“Look, I live there, across the lake…”

Quebec cyclist Nickolas Zukowsky could not have dreamed of a better breakaway companion during the second stage of the Tour de Suisse, at the end of which he donned the red jersey of the mountain classification on Monday.

Not only was Michael Schär the “regional” of the stage, but also the 36-year-old veteran crossed a guard of honor on his way to the start, the riders, race leader Stefan Küng in the lead, wishing to highlight his last season.

“From the start, two like that, I was like, ‘Oh boy! It’s going to be a long day, it’s going to be a bit flat!” Zukowsky said. But to be quite honest, out of all the riders I could have chosen to be on the breakaway, he was one of the best. »

The Swiss from AG2R Citroën is also a powerful pedaler who knows how to perfectly modulate his effort on a 150 kilometer “ride” in duo. The native of Geuensee, a municipality in the canton of Lucerne located near Lake Sempach, was particularly generous on Monday, “by far the most beautiful day on the bike of [his] life”.

“Thousands of people were shouting his name on the side of the road all day long,” his runaway partner noted. He was very motivated, and that also made him drive really hard. We haven’t been idle, as we say in Quebec…”

In an interview before the start, Zukowsky had announced the color on Eurosport, revealing his intention to try his luck in the breakaway in what is the “Tour de France” for his new Swiss formation Q36.5.

At nearly 50 km / h on the flat, the two fugitives built a maximum lead of 4 min 35 s in front of a peloton enticed by this rare Swiss stage accessible to sprinters.

Three mountain grand prix nevertheless punctuated the 174 km course. With the agreement of Schär, to whom he left the points (and the watch!) for the Tissot kilometer, the cyclist from Sainte-Lucie-des-Laurentides took the first two without a fight.

For the last “KOM”, it was a different story. With the peloton about 30 seconds away despite a collective fall, Zukowsky, “a little conservative until then”, picked up the pace on the Oberarig hill, before kilometer 151, crank strokes that were fatal to Schär.

“In the end, I think he started to pay a little for his efforts. I upped the pace because I knew it was going to be touch-and-go to try and take the points in the final bump. »

In fact, Zukowsky crossed the line just before the peloton to pocket the three points, bringing his total to nine for the day.

The stage ended in a sprint as expected, but not with the expected winner: the explosive Biniam Girmay edged out Frenchman Arnaud Démare (FDJ) and Belgian Wout van Aert (Jumbo), second and third respectively. The Eritrean from Intermarché said he was “surprised” to beat such finishers less than three months after a violent crash at the Tour of Flanders, where Guillaume Boivin nearly “stamped” his face.

As he sometimes likes to do, Hugo Houle rubbed in to join the sprint a little behind, which is a pretty good sign less than three weeks from the start of the Tour de France. The Quebecer from Israel-Premier Tech finished 18th, two places behind his Latvian teammate Krists Neilands.

A dozen Eritrean supporters pounced on Girmay shortly after the line, happy to celebrate their hero’s first major win since his Giro stage success last year. The ceremony in Italy had unfortunately ended with a visit to the hospital after receiving a cork of prosecco in one eye…

In Nottwill, Girmay did not have to lead anything, like the Swiss Küng (FDJ), still in yellow even if the world champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step) got closer to five seconds thanks to a bonus sprint which allowed him to subtract one.

Nickolas Zukowsky, 52nd at the finish, wore his brand new red mountain jersey, as on his last visit in 2021, where he had kept it for two stages.

“It’s mission accomplished today”, welcomed the one who experienced a redemption after a “catastrophic” time trial concluded “white as a sheet” in 112th place, the day before.

Zukowsky had reacted badly to ingesting baking soda before he left, a common practice before a stopwatch to curb lactic acid production.

“I had done it before, but with the heat and some coffee, I had a pretty intense problem, with dizziness and all the patent. […] After the race, my stomach was swollen like I had a baby…”

Fully recovered from this health incident, Zukowsky now hopes that his adventure in red will not be fleeting as the high mountains loom from the third stage on Tuesday, with two first category passes to climb and a summit finish in Villars- sur-Ollon. Will he find partners as generous as Schär?