LEYSIN, Switzerland (VN) – Pavel Brutt, a 29-year-old Russian who specializes in long breakaways, doesn’t win many races, but the victory he scored Wednesday in the opening road stage of the 65th Tour de Romandie was certainly the “highest” in his five-year pro career. That’s because the Katusha Team workhorse is not a climber, and yet he crossed the line in Leysin at 4,324 feet elevation two minutes ahead of race favorites Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), Marco Pinotti (HTC-Highroad) and Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC).
But with a tough climbing stage coming up Thursday and a difficult time trial on Saturday, those two minutes will almost certainly be erased before the final stage on Sunday. Even Brutt was realistic at the end of the challenging stage that began in warm sunshine and ended in cold rain.
“I’m not a GC rider,” Brutt said after taking the overall lead. “There’s a very hard stage tomorrow … and I’m not a time-trial specialist. I’m more of a stage-win hunter, and I have zero chance of keeping this (yellow) jersey.”
The three riders finishing behind Brutt were the three riders who had set out on their 170km-long breakaway in the opening minutes of the stage: Oleksandr Kvachuk (Lampre-ISD) from the Ukraine, Branislau Samoilau (Movistar) from Belarus and the Australian road champion Jack Bobridge (Garmin-Cervélo).
Their breakaway was successful because the peloton not only gave them too much leeway (more than 13 minutes) but also under-estimated their collective strength. Brutt said that he and the two others from the former Soviet Union know each others’ strengths very well, having all raced together in Italy early in their careers.
These three began the break as soon as they left the streets of Martigny, while Bobridge said he bridged up before the 3km mark. Brutt said he didn’t know the 21-year-old Aussie, who was riding his first road race since January’s Tour Down Under — Bobridge spent the “down time” by setting a remarkable world record in the 4km track pursuit prior to succeeding Taylor Phinney as the world pursuit champion in March.
“We were all working together in the break,” Brutt said. “But we didn’t know whether the young Australian was capable of working harder than he did.”
Without Bobridge, though, the break might not have been successful because the Aussie champ’s smooth turns and solid speed gave the foursome more impetus and allowed the other three to save energy they would have otherwise expended. Especially in the flat opening 50 kilometers against a fierce head wind.
Evans told VeloNews that the unfavorable winds on the valley roads before reaching Lake Geneva were a major factor in the leaders gaining so much time, so quickly. Brutt, Samoilau, Kvachuk and Bobridge gained 6:35 in the first 12.5km, and they passed the UCI headquarters in Aigle after 25km with their maximum lead of 13:15.
The gap began to worry the top teams. “When the gap reached 12 minutes, we put a man on the front,” Evans said of BMC’s Swiss domestique Danilo Wyss, who upped the too-slow tempo set by overnight leader Jonathan Castroviejo’s Euskaltel-Euskadi squad.
The extra speed combined with gusting side winds and the first drops of rain resulted in some touched wheels in the village of Roche after 32km, where Leopard-Trek sprinter Daniele Bennati went down hard and left the race in an ambulance. He was diagnosed with a broken right collarbone, four broken ribs and a lung contusion, and so will miss leading his team at the upcoming Giro d’Italia.
After the crash, BMC continued to ride at the front on the first climb, with Phinney leading the peloton as they crossed the Cat. 2 Mont Pèlerin summit 12:15 down on the four leaders. The gap was still 11:40 at Bulle, at the halfway point in the stage, which saw the Astana team of Vinokourov and Liquigas troops of Ivan Basso begin to help BMC. By the feed zone in Neirivue, with 70km to go, the gap was down to 9:20.
The race then entered the mountains to hit wet roads and steady rain, with Team RadioShack adding its firepower to the chase. Through the tony ski resort of Gstaad, favored by the British royals, the rain eased briefly and the gap came down to 6:20. They were then only 10km away from the opening slopes of the Cat. 1 Col du Pillon.
The 7.5km-long Pillon averages only 5 percent grade, but there were some 15-pecent pitches mixed in with long false flats. This was where Phinney and 20 others fell back, losing 15 minutes by the end, while the four leaders attacked each other in turn before Lampre’s Kvachuk took the KoM sprint ahead of Samoilau, Bobridge and Brutt.
Behind, Evans was riding hard at the head of the peloton, hoping that his Swiss teammate Steve Morabito would be able to surprise the favorites in the upcoming climb to the finish, and at the Pillon summit the gap was down to four minutes, with 22.5km to go.
Brutt made his first bid for the stage win with a solo attack on the steep, wet downhill through Les Diablerets, but his two ex-Soviet companions managed to re-catch him before the final climb. Then, just 500 meters into that climb to Leysin, with 5km to go, the Russian dropped them for good and put a minute into them before the line.
Bobridge told VeloNews that he knows the Leysin climb well, having trained here when attending track camps at Aigle, but, he said, “I was just struggling to make it to the finish.” The Garmin man bravely hung on to take fourth, 1:30 back.
Behind the break, several riders tried to escape the clutches of the peloton in the finale. Leopard-Trek’s Linus Gerdemann made a trademark attack on the slippery descent, but was caught on the last climb when BMC put five men on the front in a bid to catapult Morabito to glory. Morabito did attack, but he couldn’t get clear, nor could another Swiss, Oliver Zaugg of Leopard-Trek, who briefly accelerated clear with Team Sky’s British climber, Chris Froome.
In the end, the steep final 500 meters saw the peloton splinter, with 20 riders moving clear, including Evans, Vinokourov, Menchov and Pinotti, along with three Americans, all from Garmin, Tom Danielson, Peter Stetina and Andre Talansky. Among those not strong enough to follow were pre-race favorite Roman Kreuziger (Astana), who lost 3:30 to the Evans group and HTC’s Tony Martin, who conceded 30 seconds.
The sprint for fifth place went to Lampre’s Damiano Cunego from Movistar’s Beñat Intxausti, Evans and Froome. “Being my first race back, I didn’t expect to be as strong today,” Evans said as he headed to the team bus after the stage. “The rain was so cold that I lost all feeling in my hands. It was a hard stage, and there’s another one tomorrow.”
Thursday’s stage 2 consists of three separate loops, starting and finishing in Romont, for its 171.8km distance. It has 6,000 feet of actual climbing and a hilltop finish, which the field will get two looks at before the third and final time. The last loop includes the Cat. 1 Le Gibloux (4.5km at 7.3 percent), which is followed by 15km of mainly descending roads before the 1.3km, 5-percent switchback sprint to the line. Perhaps Evans, Vinokourov and Menchov will see who’s the strongest before the vital time trail at the weekend.
- 1. Pavel Brutt (Rus), Team Katusha, in 4:27:41
- 2. Oleksandr Kvachuk (Ukr), Lampre, at 56
- 3. Branislau Samoilau (Blr), Movistar, at 1:15
- 4. Jack Bobridge (Aus), Garmin-Cervelo, at 1:23
- 5. Damiano Cunego (Ita), Lampre-Farnese Vini, at 1:59
- 1. Pavel Brutt (Russia), Team Katusha , in 4:31:26
- 2. Oleksandr Kvachuk (Ukraine), Lampre, at 1:00
- 3. Branislau Samoilau (Belarus), Movistar, at 1:22
- 4. Jack Bobridge (Australia), Garmin-Cervelo, at 1:31
- 5. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan), Astana, at 2:04