Race Cancellations and Small Mercies
The Tour Down Under has been a mainstay of the men's calendar for years and its absence was harshly felt at the beginning of January, despite the domestic racing providing plenty of entertainment and a superstar in the waiting- Luke Plapp. Equally conspicuous in its absence was the Tour Colombia, with its rapturous crowds and stunning scenery. If there is anywhere in the world I would love to cycle, it would be Colombia. I digress... further cancellations have come thick and fast: Saudi Tour, Tour de Langkawi, Vuelta a San Juan, Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana- the list goes on. These are all sad losses to the calendar and despite rearrangements and promises of returning, one only needs to glance at the bygone Tour of California to realise that some races may not be seen again. Let us get the condolences out of the way first, people will miss out on income because of the cancellations, fans will go without seeing their rarely seen stars. These cancellations are bad for the sport and a sad effect of the global pandemic. However, I am here to say thank you to the race cancellations for the small mercies they have given us- for the terrific racing and stacked startlists.
Aurélien Paret-Peintre opens the season in style. © YP Medias / Fred Machabert
All roads lead to France... that could be the strap-line for the road season thus far. It all began prior to the Australian National championships, with the Grand Prix Cyclist La Marseillaise providing a ding dong battle that saw attacks coming at random in the final 40km. Particularly impressive were Tim Wellens and Simon Carr, though neither men were successful and a reduced bunch sprint was taken by Aurélien Paret-Peintre. It was a perfect start to the season, with the AG2R Citroën rider being rewarded after multiple attacks on the final climb. The season thus far has been defined by offensive racing and as the cliche goes, every rider is racing as if each event is the last of their season. Paret-Peintre was constantly on the attack on the final climb and though no attack stuck, his kick was enough to take the sprint. He is certainly a man to watch this season and impressed once more at the Tour de la Provence.
Although GP La Marseillaise saw an impressive startlist as opposed to previous editions, we first saw the benefits of race cancellations at the Etoile de Bessèges. Needing race miles in the legs ahead of bigger targets, riders' opportunities have been few are far between, ensuring fans at home are watching high calibre riders in lesser known races. Placed in the Département du Gard, the Star of Bessèges was named after the star-shaped route put on show in its early few years as a one day race. Bessèges is not new to stars of cycling adorning their equally impressive routes, with Raymond Poulidor attending the race each year it was held until his retirement. A star of the British scene, Barry Hoban, was third in the race's debut in 1971. Poulidor's attendance was a result of a great friendship between he and Roland Fangille, president of the local cycling club and founder of the Etoile de Bessèges. Fangille unfortunately passed away last year as the pandemic claimed the lives of millions prematurely. But his legacy lives on through his daughter, Claudine Allègre-Fangille, who succeeded her father in running the event which has now lasted uninterrupted for 50 years.
Tim Wellens, the Godfather of early season racing. © Getty Images Sport
The remarkable endurance of this race has shaped the careers of many Frenchmen and has served as a valued warm up race at the beginning of the season. In its 50 years as a race- turning into a stage race in 1974- 23 of its winners have been French, including Benoît Cosnefroy last year. The French dominance has no doubt been helped by a largely domestic startlist each year, which is no surprise given the race is a UCI 2.1 Europe Tour event, the lowest rank to which WorldTeams (WorldTour teams) can attend. Such was the popularity of this year's event that WorldTeams such as Ineos Grenadiers had to promise participation next year in return for a starting spot this year. It is clever business from Claudine Allègre-Fangille, recognising that Etoile de Bessèges will not be as popular in a less-interrupted calendar next year. The cancellations of races this year have forced riders to attend races they previously would not be seen at, serving the fans with an alternative look at early season racing. Whilst Egan Bernal may normally be seen at Tour Colombia, and whilst this race is sorely missed, to watch the 2019 Tour de France champion put in an almighty turn in stage 3's breakaway was a delight. His work was crucial to the success of what turned out to be the race-winning breakaway, as Tim Wellens took the stage and a time gap sufficient enough to deliver him overall victory. Ineos Grenadiers laid their mark in their debut appearance at this race, with Filippo Ganna taking an expected time trial victory on stage 5, preceded by a remarkable breakaway success the day before. Their new attacking style must have brought entertainment to the brave roadside supporters, who are always wrapped up warm with this race being timetabled a long way before each year's spring. Touching upon the new found exclusivity of Etoile de Bessèges, it is interesting to note that Claudine Allègre-Fangille denied race starts to Deceuninck-Quick Step and UAE Team Emirates. Europe Tour 2.1 races may only have startlists which have a maximum of 50% of the riders coming from WorldTeams. Such a problem for WorldTeams was not found in the subsequent French stage race that delivered yet more fantastic racing.
