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French-speaking Switzerland welcomes top cyclists

Switzerland's second most important cycle race, the Tour de Romandie, is getting under way today, but not in Romandie. Instead, the time-trial prologue is taking place in the Italian-speaking resort of Locarno.

Ahead of the riders lies some of the toughest cycling in Switzerland. By the time they arrive in Geneva on May 7, they will have covered 825 kilometres and negotiated five major climbs.

After the prologue, by the shores of Lake Maggiore, the riders get down to some serious business. Stage 1 sees them travelling 224 kilometres from Locarno to le Bouveret, via the 2000-metre high Simplon Pass. That is followed by more of the same on Thursday, when they race between Montreux and La Chaux de Fonds.

Stage 3 is a relatively short stage between Neuchatel and Orbe, where another time-trial will be held the following day.

But it is Stage 5 between Orbe and Leysin on the penultimate day which many believe could be decisive. The riders will have to negotiate two big climbs - the 1,445m Col des Mosses and the 1,778m Col de la Croix. The final 178 km stage is from Aigle to Geneva.

The race appears to be relatively open with several riders in with a good chance of winning. However, two favourites stand out: the 1999 winner, France's Laurent Jalabert, and Francesco Casagrande of Italy, who claimed victory in last year's Tour de Suisse. Also likely to be in contention are the 1997 Tour de Romandie winner, Pavel Tonkov of Russia and the reigning Giro d'Italia champion, Ivan Gotti.

A local victory is not inconceivable. Beat Zberg is capable of improving on the second place finish he achieved last year, while Laurent Dufaux will be keen to recapture the title he won in 1998.

by Roy Probert


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