Anxious Times at the Tour de Suisse

The Dauphiné brought great racing with the top contenders for the Tour de France in Alpine action. The Tour de Suisse promises more of the same but also racing of a different kind with riders struggling to be themselves, competing for the eye of their managers and with whole teams in racing against time to save their future.

Bradley Wiggins is the first case. A study in bio-mechanical perfection in the Tour of California where he seemed to ride for a week without moving his upper body once except to smile he’s now finding his every move subject to scrutiny for body language and meaning, as if each day might give clues to his next move. Apparently ruled out for the Tour de France this week looks unlikely to offer a route to Yorkshire’s Tour de France start. Any talk of grand départ is more likely to relate to his departure to another team.

If his Tour start was unlikely this week could be the chance to put some pressure or at least keep the public on his side but he’s already down on GC. There’s still a time trial stage to come and he could surprise at any other moment but if he finishes the race 65th then the kind of people who only take a casual interest in the sport might see the result and settle on the idea that his absence from the Tour is explainable and that he’s not Sky’s Plan B or even their Plan W. There’s the air of a farewell tour, it’s said he’s been training on the track and his goal isn’t to start the Tour de France but to finish the Commonwealth Games with some medals, if so touring Switzerland seems an oddity.

From attitude to altitude, the same team has the returning Sergio Henao. The Froomey vs Wiggo debate has raged so extensively that Henao’s return after a team-imposed suspension has attracted very little attention. We still know next to nothing about why he was stopped nor why he can return. But Henao must feel he’s on a mission to make a name for himself and to avenge half a year spent on the bench.

If you think Wiggins and Henao have a point to prove, imagine what Andy Schleck feels like. The Luxembourger’s missed every stated rendez-vous this season and this race is the last chance to prove he’s turned it around. Fail this week and the closest he’ll get to the Tour de France is a roadside picnic with his family to watch the race ride past. This isn’t a cruel joke, he had a sérieuse explication with Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena. In case you’re wondering it’s a euphemism for an argument and the team have given him two chances to prove himself. The first was the Tour of Luxembourg (50th overall, highest placing 41st in the prologue) and the second is the Tour de Suisse. In other words his career is on the line this week. You can sense resignation already.

Rui Costa hasn’t won a race since the Worlds last year. If he can’t do it this week he never will. He’s won the Tour de Suisse twice and this year has said his focus is on the stage races and the upcoming Tour de France. If so it means he’ll have been working on his climbing and TT riding and so this is a week to deliver. Or will the rainbow jersey find himself strutting around Switzerland unable to win for a change?

Cadel Evans is riding the national tour of his adopted home country. He had a good Giro but he started to slip down the GC during the second half of the race. Recovery hasn’t been obvious given 63rd place in the prologue. Rightly he said it’s an intense effort and not suited to someone coming out of the Giro but the rest of the week might be equally fatiguing.

Another Aussie with an as yet uncertain future: Matthew Goss. He’s likely to ride the Tour de France but so is Michael Matthews. This week will determine his role in July but is also another chance to get a result for himself before subordinating himself in support of Matthews. Note he was two minutes down in the prologue and the team website doesn’t mention a crash. Some sprinters double as prologue specialists, Goss isn’t one of them but he was further down than usual.

What of Belkin? The team got the news this morning that the Californian sponsor is to stop backing the team at the end of the year: totally disconnected you might say. It only came on board this time last year. It doesn’t reflect well on the sport that someone comes in and out so briefly but the team was part-funded by the Rabobank payoff following the Dutch bank’s hurried exit from the sport and the Belkin deal was never a long term commitment, two years with an option to leave after one.

They’re not the only Dutch team in this predicament. Giant-Shimano also have sponsorship issues with their eponymous backers only coming in to save the team for 2014, the future beyond this is uncertain.

It means two sets of management pitching a similar concept to the Dutch corporate sector. There’s also Catch-22 scenario for the management. In order to attract a sponsor a team needs a roster packed with stars who will deliver the wins and publicity. But if a team has no sponsor then there’s going to be an athlete exodus with riders signing for other teams. There’s little pressure on the star names but in a shrinking market their salaries can take a hit. While the domestiques will be stressed just to keep a job. All while the bigger pressure falls on team managers to keep the whole show on the road.

