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Hopes are high for Tour de France's Swiss leg

Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong will be tackling the Swiss Alps Keystone

The 96th Tour de France is passing through parts of western Switzerland, much to the delight of the region's tourism heads.

This content was published on July 18, 2009 - 18:32

Alberto Contador on Sunday won the stage that went from Pontarlier in France to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier. A second stage with Swiss locations is still to come.

Contador, the 2007 Tour winner, made a sprint to win the 15th leg of 207.5 kilometres and now gains the yellow jersey.

Luxembourg's Andy Schleck was second and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali came home third.

The final 8.8 kilometre alpine ascent at a gradient of 7.5 per cent proved hard for many riders, including Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara. The Tour is set to finish a week later on the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

Riders will enjoy a well-deserved rest on July 20, before heading on to Italy via the Saint Bernard pass, the highest point in the race at 2,469 metres. The race then moves to Bourg Saint Maurice in France.

It is not the first time that the Tour de France has entered Swiss territory. Since 1947, 28 stages of the race have played out partially or fully on Swiss roads, most recently in 2000 in Lausanne. But this time around will be different, with the Tour de France remaining in canton Valais for three days.

"You could say we hit the jackpot," said Gaston Barben, president of the Swiss stages organising committee. "One week before [the race] reaches Paris, Verbier will host the first alpine stage. The biggest crowds possible are guaranteed because it will be a Sunday. Then the day off will allow the pack and all the supporters to visit our region."

Long-term effect

"The impact will be substantial, because there will be some 4,000 people who are directly linked to the Tour de France staying in our region for two nights," said Patrick Messeiller, director of the Verbier-Bagnes tourism office.

But officials expect the see effects in the longer term as well. The Tour de France will offer a tremendous showcase for the region. As a sporting event, only the Olympics and the World Cup attract more media coverage than the Tour de France.

More than 1,900 journalists from 630 media outlets will be there to cover the race, which will be broadcast in 186 countries - figures which Barben has not failed to notice.

"The benefits in terms of image are considerable. On the day off on Monday, we will bend over backwards to meet the demands of journalists and to take them to the four corners of Switzerland so they can discover its most beautiful facets," he said.

According to Barben, it is not only the Valais region which will benefit from the coverage. "In China, Japan or the United States it is the overall image of Switzerland that will get a boost," he pointed out.

Each year, dozens of cities apply to host a stage of the race. What did Verbier and Martigny do to win the prize? "We have been trying to bring the Tour de France to Verbier for 19 years," said Messeiller.

Barben added: "Every year we get the same negative response. To achieve our goal, we decided to go to Paris to meet the organisers."

It was a long-term investment that has paid off. Initially, only the resort of Verbier, which hosted three stages of the Tour de Suisse in the past, was a candidate. But then Barben found himself in charge of overseeing the smooth passage of the Tour de France for three days in Switzerland.

Security concerns

Preparation time was very short: less than seven months, and 30 committees were formed to ensure the smooth running of the two stages, which will involve nearly 2,000 people. There is one major concern: security.

"This is our top priority. I really stressed this point with the canton heads involved to avoid any hiccups," said Barben.

Among the challenges will be controlling the movement of around 100,000 people up to Verbier, and the total shut down of traffic on the north-south axis of the Saint Bernard pass - twice for almost three hours.

"We have stacked all the odds in our favour, going well beyond the standards imposed by ASO [Amaury Sport Organisation]," said Barben. Was that in the hope of exacting some revenge after the failure of Sion's bid to host the 2006 Olympic Games?

Barben laughs: "Of course we want to prove that Valais can organise major events. But success will also depend on a very important parametre that we cannot control: the weather."

Cycling in the rain and fog is obviously much harder to sell.

Samuel Jaberg, swissinfo.ch (Adapted from French by Jessica Dacey)

TOUR DE FRANCE

The Tour de France is the biggest cycling race in the world. Now in its 96th year, it takes place from July 4-26. The 180 cyclists from 20 teams compete in 21 stages for a total of 3,500 km.

At the age of 38, Lance Armstrong is making his comeback in the race this year. It is four years since his seventh and last victory – a record – and he has hopes of winning.

Armstrong and Astana teammate Alberto Contador, winner of the Tour de France in 2007, are among the favourites to win. Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre and brothers Andy and Franck Schleck are also in the running.

The Tour de France 2009 is being referred to as the most controlled sporting event in history as a result of scandals tainting cycling over the past decade. Biological passports will be used for the first time.

Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank), Gregory Rast (Astana) and Oliver Zaugg (Liquigas) are the only three Swiss taking part. Olympic time trial champion Cancellara posted the fastest time - 19 minutes 32.14 seconds - in the 15.5km prologue time-trial around Monaco on July 4, an event he also won in 2004 and 2007.

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