Cyclists slip into gear for main event
The 70th Tour de Suisse, which began on Saturday, is the final warm-up for cycling's most prestigious event, the Tour de France that starts on July 1.
Champions including Germany's Jan Ullrich will be using the tough nine-day race to gauge their preparation, but other hopefuls will be trying hard to seize the spotlight.
The Tour de Suisse, along with the Dauphiné Libéré event in France, is the last major stage race before the gruelling French race. The racers will cover 1,400 kilometres and eight mountain passes as they travel from Baden to Bern.
Ullrich, who won the race in 2004 and was third last year, doesn't expect to compete for the overall this time, but will probably test himself over a couple of stages.
His main goal is another victory in the Tour de France – his last win was in 1997 – now that the dominant American Lance Armstrong has retired.
World champion Tom Boonen from Belgium will also be looking for a few stage sprints, but no one expects him to be up front in the mountains.
While the champions are warming up though, there will be opportunities for the rank-and-file of the pack to make a name for themselves. A stage win will not only enhance their reputations but also increase their market value.
One such racer was recently retired Swiss cyclist Niki Aebersold, who won four stages from 1997 to 2004.
"If a member of the Swiss Phonak team finishes in front on a given day, for example, you can be sure team owner Andy Rihs will substantially upgrade his contract," he told swissinfo.
Aebersold knows what he's talking about. His first win in 1997 in Zurich launched his career.
"That victory meant I was accepted in the international cycling community," he added.
Aebersold, who ended his career with Phonak, is hoping his former team can win at least one stage. With only one foreigner – Belgium's Axel Merckx – the team is almost a national squad with a mixture of old hands and new faces.
Another Swiss favourite is Fabian Cancellara, who won the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic earlier this year.
The enthusiasm for the Tour de Suisse may be troubled this year though after another doping scandal was revealed in Spain over the past few weeks. Aebersold is confident though that the public will not turn its back on the cyclists.
The competitors can't do without medical backup though. As one insider told swissinfo, it is possible to win without doping, but not without the help of a doctor.
Last year's winner won't be defending his title this year after being tested positive last autumn for doping. Spain's Aitor Gonzales is still sitting out his suspension.
swissinfo, Renat Künzi
The Tour de Suisse is the biggest cycling race on the Swiss calendar.
A number of champions have won the event since 1933, including Switzerland's Hugo Koblet and Ferdy Kübler, Belgium's Eddy Merckx, Italy's Giuseppe Saronni, Ireland's Sean Kelly, Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich.
The last Swiss winner was Alex Zülle in 2002, while other recent victors were Pascal Richard (1994), Beat Breu (1989 and 1981) and Urs Zimmermann (1984).
The Tour de Suisse is part of the ProTour, the International Cycling Union's race series. The Tour de Romandie is also on the ProTour circuit.
Participation is compulsory for the 20 best-ranked teams.
Tour de Suisse 2006: 1,438 kilometres.
The first four stages are mostly flat and should appeal to sprinters.
The fifth with an arrival in the mountain resort of Leukerbad in canton Valais kicks off the alpine stages.
The next three feature eight passes.
The final stage is a time trial ending in front of parliament in Bern.
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