In the Tour de la Provence, the names on the start line included: Aleksandr Vlasov, Julian Alaphillipe, Egan Bernal, Arnaud Démare, Enric Mas and Alexey Lutsenko. As expected, this brought fireworks on Mont Ventoux, as Alaphilippe and Bernal went toe to toe, whilst Iván Sosa sailed to stage victory at Chalet Reynard. Although this year's startlist was stronger than usual at the Tour de la Provence, the race is slowly carving its niche as a valued early season race for the climbing folk, with its grip on Mont Ventoux becoming strong. Just as the UAE Tour has Jebel Hafeet, the Tour de la Provence now has Mont Ventoux, with the summit finish appearing in the last two editions, albeit to Chalet Reynard rather than to the real summit. Chalet Reynard has become the Colombians' playground, with Nairo Quintana's 2020 victory succeeded by that of Iván Sosa this month. Perhaps in a few months time, after Egan Bernal has won the Giro d'Italia, we will look back upon the early season races in France as the start of the Colombian's revival. Seeing Bernal triumph through the regions of Gard and Provence is an unusual sight, one we wouldn't be accustomed to in a normal year; however the multiple race cancellations have provided us with a fresh look at how the early season plays out. This is the earliest that Bernal has raced in France since 2016, where he raced at La Méditerranéenne and appropriately, the first Tour Cycliste International La Provence (now known as Tour de la Provence). His highest placing in 2016 was 39th on a hilly stage 1 to Cassis. This month his highest placing was 2nd on stage 3 to Chalet Reynard, where he looked capable of matching Sosa, but was wary of dragging Alaphilippe up to his Ineos teammate.
The leader's jersey at Tour de la Provence is a magnificent sight to behold. © Agence Zoom
The scorching sun of Tour Colombia and the appropriately named Herald Sun Tour, we do not have, but what we have in their place are the wonderfully unique early season French races. As Tour de la Provence made its bow a couple of weeks ago, the Mistral was blowing, the sun was out and two beautiful French kits adorned the breakaway- Delko and AG2R Citroën. All was good in this troubled world. The magnificence of Provence did not give way for the remainder of the race, with stage 1 highlighting the beauty of stacked startlists.
Missing out on Etoile de Bessèges, Deceuninck-Quick Step made their French stage race debut for the year at Tour de la Provence, with the opening two days arguably belonging to the Belgian super-team. 70km from the expected sprint finish on the first day, Guilio Ciccone attacked and took with him Gianni Moscon and, most pleasantly, the World Champion Julian Alaphilippe. It was an attack set up from relentless aggression by Deceuninck-Quick Step, with Kasper Asgreen and Rémi Cavagna both softening up the peloton with blows prior to Ciccone's move. Eyes could not be deterred from the rainbow bands of the World Champion, as Alaphilippe was strong enough to not only ride through and off with the pair until being caught 2km from the line, but also work for his team's sprinter and deliver in the lead-out. And deliver they did, as Davide Ballerini took stage victory to cap a remarkable day for Deceuninck-Quick Step. Success was thus delivered again on stage 2, as the 26 year old produced a brutal winning sprint on the final uphill to the line. Ballerini has seemingly found his spot at Deceuninck-Quick Step and has vocalised his belief at turning his hand to the Classics. He very much looks like a rider in the mould of John Degenkolb, a rider with the kick to win a bunch sprint, but better suited to when the race is hard and traditional sprinters tire.
