. John Degenkolb is the designated sprinter in Tour de Suisse and he can count on excellent support from Ramon Sinkeldam, Tom Dumoulin, Luka Mezgec and Koen de Kort, who I see as the best leadout rider in the world right now.

I think this will be a very close fight between Mark Cavendish and John Degenkolb. The final kilometer includes a couple of tricky corners, which means it will be very important to have the lead. Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Ben Swift and Sacha Modolo are next in line.

Stage 5

This is another day for the fast guys. In fact, this is the last day for Mark Cavendish and the other pure sprinters. Therefore, they can’t afford to miss out. OPQS will be leading the peloton for most of the day, but I expect Katusha and Giant-Shimano to help out as well. The final kilometer is very tricky with two 90° corners close to the line. The last one comes with just 200 meters to go.

Giant-Shimano seemed to have everything in order when they hit the front of the peloton with a little less than 2 km to go on stage 4. However, as it turned out, John Degenkolb was missing. He lost the wheel of Koen de Kort and decided to save energy and lick his wounds after an early crash. I’m sure Degenkolb and the rest of the team are eager to get it right this time and show they can challenge Cavendish on the line.

Alexander Kristoff was in a good position in the final of stage 4. However, he lost the fight with Sacha Modolo for the wheel of Mark Cavendish. The strong Norwegian ended up boxed in a little and had to brake in his final sprint. After the stage, Mark Cavendish said that his "main competitors of the Tour de France aren't here with the exception of Sagan". I think Alexander Kristoff would like to show Cavendish that he’s one to be taken seriously in the sprints when the Tour starts in a couple of weeks.

Stage 6

This is a very undulating stage. The pure sprinters most likely won’t be able to fight for the win. However, even though Mark Cavendish is out of the equation, OPQS will have to keep working at the front of the peloton to keep Tony Martin in yellow. A breakaway will have a solid chance of making it all the way. The three categorized climbs mean we will most like see Björn Thurau in the morning break, securing KOM points before a very tough weekend in the mountains.

The peloton reaches the finishing line in Delémont for the first time with about 45 km to go. Here, they take on a difficult circuit including two climbs. The first one, category 2, is 7.7 km long and has an average gradient of 5 %. A short descent near the top means the actual gradients are a bit steeper. The riders start climbing again immediately after the descent. This category 3 climb, however, is fairly easy. From the top, there are only 11.7 km left to go. The road starts to kick up on the final 1.2. km. First 500 meters with an average gradient of 4.5 % followed by a very short descent. Then, after a roundabout, the 300 meters are slightly uphill.

Team Sky and Ben Swift took it easy on stage 5, saving energy for today. I expect them and Cannondale to control the peloton. Peter Sagan is the top favorite but I don’t think Ben Swift will be far off. The same goes for Michael Albasini. On stage 3, the strong Swiss proved that he’s in great shape right now. Albasini is no threat in the GC. He can both win from an early break or in a sprint within a reduced peloton. However, against Sagan and Swift it won’t be easy for Albasini to win on home soil.

If you are looking for a super joker, look to BMC’s Silvan Dillier. The young Swiss is in excellent shape at the moment and he’s very fast on the line. If everything works out, Dillier might even make podium today.

Stage 7

This is a very important stage for the general classification. Without any bonus seconds, the GC riders need to gain as much time as possible on each other today. The most important thing, however, will be to minimize the time loss to Tony Martin. Luckily for the climbers, the profile isn’t pancake flat. Not at all.

A 2.7 km climb with an average gradient of 6 % in the first half of the stage means that big engines like Tony Martin, Tom Dumoulin and Fabian Cancellara won’t be able to murder this stage early on. However, these three riders will most likely make podium when the day is over. The last part of the stage is very undulation while the final 5 km are downhill on a fast descent.

Personally, I have no doubts Tony Martin will win this stage. He needs to take as much time as he can on the climbers and the German seems to be in great shape right now. I expect Tony Martin to put in about a minute to riders like Rui Costa, Roman Kreuzige, Bauke Mollema and Sergio Henao.

Looking at the weather forecast, it should stay dry all day. However, the wind direction will change a little, meaning a stronger headwind on the final descent for the late starters. Fabian Cancellara is the second rider to take the start. He knows these roads very well. In fact, it was on this circuit that Cancellara crashed in training a few weeks ago. I’m sure he will be eager to take revenge today.