Finally there’s the Tour de Suisse itself. Great roads, stunning scenery, a wealthy country this event should have it all. But it risks being overshadowed by the Dauphiné because of the Tour de France’s dominance and the ASO connections. For unknown reasons the races overlap and they’re in direct competition. If there was no overlap there’d still be rivalry because riders have to select their calendar with care in between the Giro and Tour, a point worth remembering with all the talk of calendar reform. We will always have preparation races and these will always have some big names missing.

Peter Sagan seems to be the only certainty this week, as usual the Slovak’s full of power for the stage finish and empty words for the ensuing press conference. But others in the race are like animals in a travelling circus, caged animals on show to the public. Some resemble study in body language while others are desperate to let their legs do the talking. Meanwhile several teams have to face the future with agents circling and riders getting early morning emails to say the team sponsor’s vanishing. For a country that trades on an image of stability and wealth, this year’s Tour de Suisse sees a peloton packed with anxiety and insecurity.

42 thoughts on “Anxious Times at the Tour de Suisse”

  1. In all the (well justified) range of praise for the first-class writing on this blog, it shouldn’t be overlooked that your choice of photographs to accompany each entry is spot-on. Case in point is the Andy Schleck illustration here.

    Away from the praise, have you heard anything regarding the future of Cannondale as a Pro Tour team? If you take away themselves as well as Giant-Shimano and Belkin you are looking at a very slim cadre of teams at the top level. Are MTN-Qhubeka or IAM able or willing to make the move up? Whatever, it seems that there will be some talented riders who are seeking new forms of employment or being scattered throughout the UCI-Conti level, like Rob Ruijgh and Adam Blythe this year.

    • Cannondale are carrying on. Sagan’s exit seems likely and Basso might be retiring or leaving too. This frees up money to spend on new recruits.

      As for MTN-Qhubeka or IAM, why move up? They’re good enough to get wildcards espcecially if more teams vanish. But they don’t have they costs of being in the World Tour, from the licence fee to staffing a roster capable of riding three grand tours a year and doing other overlapping races.

      As for the photos, the Andy Schleck one is from the Tour de Suisse a few years back so it’s old but suitable. The expression says it all.

  2. Some interesting points made as usual above. Riders careers turning corners with age and injury etc. I cannot see Evans going on much longer but there’s life in the old diesel yet. Andy Schleck just cannot seem to regain the necessary form although shown signs this week of some improvement and Bradley, well i hope he has set his stall out and to hell with DB. Hopefully he will be in brighter colours next year and away from the trolley pusher.

    • Agree. Wiggins has shown a renewed love of racing his bike this season. Despite his well documented flaws if he has a goal he usually delivers. He needs to be away from the festering atmosphere at Sky and make a fresh start. Whether that’s another team, or a complete return to the track, who knows. But he’s still got it.

    • Pretty sure that won’t happen. There’ll be enough furore around Sky given the non-Wiggins showing, plus doping questions circulating around Froome, that if Sky are sensible they won’t add to the pot by putting another rider in there with a lot of negative media attention.

      Their team will probably be the Dauphine +1, and there are plenty of other +1’s that they don’t need to heap the pressure on Henao.

  3. I really hope Andy Schleck improves, he’s been improving slightly this week, and I’m really hoping for a big performance at the end of the week. His biggest problem is that last year, when he seemed to be improving in the Tour de Suisse and the TDF, he completely fell apart at the end of the season. I also feel all the pressure on Costa is needless, he’s actually been racing very well this year I feel, at Romandie, and Paris-Nice…at the moment, he is simply incredibly unlucky.

  4. Suisse and Dauphiné have overlapped the last 10 years, so it’s hardly a new ‘problem’. I haven’t heard anyone having a problem with it in the past, and I personally don’t think it’s a problem now (except TV coverage the overlapping weekend). Races will always overlap and thank god for that, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough races. P-N and T-A have also overlapped as long as I can remember and it’s not a problem that needs fixing. Why make a fuss over something that hasn’t been a real problem before?

