A quick look at the Tour de Romandie in two parts. First the history of this race, it was meant as a one-off but was a success from the start and has become a fixture ever since, with some vintage UCI meddling not long ago. Then a look at one of the hidden functions of the race, where teams give leadership or protected roles to up-and-coming riders in the hope they can handle themselves and progress to more.
It’s a story of division and celebration and we have to go back to before the Tour de Romandie started and a rival race. Switzerland is one country but 26 cantons and four official languages. The Tour de Suisse has been run since 1933 but despite the French name, this race was founded in the German-speaking side of the country. Perhaps it should have a German name, think Schweizer Rundfahrt, but presumably as French was for long the official language of cycling it was labelled the Tour de Suisse and that’s stuck ever since. It was organised by the Schweizerischer Radfahrer Bund, one of two cycling federations Switzerland at the time and as the name hints, from the German-speaking cantons. The other was the Union Cycliste Suisse and which oversaw cycling in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UCS in 1947, its secretary Max Girardet, a journalist, hit on the idea of promoting a stage race as a celebration and the Tour de Romandie was born, Romandie being the term for the western, French-speaking part of the country.
The first edition had just 40 riders, with ten teams of four riders which sounds poor but had several star riders. The GP de la Cinquantenaire (“50th anniversary GP”) was meant as a one-off for the UCS jubilee but became a fixture in part thanks to the popularity of Ferdinand Kübler and Hugo Koblet, two Swiss stars who’d win the Tour de France in 1950 and 1951 respectively. Host towns queued up for the race and the Romande public adopted the race. This was the start of one of cycling’s golden ages as food rationing ended, borders opened and a post-war economic boom began.
The race settled into its pre-Giro slot and thanks to the selective format of time trials and Alpine climbs and many of the big names won the race over the years, like Kübler, Koblet, Bartali, Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault and others.
In 1996 the two Swiss federations merged into one national body, Swiss Cycling, seemingly deliberately using an English name to unite under. But the Tour de Romandie didn’t tag along. Instead the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, waded in and tried to parcel the race out to sports rights company IMG. It’s an odd move in today’s light but shows how, once upon a time, the UCI could step in to tell race organisers what to do, even to the point of directing where the economic rights went. IMG became the organiser but dropped it a few years later as it wasn’t profitable enough. The race is promoted by ex-pro Richard Chassot who runs an events company and in a TV interview last year he said the race can make a small profit in some editions but can lose money in others.
Today the race has several functions. It’s a straight World Tour stage race with all the trimmings, time trials and Alpine climbs and all the accompanying UCI points. It’s long been a pre-Giro test for some, not many this year, but the last edition saw Primož Roglič conquer the race before starting the Giro so hot he seemed to fade later on. More likely this week we’ll see Damiano Caruso and Marc Soler test themselves at times rather than try to win but we’ll get insights into others going to the Giro, like Filippo Ganna who was beaten in a time trial and looking to set things straight as in 10 day’s time he’s starting the Giro with a lot of expectation. Away from the Giro we’ll see how Geraint Thomas is faring ahead of his Tour de France leadership in 60 days’ time and Miguel Angel Lopez does his first race for Movistar, he could be the signing they really need to deliver big wins again.
Perhaps the most interesting function is the way the race can be used as a test for younger riders. Put yourself in the shoes of a team manager and imagine you have an ambitious, talented rider on your books. They want leadership or protected status in a World Tour race, where do you send them first? Some races are almost off limits, perhaps you’ll use the Critérium du Dauphiné as a dress rehearsal for your Tour de France squad; ditto the Tour de Suisse where others will be in near Tour de France form. Other races don’t suit, Paris-Nice can be all about the crosswinds, the Basque Country is Boss Level racing, the end of season race in China’s not much to offer and other things like the BinckBank Tour or UAE Tour don’t really supply the obvious opportunities. The Tour of California used to work for younger riders. Romandie though has these openings and over the years many teams have tried out younger riders here.
This week it feels like half of those on the list of this blog’s neo-pros to watch are in action, look out for:
- Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) and Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the sprints
- Antonio Tiberi (Trek-Segafredo) as a GC contender, not to win but see how he balances the two TT stages with the climbing
- Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) who won another Swiss stage race, the Tour du Pays du Vaud which is sort of a junior Tour de Romandie crossed with the Tour de l’Avenir, its top-10s are a who’s-who of pro cycling and agents and team managers take notes
- Marco Brenner (DSM) who’s turned pro straight out of the junior ranks and a Tour du Pays du Vaud winner too. He was 24th in the Flèche Wallonne, respectable anytime but impressive for an 18 year old
- Thymen Arensman (DSM) who is a big project for the Dutch team, turning pro mid-season last year and getting a valuable start in the Vuelta with two top-10s along the way
- Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) has made a name for himself already, the hilly stages that offer reduced bunch sprints suit
- Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) has also made a name for himself but now there’s pressure to win “at home” although he comes off the back of a spring classics campaign
- Diego Camargo (EF Education-Nippo) is a Colombian climber but the steady type rather than someone who makes yo-yo attacks so look how he fares on the long ski station summit finish to Thyon above 2,000m weather permitting
- Javier Romo (Astana) has looked promising already this year, you might know him as the triathlete who won the U23 Spanish championships but he’s already had an 5th and an 11th overall on GC, how can he do in a World Tour race?
- Clément Champoussin (Ag2r Citroën) was on fire for a brief period at the end of February and start of March but had a quiet Volta a Catalunya, what can the ex-MTB rider do here?