Attention was briefly diverted away from France on the day that Phil Bauhaus announced his presence as a sprinter to watch, with his final day stage victory at Tour de la Provence. Attention was instead shared with the Clasica de Almeria where the traditional sprint finish was won by Giacomo Nizzolo. It was a well received victory, with the European Champion delivering a first win of the season for the newly-renamed Qhubeka ASSOS. It is wonderful to see the African team continue in the WorldTour, and even better to see the return of the Qhubeka name as a title sponsor.
Whilst the UAE Tour has 'graced' us with miles upon miles of mind-numbing desert, the hills of Fayence provided a gorgeous backdrop to Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var. © Getty Images Sport
Following a brief respite from action, last Friday and the weekend brought arguably the best race of the season so far, taking place in the Alpes-Maritimes and Var regions of France. Although Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var (hereby referred to as Haut Var, not because I am desperately sad at its rebrand, but simply because it is easier) was not shown live for its first day, the minuscule two minutes worth of highlights showed us a couple of exciting things to note. Firstly, after an off season that included surgery on both knees, Nairo Quintana returned for a second season running full of renewed hope and optimism. The Colombian attacked inside the final 500m of stage 1 and despite not being able to take victory- that honour was saved for Bauke Mollema- he finished comfortably inside the front group. The pitiful coverage from French TV was soon forgotten as the following two days of action showed us everything that has been great with the early season in the age of COVID-19. Haut Var was blessed with both exciting, non-stop racing and a phenomenal startlist. No less than four Grand Tour winners were present, alongside names such as Thibaut Pinot, Jakob Fuglsang and the debuting Tom Pidcock. As expected, the wall-like stage 2 finish was commanded by Mike Woods, who has begun life at Israel Start-Up Nation in fine fashion.
The Col de Braus looked resplendent in the afternoon sun as the riders tackled the final stage of 'Haut Var'. © Bettini Photo
The expected duel on the third and final day was to be between Bauke Mollema and Mike Woods, but this script was turned on its head by Trek-Segafredo and Groupama-FDJ, who mounted an astonishing breakaway that caught many unaware. Inside the breakaway were Valentin Madouas and Rudy Molard, who the French team were obviously working for, having started the day within 13 seconds of race leader Mike Woods. The stage included Col de la Madone coming inside the final 30km and it was here that the race tore apart. Israel Start-Up Nation reduced the 'peloton' to a select few in pursuit of the breakaway which still had two minutes on Woods, whilst the breakaway was reduced to five: Molard, Madouas, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Gorka Izagirre and Gianluca Brambilla. On the upper slopes of the climb, Brambilla and Madouas went clear, with Mike Woods having to set the pace behind. The final 25km were action packed with hair-raising descents and a couple of uphills which served as punishment for the riders, but entertainment for those of us watching back home. There was a constant to-and-fro between the break and the peloton, with the balance of power swinging either way at times. The advantage often looked in favour of the breakaway, with Woods and Mollema having to work hard to rescue any hope of taking the overall win. Ultimately in this parade of frenetic racing, the race-winning move was made with 11.3km to go. Surprising both fans and fellow riders alike, Gianluca Brambilla upset the favourites' applecart by sailing away from Madouas and staying away until the line. The Italian veteran- although he doesn't look it- managed to take both the stage victory and the overall title, as Mike Woods missed out by a cruel margin of five seconds.
The three days at Haut Var summed up everything that has been great with the early season races in France. The race was graced with a remarkably strong startlist, enjoyed pristine views of the Var and Alpes-Maritimes regions, and delivered frenetic, action-packed racing. This has been the order of the day for the past month, as race cancellations have honed the attention of the cycling world onto France. The small stages races (not forgetting GP La Marseillaise) have provided a gluttony of fantastic racing in regions that would not have the same spotlight cast upon them in a normal year. Though the race cancellations are no doubt sad and we must wish for their survival, I for one have been overjoyed with what has taken their place. In an hour of need for cycling, the French regions have stood up and hosted a fantastic few weeks of racing that has no doubt wetted the appetite for the season to come. As the attention of cycling is once more cast onto the Middle East, let us not forget the entertainment and joy that France has provided us with. French racing is not just about Paris-Nice and alike, dig a little deeper and you will find some beautiful races that have served the French domestic scene to no end. Long live Etoile de Bessèges and let us thank the race cancellations for the small mercies they have delivered.