The winds of change will be firmly blowing in the favour of the mountain goats on Stage 5, a reshuffling of the protagonists is guaranteed after Tuesday saw the toughest of the sprinters fight amongst themselves for stage honours in Schwarzenbach. Though a certain level of sparring has already been witnessed between the pre-race favourites, Stage 5 is the only pure mountains stage during the Tour de Suisse, ensuring that the summit finish shall set the scene for a showdown which has the potential to decide 2015’s champion before the week is out.
Starting in Unterterzen, the peloton will take in an HC climb of Bielerhöhe en route to the crushing Rettenbachferner at Sölden, a second HC ascent which acts as summit finish and finale for this 237.3km day in the saddle. This queen stage is a brutal affair, a day which would be far from enjoyed regardless of the day’s final climb, instead all the general classification hopefuls will do their utmost to lay everything down upon the Rettenbachferner and take the stage win convincingly. Like yesterday, the peloton are afforded an extended period of flat terrain in order to warm themselves up ahead of the approaching trials, on this occasion being gifted 80km of steady work. After this point the road begins to rapidly tilt upwards, sending the peloton onto a collision course with the first of two HC climbs during Stage 5.
The Bielerhöhe is a long climb which stretches on for 34.4km, averaging a steady 4% for the most part, the climb itself truly earns its HC status in the final 15km, seeing the slopes increase to a more substantial 6% right to the summit. Relief at the top shall be short lived for the riders as they realise that over 100km still remains once over the Bielerhöhe, though an extended descent shall offer a small level of respite en route to the big finale in Sölden. A 12.1km ascent of leg breaking gradients awaits them in the latter stages, the Rettenbachferner averages a numbing 10.7% and ensures there is no let up for its entirety. The climb itself opens with slopes around 7%, but these soon increase to those in excess of 11% within the first couple of kilometres, going onto max out at an average of 12.8% before 6km have even been overcome. From here only a marginal decrease occurs, the gradients dropping down to 8% for a kilometre by the halfway point, but this is not extended any further as the following 4km rocket back up to a grinding 10.5%.
Survival will be the key goal for the majority of the peloton, but the few who feel that a stage win is within their grasp will take eager notice of the final 2km which are to be contested at 9.9% and then 7.9% up to the finishing line in Sölden. Even the most renowned climbers present in this year’s field will struggle to make the Rettenbachferner look normal business for them, the likelihood of a winner being crowned through brute strength rather than effortless pace the obvious scenario. Regardless as to who does emerge victorious here, it would be somewhat of an injustice if they did not then go on to claim the overall title at 2015’s Tour de Suisse.
Attention for the day’s victory will of course be focused upon those synonymous with performing upon these arduous mountain stages, but there is scope beyond the general classification battle too. If the big names are too busy concerning themselves with how one another feels on the final climb, a less threatening rider could be allowed to slip away and steal a famous win at the Tour de Suisse. Of the major contenders present here, Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang was many pundit’s favourite to be the dominant force as the race entered this decisive stage. The Dane has been given unquestioned leadership and will look to make the most of this before he returns to his usual role of supporting the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. Despite lacking the calibre of career wins which would suggest he has what it takes to win Stage 5, he has often only been one or two places shy of a major win at races such as Le Tour de France and La Vuelta a España. He has proven to be aggressive on the medium climbs thus far in the opening days and will be confident of working his way to the Rettenbachferner’s summit without blowing up like those who dig too deep early on the slopes. Fuglsang is all too aware of how unusual it is for him to wield leadership at a race such as this and with the knowledge that a win here could also deliver him the overall victory, he might just summon up a career best performance on Stage 5.
Another animated rider who has been aggressive earlier than expected is Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, a rider who previously stated that his chances of winning the Tour de Suisse overall had greatly diminished because of the Rettenbachferner summit finish. However, he has proven to be in brilliant form this year, displaying so on terrains as varied as Paris-Nice and E3 Harelbeke. The approach that Sky have almost trademarked for day’s such as these could prove a winning formula for the Welshman, avoiding going into the red unless absolutely necessary and maintaining a high, even tempo right the way to the line. Despite not being a standout favourite for this difficult finish, his ability to pace such a monstrous climb means he cannot be ruled out from benefiting most should others crumble around him.