    • Edit: We currently have over 500 ProTour riders, and at certain points (like leading up to the Tour) there needs to be more than one (big) race at the time. Imo the biggest problem for cycling is the lack (and uncertainty) of races. We need more races not fewer.

    • I believe the issue stems to proposed UCI reforms regarding race duration & scheduling.
      I’m going on faulty memory, so someone please chime in…but, as I recall, Under the proposed reforms this overlapping (of similar UCI ranked events) would not be allowed, so the races would have to have more separation in their respective scheduling. One of the other proposed reforms would limit the duration of the races (in this case, down to 5-6 stages, instead of the 8-9 stages currently).

  5. Not sure if the Alonso team is still alive or dead but certainly makes sense for him to step into one of the teams facing sponsorship troubles.

  6. With at least two teams having sponsor uncertainty, it will be interesting to see who steps in. Corporations looking for exposure? Billionaires looking for fun?

  7. The Curious Case of Andy Schleck.

    It is either- he is clean now and just not that good. Or with the rise of Wiggins & Froome he realized he would never when a grand tour with his lack of TT’ing ability and is suffering from lack of motivation.

    Or he is just really soft.

    • Soft, and unwilling to cure his faults. Descending and Timetrialling… also that injury must have done more damage than most of us would beleive….

      • Fragile. I’ve watched Andy since his appearance in the media and on TV. Anyone who needs their brother to race better is suspect. Frank was a one man cheering section — Andy this, Andy that. Some riders rise above when they crash, or loose, or luck runs out. Andy shattered. When Frank went out it got worse. There’s no anger in him any more. There’s not transcendent climbing. He turns the pedals and nothing happens. It is horrendously sad.

        • He was out here in Adelaide last year for the TDU while a friend was staying at the same hotel. Staff were talking about delivering bottles of wine to his room throughout the week. Not saying a person can’t have a drink, but he doesn’t seem to have the drive to prove himself anymore.
          Very sad, I’ve always been a massive fan.

          • I’m usually a very sympathetic guy but for the Schleck tribe I just can’t find it. They both were in the deep end of the glowing pool for the starts of their professional careers, were busted without actually being busted (Bank transfers to Fuentes), won through those efforts, got busted (Frank) and have since done nothing of consequence within the professional peloton. Two caveats: they were under the influence of their father who possibly provided poor moral guidance, and that is too bad and if their recent lackluster performance indicates that they decided to go clean and are now paying the price. The lack of motivation as a result of them being beaten by those still on the dark side would be understandable and even admirable. (Ok, so even for them I have a bit of sympathy)

          • SusanJane and Anonymous, like you I actually find it very sad.

            I dislike it when cycling fans and commentators turn into a feeding frenzy re a rider. I’ve never been a fan of either Schleck, but Andy has problems that are clear for anyone to see. Personally I think he needs to get clear of the sport, as I think riding on like he is, struggling to finish races, is making any kind of recovery from whatever his problem is, that much more difficult.

  8. I never followed the Dauphine around, but did so twice with Suisse. After two years of marginal food and overpriced everything, it was “Ho-hum, we could be doing something more interesting, perhaps riding around in Tuscany?” Back then at least, the punctual Swiss would come out of their houses at the right time, shout “OP SWISS” as the riders passed, then go back inside. Never much excitement in the race or in the fans…at least back in the early 90’s.
    Sponsor woes – no surprise. UCI should back the big club down to 12, then let the big race organizers take 6 wild-card teams. 18 X 9 or 10 is a reasonably sized peloton and would let the UCI require teams in the top-tier to make a serious, long-term commitment to the sport. Of course an improving world-wide economy wouldn’t hurt either!

    • Re: WT Teams +1

      Fewer well financed WT teams. I just don’t see why the smaller or regional WT teams have to employ 28 riders and travel to outside of their sponsorship territory (China or Arabia). If the smaller budget teams like FdJ, Belkin or Giant can be guaranteed appearances at say 50 % of the WT races, they could go Pro Conti. Fewer riders at better salaries would make them more competitive.

      The new ASO/UCI model sucks. Limiting Pro Conti teams to twelve riders prevents them from being at two races at the same time.

      • The new ASO/UCI model sucks. Limiting Pro Conti teams to twelve riders prevents them from being at two races at the same time.