Rohan Dennis is a bit of mystery. He started out in style, finishing 3rd in the opening time trial. Since then, the young Australian has been struggling to keep up. Bib-number 116 has been getting a lot of TV-coverage at the back of the peloton. Maybe Dennis has been saving energy for today, maybe he’s just not feeling well. If Rohan Dennis is ready, he could easily finish 2nd in this stage. However, if he’s not, he could just as well finish as number 100.   

Stage 8

This is the first of two big mountain stages this weekend. It’s a very long day of 219.1 km in the saddle. The first 195 km are pretty much flat. At least the few uphill sections aren’t anything compared to the final part of the stage.

With about 25 km to go, the road starts to kick up. The following 10 km aren’t very steep but after such a long day, even these type of gradients will leave their mark in the legs of the riders. The top of this category 3 climb comes with 13.4 km to go. After four kilometers of false flat, the riders take on the final ascent of the day. The 8 km towards the top of Verbier have an average gradient of nearly 8 %. Upon reaching the top, the climb actually continues for about 500 meters before the final 1.2 km go slightly downhill towards the finishing line. Only the last 100 meters are uphill.

Tony Martin has a solid gap to the strong climbers after his win in Friday’s time trial. Therefore, the other GC riders can’t afford to wait too long before starting to attack the German. However, without bonus seconds on the line, we might see a breakaway make it all the way. A strong tailwind means that the morning break will be able to gain a lot of time on the peloton before taking on the final climbs.

If a breakaway makes it, look out for strong riders out of the general classification like: Warren Barguil, Joe Dombrowski, Steven Kruijswijk Linus Gerdemann, Michael Albasini and his team mate at GreenEdge Simon Clarke. The Australian is excellent at winning from a break in the mountains. Being fast on the line, this kind of finish suits Clarke perfectly.

If the GC riders end up fighting for the win today, look to climbers with a fast finish like Bauke Mollema and Rui Costa. On home soil, Mathias Frank will most likely try to attack but it will be extremely difficult for him to keep the top favorites behind him. Among the GC riders, my personal outsider is Laurens Ten Dam. He’s coming from an altitude camp and seems to be in great shape ahead of the Tour. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him put in a strong attack near the top.

For super jokers, look to my young favorites mentioned in the overall preview above.

Stage 9

It’s not often that the Queen Stage of a big race is placed on the last day. That’s how it is in Tour de Suisse 2014, though. No less than four difficult climbs await the riders today. It’s a very short stage, only 156.5 km, meaning - despite the climbs - it will be a very fast day in the saddle. Without bonus seconds on the line, a morning break will have a good chance of making it all the way. However, it has to be a much stronger break than we saw on stage 8.

The final ascent up to Saas-Fee is 21 km long and has an average gradient of 5.5 %. There is a part of almost 4 km with gradients around 2-3 %, which means the uphill average gradient is much more than the noted 5.5 %. The last 3 km are the steepest part of the climb with parts of nearly 10 %. This is where we will see the final fight for the overall podium. The last 500 meters of the stage are more or less flat.

If an early break ends up making it all the way, my personal favorite is Philip Deignan. The Irishman has had a great couple of months, proving to be back at the high level he showed in 2009. Deignan has been suffering a bit in the first part of the race but now seems to be doing very well. He’s more than 30 minutes behind Tony Martin in the general classification, meaning the GC riders won’t care to chase him down right away. Philip Deignan finished 6th on stage 8. If he makes it into the morning breakaway, I think he will end up winning this stage.

Among the overall favorites, Bauke Mollema is the top favorite for the stage win. He’s obviously in great shape and should be the fastest rider if it comes to a sprint. Roman Kreuziger beat him on stage 8, but only after Mollema did a huge effort trying to close the gap to Esteban Chaves. If Mollema wants to finish on the final podium again this year, he has to take back a lot of time today. This means that Belkin will have to take control already at the bottom of the final climb. Steven Kruijswijk, Stef Clement and Laurens Ten Dam are all doing great right now. In their search for a new team sponsor, I’m sure the Belkin team will do whatever they can to show their strength. Then it’s up to Bauke Mollema to finish it off.

My personal outsider for this stage is Louis Meintjes. The South African champion tried to anticipate the action with an early attack on Verbier. However, the peloton didn’t let him slip away. If Meintjes manages to time his attack a bit better this time, he might take the biggest win of his career Sunday afternoon.