The bill in Switzerland is headed, mind, by a rider who won’t ride the Tour de France at all, at least according to his Soudal-QuickStep team. But Remco Evenepoel’s return to competition is the storyline of the week all the same. The Tour de Suisse is always something more than a mere preparation race.
As ever, there are dozens of subplots at the Tour de Suisse. Ahead of the race, Cyclingnews looks at five of the key questions that will define the week’s action.
Can Remco Evenepoel pick up where he left off at the Giro?
Remco Evenepoel’s decision to return to action at the Tour de Suisse didn’t meet with the full approval of Soudal-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere, who strongly hinted at the appearance fee that was being offered by the Baloise Belgium Tour. “In all honesty, this is a purely sporting choice by himself and by trainer Koen Pelgrim,” Lefevere wrote in his Het Nieuwsblad column.
Therein lies a hint as to Evenepoel’s aspirations this week. The world champion is not in Switzerland simply to make up the numbers or pocket a cheque, but to win. Ostensibly, the prime attractions of the Tour de Suisse are the time trials that bookend the race, given that Evenepoel is looking to defend his Belgian time trial crown and pick up a world title in the discipline this summer.
In reality, the chance to run through the scales before those two events is merely a bonus. Evenepoel will start in Switzerland as the obvious favourite for overall victory and he will surely be eager to prove a point after COVID-19 forced him out of the Giro d’Italia while wearing the maglia rosa.
Evenepoel looked the overwhelming favourite to carry pink to Rome after his fast start in Italy and his (relative) travails on the second weekend were placed in a very different context once news of his COVID-19 case emerged. The Belgian instead had to watch as the Giro played out without him, and the Tour de Suisse offers an obvious chance to channel some of his frustration and underline his stage racing credentials all over again.
If Evenepoel showcases that Giro form here, of course, another question will inevitably bubble to the surface. Soudal-QuickStep remain adamant that the world champion will not make his Tour de France debut this year, but the murmurs will surely start all over again if he triumphs in Switzerland.
What are Wout van Aert’s objectives?
For a week or so, the Giro d'Italia seemed to offer the tantalising prospect of a duel between Evenepoel and Primož Roglič, the man who ultimately did claim the Trofeo Senza Fine in Rome. The Slovenian, however, has since opted against the Tour de Suisse and, barring another injury crisis at his team, his next objective is set to be the Vuelta a España.
In Roglič’s absence, Wout van Aert leads the line for Jumbo-Visma in what will be his Tour de Suisse debut. His very presence in Switzerland is intriguing, given that the bulk of Jumbo-Visma’s Tour de France squad is in action with Jonas Vingegaard at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Could it be that Van Aert is planning to use the Tour de Suisse to test his own GC credentials, and against his compatriot Evenepoel to boot?
Not so, according to Jumbo-Visma, who insist that Van Aert’s objectives in Switzerland will amount to having a crack at both time trials and whatever bunch sprints may materialise over the week. The decision to race the Tour de Suisse instead of the Dauphiné, coach Mathieu Heijboer explained, was taken to allow Van Aert to spend a longer period at altitude ahead of a busy summer that will see him target the Glasgow Worlds immediately after the Tour.
No matter, Van Aert will be worth watching closely at the Tour de Suisse, his first race since his ill-starred podium finish at Paris-Roubaix. And even if he won’t contest the overall title with Evenepoel, their duel in the opening time trial will be no less intense.
Can Peter Sagan pick up momentum in his final season?
Peter Sagan made little impact in the last Classics campaign of his career, but the three-time world champion will hope to make a greater impression at his final Tour de France, where he has won a record seven green jerseys over the years.
The points competition was his personal fiefdom between 2012 and 2019 – only a disqualification in 2017 broke his sequence of success – and in each of those seasons, he prepared for the rigours of July at the Tour de Suisse, becoming an intrinsic part of the rhythm of the race.
Sagan’s 18 stage wins in Switzerland are a record, and his most recent triumph 12 months ago seemed to mark a comeback after two years blighted by illness. “It’s a relief to win. But life is life. The important thing isn’t winning races, it’s being healthy,” Sagan said after that win.
The words were sadly prescient. By week’s end, the TotalEnergies rider had contracted COVID-19 for a third time, and he was a shadow of himself at the Tour de France. The Suisse victory proved to be a false dawn back then, but he will hope racing on familiar roads this week can help to ignite a subdued farewell season.
There were some encouraging signs at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque last month, but the Tour de Suisse, as Sagan knows better than anyone, is an altogether different level of competition.
Is Tom Pidcock ready for his close-up?
In the long-term, Ineos Grenadiers view Tom Pidcock as a potential Tour de France winner. In the here and now, however, the Briton has been understandably reluctant to pigeonhole himself as a stage race contender given that his sheer versatility lends itself so well to the Spring Classics, not to mention the cyclocross and mountain bike calendars.
With Egan Bernal still feeling his way back after last year’s career-threatening crash, and with Geraint Thomas missing this July after his exertions at the Giro d’Italia, however, Ineos are still auditioning for a leader at the Tour de France. Daniel Martínez is ostensibly the man to lead the line, though the Colombian hasn’t sparkled since his overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve in February.
Pidcock will, inevitably, play a starring role for Ineos in July, with the hilly opening in the Basque Country surely to his liking, but it remains to be seen if his ambitions will be oriented more towards repeating his 2022 stage victory or improving on his 16th place finish in the overall standings. His approach to the Tour de Suisse this week should be instructive.
Will youth or experience prevail in Switzerland?
Evenepoel and Pidcock aren’t the only young men in a hurry in action in Switzerland this week. Juan Ayuso leads the line for UAE Team Emirates, while Cian Uijtdebroeks will look to continue his fine sophomore season at Bora-Hansgrohe with another strong showing here.
Ayuso and Uijtdebroeks, like Evenepoel, are not slated to ride the Tour de France, and this race marks a key test for each man before they turn their attention to the long lead-in to the Vuelta. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them contest the podium – or more – in Abtwil on Sunday week.
A year ago, however, experience won the day at the Tour de Suisse, with Geraint Thomas claiming victory on the final stage after carefully measuring his effort across the week, while another veteran, Jakob Fuglsang, helped himself to third overall. A bit of local knowledge never hurts either, as repeat winners Rui Costa and Simon Spilak demonstrated a decade or so ago. Indeed, the evergreen Rui Costa is on hand here for Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, nine years on from his last triumph.
Thomas is an absentee this year, but there are several seasoned riders here who will expect to feature in the shake-up for overall victory, including Romain Bardet (DSM), Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) and Wilco Kelderman (Jumbo-Visma).