        Ahh but it exactly fits the UCI’s obsession with “one race to rule them all” on any given Sunday.

        I don’t know who is pushing the ridiculous idea that WT races need to be limited to one in the world, but they’ve been at it for years, across disciplines.

    • I imagine it would be harder to gather big sponsors if only 12 teams are guaranteed to ride the Tour, though with more wild-card teams a really strong squad could be quite certain to receive one either way.

      The idea that Belkin (I think) was contemplating of letting additional sponsors join for specific races within their markets should help spread the WT calendar globally without adding costs to sponsors with no interest in these new markets. The challenge would be to coordinate this recruiting of sponsors as it would be tough for each individual teams to manage.

    • I would also think in that direction. Even Tinkov suggested Alonso to buy a team in troubles with a license. Starting from scratch takes more time and Sagan will be free soon. As someone wrote, Cannondale is used to work with young guns, e. g. Formolo seems to be very promising.

  9. Andy Shleck just show is level as a clean rider. He use to have ridiculous and unbelieveble peak of performance in the past (just like some other guys…). That kind of dope induced performance evolution is now impossible with the biological passeport. The pros have to maintain a certain level for many months. Ullrich era is over. Adapt or disappear.

    • Ullrich? A top rider throughout some ten years; with a typical late start (mainly due to “bad winters”, and you may note it was no excuse, since he had quite visible weight issues: way different from Schleck and other skeleton riders…), but nevertheless able to deliver both in stage races and in one-day races, with consistent results ranging from late May to late September.
      He had to armstrongize to some extent, just as many GT riders from that era, because preparing more races won’t help when your main rival can afford to focus just on one; even so, in 2001 he was winning the Nationals in June, 2nd in the Tour in July, 2nd in the Zurich World Cup (semi) Classic and in the Italian Classic Coppa Agostoni in August, then won the challenging Giro dell’Emilia in September and the TT World Championship in October… or something like that.
      From the Tour de Suisse to autumn he was a force to be taken into consideration more or less every weekend.
      That’s very different from winning something in February or March-Teide/Colombia-Teide/Colombia-something in May or June-Teide/Colombia-here we are at the Tour, and from then on showing pathetic form in any race you’re pushed in. And I’m not speaking (just) of some Sky riders, sadly.

  10. If Andy is clean and healed from the pelvis injury, it would seem a full time coach with modern training methods is his only hope. But then again, it might be too hard for this fragile lad. Whenever I hear of riders, especially the mid 20’s French guys, say I train on sensations, I wince. They need to find an up and coming Alan Peiper type to guide them. It seems like Sky, Garmin, and BMC get good modern coaching according to most of the cycling media. Likely others as well but we don’t seem to hear about it. Likely language issues? This is the good marginal gain.

    This might have some of the romance removed from procycling but welcome to the modern “by the numbers” era. Smaller team sizes (6 to 8) and the forgoing of the radios would inspire more interesting racing. This could be a good blog post to compare which teams have real hands on in-house professional coaching. Much better bang for buck (or Euro) than the expensive buses and related luxuries. It also prevents reaching out to the dodgy outside types.

    Today’s guessing game is how many times Brad has uttered, even under his breath, “F……. wanker” since this race began.

    • BMC only started getting serious re coaching – and in-house coaching at that – since getting rid of Lelangue and promoting Peiper. It also ties in with having Bobby Julich on board since last year.

      Remember: Gilbert, for one, has never had a coach in his whole career.

    • British Nats next week, he’ll be in a Sky suit. Commonwealths, he’ll obviously be in the England kit.

      He’ll race in Aug before the Worlds TT – apart from anything else, he can’t go to that unprepared, and furthermore it’ll hurt British Cycling if he does. Especially as he was the only Team GB medal winner at the last Worlds.

      Then that’ll be it.

  11. Great insight on the status of the two Tour warm-up races. I wonder if the organizers of the TdS might learn a thing from RCS–Tirreno-Adriatico has competed very favorably with the ASO-run Paris-Nice (as Giro warm-ups) in the past few years. This year’s TdS has been remarkably uninteresting compared to the Dauphine at the same point, largely due to a mountainous Stage 2 in the latter to help sort out the GC.

Comments are closed.