The 69th Tour de Suisse has begun its weeklong journey, with a first stage from Schaffhausen to Weinfelden in eastern Switzerland won by Austria's Bernhard Eisel.
Fabian Cancellera and Alexandre Moos are Switzerland’s best hopes in the country’s premier cycling race, which is following a route that largely bypasses western and southern areas.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) has made big changes to the rules governing international cycling. From now on the 20 best teams are obliged to take part in the 27 races in the new professional circuit.
As a result, the Tour de Suisse has a strong line-up of 160 riders.
The race will end in eight days’ time in Ulrichen in the southern canton of Valais, having crossed 1,354.8 kilometres.
The competition’s organisers have decided to end it on a high note. The last day covers a 100-kilometre circuit from Ulrichen back to Ulrichen by way of the Nufenen, Gothard and Furka passes, just as in 2000 (when the Italian rider Eddy Mazzoleni won).
Between Schaffhausen and Ulrichen the eight stages end at Weinfelden (where a time trial will also be held on the second day), St Anton in Austria, Bad Zurzach, Altdorf, Arosa, Lenk and Verbier – the only stage in western Switzerland.
The 2005 race largely avoids French-speaking western Switzerland and completely misses out Italian-speaking Ticino in the south.
Course organiser Bruno Hubschmid explains: "This year we had lots of requests from towns in eastern Switzerland, and that is why the course is mainly located in this area."
"My wish would be to follow the contours of the country," said Hubschmid. "But that’s not always possible. We can’t always follow the same routes."
The Italian riders Stefano Garzelli (1998) and the German Jan Ullrich (2004) are the only two winners of the past ten years to be taking part this year.
The Spaniards Joseba Beloki, Iban Mayo and Alejandro Valverde, the American Bobby Julich, the Italians Gilberto Simoni, Dario Frigo and Garzelli, the Austrian Georg Totschnig, the Slovene Tadej Valjavec and the Swiss Fabian Cancellara are considered outsiders.
The only Swiss team taking part, Phonak Hearing Systems, hopes this year will finally bring it success in the competition. Success has eluded the team since it was formed in 2000.
Phonak’s top riders are Valjavec, who came 15th in the Tour d’Italie, and the Swiss Alexandre Moos, backed up by two other Swiss, Steve Zampieri and Niki Aebersold.
Moos, who is expected to be part of the team for the Tour de France, has been training for this event at Chandolin, at 2000 metres.
"This is the fourth time I’ve come here," Moos said. "But I’ve never spent so long at this altitude."
Fabian Cancellara is another Swiss with good chances on the Swiss roads. The native of Bern, who rides for the Italian team Fassa Bortolo, has won two time trials already this season in addition to the fourth stage of the Paris-Nice race.
The last Swiss rider with prospects is Fabian Jeker, who was one second away from winning the Tour de Suisse last year.
The 69th Tour de Suisse started in Schaffhausen on Saturday.
It has a budget of SFr5.5 million.
There are 160 riders taking part.
The race covers 1,354.8 kilometres.
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