Mark Cavendish will step up his Tour de France preparations at the Tour de Suisse, where the Manx Missile will face-off with sprint rivals Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan.
While the chief GC men honing their Tour form at the Criterium du Dauphine, the big-name sprinters have chosen Switzerland instead, with the nine-day race rolling out on Saturday (June 13).
Cavendish won a stage in Switzerland last year, his third in five visits in the event, but with lead-out man Mark Renshaw alongside him he should have ample opportunity to add to that tally this time out.
Book-ended by time trials, the race features plenty of chances for the sprinters and rouleurs to get in on the action, while the battle for the general classification could be decided by stage two – which features two ascents of the category-one Michaelskreuz in the final 40km- and stage five, with the 2,669m summit finish at Rettenbachgietscher.
In between, however, Cavendish will be able to test his pre-Tour de France sprint legs along as he can stick with the likes of Sagan, Kristoff and Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb on the short but punchy climbs.
After picking up four stage wins and the points classification jersey at the Tour of California last month – having earlier secured three stage wins, a second place and the points jersey at the Tour of Turkey – Cavendish has been in red-hot form of late.
Those victories took his season’s tally to 12, plus the overall victory at the Dubai Tour, but the men he will face in Switzerland and then ultimately again in France, are in equally good form.
Indeed, Kristoff leads the way for individual victories this season, with 16 to his name now after adding five to the tally in his home country, Norway, last month.
While he lost his only direct showdown with Cavendish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Kristoff’s victory at the Tour of Flanders proves the punchy Tour de Suisse stages will be to his liking, and his sprint finish has been deadly this season.
Sagan, meanwhile, has also raced himself into form at long last after a below-par start to the season which attracted criticism from team boss Oleg Tinkov.
The Slovakian champion could be a surprise contender in the prologue in Switzerland if he repeats the form he showed against the clock at the Tour of California.
Facing mounting criticism from Tinkov after claiming just one stage win and failing to finish on the podium at any of the spring Classics, Sagan rode to a surprise overall win in America.
While Cavendish got the better of him on four occasions in sprint finishes, Sagan did pick up a stage win of his own and also won the individual time trial. Followed by a stunning ride on Mount Baldy, where he finished an unlikely sixth, Sagan sealed overall victory with a narrow third place on the final stage.
While the stage five summit finish in Switzerland is significantly bigger, and tougher, than Mout Baldy, Sagan – with renewed confidence – will at least be among the stage hunters on the Tour de Suisse’s rolling terrain.
Finally ,John Degenkolb leads the Giant-Alpecin sprinting charge in place of the recovering Marcel Kittel – a theme which could be repeated at the Tour after the latter’s injury-ravaged season.
Since winning at Paris-Roubaix, Degenkolb’s second Monument win of the year after Milan-San Remo, the German has raced just once – winning two stages and the points jersey as Britain’s Alex Dowsett claimed overall victory at Bayern-Rundfahrt.
But Degenkolb is at his best when the going gets tough and he was no match for Cavendish when they went wheel-to-wheel in the pan-flat Dubai Tour sprints. On punchier finishes, he is again a big contender.
With no shortage of opportunities for all four to prove their sprinting credentials, there will be plenty to play for on every stage.
The likes of Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) will be playing out the battle for the overall win, with three-time back-to-back champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) at the Dauphine instead.
For the sprinters, though, we will have a much clearer idea of who the men to beat at the Tour de France will be after proceedings in Switzerland are over.
Add Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), a double stage winner at the Tour of Luxembourg, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who has won twice at the Dauphine, and Kittel, who is rebuilding his fitness and form at the Ster ZLM Toer, and sprint line-up for the Tour de France is taking shape very nicely.