Mattias Skjelmose in the jersey of Danish national champion celebrates victory on stage 6 of the 2024 Paris-Nice.

The other pre-Tour race: Underdog opportunities and a sprinter’s training camp at the Tour de Suisse

Mattias Skjelmose returns to defend his 2023 title, as Mark Cavendish is set to test himself in the mountains.

Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) celebrates stage 6 victory at Paris-Nice 2024. Photo: © Cor Vos

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 08.06.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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The Tour de Suisse begins this Sunday, set to pay tribute to Gino Mäder a year after his tragic death as the peloton chases results in the lead-up to the Tour de France, their prize a leader’s jersey adorned with the #RideforGino hashtag.

The young Swiss rider will be forefront in the minds of the peloton and viewers throughout the race, particularly at his team Bahrain Victorious.

“Last year was incredibly tough, and returning to the Tour de Suisse brings back many memories,” said sports director Roman Kreuziger, whose team will target stage results and the #RideforGino mountain prize awarded at the race’s highest point. “We want to focus on the positive ones – Gino’s passion, dedication, and enthusiasm. Our aim is to do our best and hopefully, dedicate a win to him.”

The startlist for the Swiss pre-Tour race is a curious one, especially when you examine the parcours that ranges from hilly to high mountains. For many, the eight-stage event is little more than an elaborate training camp, while for others, it offers a chance for super-domestiques to boost the morale before lining up behind a favourite at the end of the month. Add in the genuine contenders building towards the Tour themselves and we have an intriguing race on our hands.

An emotional Mattias Skjelmose stands with his arms crossed in the yellow jersey of race leader on the morning after Gino Mäder's Tour de Suisse crash.
Skjelmose stood in the yellow jersey of race leader on the morning of 16th June 2023 when the Tour de Suisse peloton learned of Gino Mäder’s death and the decision was made to ride a neutralised stage.

Lidl-Trek’s Mattias Skjelmose returns as defending champion a year on from his coming-of-age appearance at the pre-Tour stage race under incredibly difficult conditions. On the racing side, he got the better of Juan Ayuso and Remco Evenepoel among many others, scoring a maiden WorldTour stage win along the way. It was too early for him to target the GC at his debut Tour a few weeks later, but he’s continued to make waves, adding a Paris-Nice stage to his palmarès and a few days in the Itzulia Basque Country’s yellow jersey as he builds steadily to contesting the Vuelta a España overall later this year.

The Dane’s key rivals this week come in the form of the more climb-oriented GC contenders including a rematch with Felix Gall (Decathlon-AG2R la Mondiale) who went on to win a stage at the Tour, along with Enric Mas (Movistar), former Tour de Suisse winners Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), French wunderkind Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ) and the formidable UAE Team Emirates duo of Adam Yates and João Almeida. 

The latter two are clearly destined for a July of playing second and third/fourth fiddle to Tadej Pogačar, but both are bona fide winners in their own right. There’s a lot to be said for such riders getting a chance to raise their arms in victory beforehand, almost putting them in credit for what’s to come; there’s potentially also a chance to lay the groundwork for the team’s inner hierarchy, with Ayuso already nursing injuries after crashing at the Critérium du Dauphiné. That’s not to say any infighting is expected at UAE, but every race is a chance to prove form, and if you want a chance to go for a stage or even remain protected in case of disaster for the figurehead, you’ve got to show potential before the Tour.

You’ve also got to demonstrate teamwork and a dedication to the plan, and with joint leaders in Switzerland, there are plenty of teams looking to evaluate the inner workings of their lineups.

Egan Bernal leads Mikel Landa to the hilltop finish on stage 6 of the 2024 Volta a Catalunya.
Bernal finished third overall at the Volta a Catalunya earlier this season, his best result coming on stage 6 (pictured) where he finished best of the rest at 57 seconds behind eventual overall winner Pogačar.

Bernal is also touted as a contender as he continues to improve in the aftermath of his near life-altering crash in January 2022, and with three GC top-10 results at WorldTour level so far this season, he seems still to be trending in the right direction.

The curious portion of the startlist comes under the header: sprinters. There’s only one flat mass finish, and even then, there’s a stinging 2.9-kilometre climb averaging 6.3% that tops out just over 10 km from the finish. The likes of Arnaud Démare (Arkéa-B&B Hotels), Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan), Bryan Coquard (Cofidis), Arnaud De Lie (Lotto Dstny) and 2023 Champs-Élysées sprint winner Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) will have their work cut out to rob the more punchy riders on only the first road stage of the race.

There’s an even smaller chance of a bunch sprint on stage 3 with a steep final 800 metres averaging 7.2%, which itself comes after a challenging 40 kilometres comprising three categorised climbs.

A side view of Mark Cavendish riding among his Astana Qazaqstan teammates during the Tour of Hungary, an out of focus Hungarian flag flying in the background.
Cav and his sprint crew during the Tour of Hungary where he took his second victory of 2024 on stage 2.

Cavendish is in Switzerland with a full sprint lineup including Michael Mørkøv and Cees Bol despite the dearth of opportunities, and their Astana Qazaqstan management have made the team’s intentions clear as they look forward to Operation 35 at what will be the ‘Manx Missile’s 15th Tour.

“The first week of the Tour de France is already very mountainous, so we want [Cavendish] to be in as good a climbing shape as possible,” team manager Alexander Vinokourov told CyclingNews. “We want the whole Tour team to test themselves in that area.”

While the Tour de Suisse has necessarily foregone the significance of the Dauphiné which most of the top favourites – who are currently in action – have made their pre-Tour warm-up, there will be plenty of storylines to watch across the scenic climbs and valleys of Switzerland. And with the Tour of Slovenia also getting underway this week, we creep ever closer to the main event.

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