Thibaut Pinot seems to have been destined to rise as one of the best climbers in recent years for quite sometime now and Stage 5 might allow him a chance to shine in order to refresh people’s memories of his talents. The Frenchman will be seeking to reach peak form ready for the Le Tour de France, so it is wise to consider that his training may not have left him as well prepared for this race as others present. Despite this, the agonisingly steep Rettenbachferner should guarantee that the peloton’s best climbers are forced to the front during its ascent; meaning Pinot will be a prominent face. A good performance here would help him to gauge his current preparation for Le Tour and also take some rare glory which would be certain to bolster his confidence for the summer’s main objective; finishing on the podium in Paris. If he plans an attack well enough, the harsh gradients are likely to prove too much to overcome in order for those behind to catch him, making Pinot a real contender for the victory in Sölden.
Katusha have a good chance in Simon Spilak for the stage, a rider who often demonstrates his best when tasked with the world’s harsher climbs. The issue for the Slovenian is perhaps the shaping of these two HC climbs, neither of which play to his more explosive strengths, instead demanding a cool head to pace the rider steadily from bottom to top. His condition appears good so far at this race and a canny move here could see him get away from his better fancied rivals on the final climb.
With the general classification still so gingerly organised ahead of the fifth day, a wide variety of riders could all find their way into yellow quite surprisingly and one such underdog is Kristijan Durasek. The Lampre-Merida man is evidently in strong form right now and probably the next best after riders such s Geraint Thomas and Jakob Fuglsang during the first few days. The Croatian could be underestimated by some bigger names here, but has already demonstrated that he can prosper on testing terrain such as Stage 3 of this year’s Tour of Turkey. If he sees the opportunity to make a move, it could prove to be a worthwhile endeavour, as those behind hesitate under the reluctancy to help a rival by chasing Durasek; leaving him with a difficult advantage to pull back.
Rafal Majka is the reigning King of the Mountains at Le Tour de France and it will be of key interest to try and display some of this previous form ahead of team selection for the grand départ. He appears to be riding himself into fitness like many here, but the steep finishing climb does play to his strengths and it would be of little surprise to see him stretch his legs with an attack; especially with his chances of winning overall now heavily reduced.
Despite only now returning from injury at the Giro d’Italia, Domenico Pozzovivo has appeared relatively lively upon his first outing since May. The diminutive climber has often excelled on fearsome slopes similar to that of the Rettenbachferner and would be a strong contender when at peak fitness. Though it is not expected that Pozzovivo has marked this day as a real target, if he feels capable during the race, he is certain to at least attempt a potent attack of his.
Plenty of contenders still remain who have a chance of performing well here and even subsequently taking the race lead if a commanding performance is forthcoming. Sebastien Reichenbach sits within spitting distance of the lead and is clearly a talented climber when on top form, should he find himself in that position on Stage 5, the Swiss rider could launch a breakaway move and never be seen again by the frontrunners. Robert Gesink and Jurgen Van Den Broeck are two major team leaders who could muster a strong performance during the finale, despite predominately being here to gain race fitness ahead of Le Tour. Both have the talent, but are often seen as inconsistent when it comes to such stages, though Gesink is perhaps the more likely of the two to feature late on. Beyond this, a further host of riders could all lay claim to being key protagonists once placed upon the Rettenbachferner; Warren Barguil, Sergio Henao, Esteban Chaves and Julian Arredondo all worth keeping note off as the fireworks fly in the decisive final moments.
As there has been little to indicate who is strongest ahead of such huge day in the saddle, attention has to be turned to those considered to be the most talented on paper for this mountaintop finale. In this respect, Thibaut Pinot is perhaps the man to beat and could use this as a true test of his form in anticipation of Le Tour. Should he emerge as the lead rider, Geraint Thomas and Jakob Fuglsang are unlikely to be far behind, both competing here in seldom afforded leadership roles; of which they shall do their utmost to make worthwhile. The attrition rate will be high, so it might simply be a case of the favourites pacing themselves within view of the line, before then emptying the tank in an attempt to win the stage outright in the final meters. Behind these a broad scope of riders could also feature as supporting cast, or even cause an upset, by taking an unexpected win through some impressive tactics and display of strength. Riders such as Rafal Majka and Domenico Pozzovivo have proven form for this sort of outing, while Warren Barguil and Esteban Chaves are perhaps outsiders who cannot be discounted due to innate talent.
1st Thibaut Pinot 2nd Geraint Thomas 3rd Jakob Fuglsang