Early season stage race sets scene for French teams
The 2018 Étoile de Bessèges was won overall by Tony Gallopin of AG2R La Mondiale, who beat Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) by 15 seconds, Yoann Paillot (St. Michel-Auber93) another five seconds back.
The first two stages were rolling stages with climbs that could have taken the day out of the sprinters' hands. But both ended with the bunch racing towards the finish. Marc Sarreau (Groupama-FDJ) took stage 1, while Laporte took stage 2.
Stage 3 had three first-category climbs, but a flat finish allowed Sarreau to win a second stage and regain the race lead. Stage 4 was won by Sean De Bie (Verandas Willems–Crelan) in another sprint finish, which meant the overall win came down to the final stage: a 10.7km individual time trial.
Gallopin won the time trial by 20 seconds from Paillot, while Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) took third on the day and fourth overall in what was an all-French top seven.
A European welcome
The first Étoile de Bessèges took place in 1971 and for the first three years was only a one-day race. But in 1974 it became a five-day stage race, and as of 2005 became part of the UCI European Tour. It remains one of the opening European stage races of the calendar year, made up of flat stages and an individual time trial and this year it's been reduced from five to four , with a time trial still in place as the final stage.
No rider has ever won the race three times, with inaugural winner Jean-Luc Molineris (Sonolor-Lejeune), Jo Planckaert (Cofidis) and Jérôme Coppel (IAM Cycling) all tied on two wins a piece.
It's a race which has been won predominantly by Frenchmen over the past decade. Eight of the last 10 years have seen a French rider win the general classification, with Tobias Ludvigsson (Giant-Shimano) and Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) the only others to have taken victory.
Ones to watch
Jasper Stuyven is always a strong time triallist and, along with teammates Bauke Mollema and Mads Pedersen, Trek-Segafredo have a strong team going into the race. Stuyven, Mollema and Pedersen could be used as a three-pronged attack, too, to give the team an advantage on the flat stages where little gaps will prove crucial.
Marc Sarreau (Groupama-FDJ) lost out by 35 seconds in last year's race because of the final time trial, but if he can go one step further than last year and pick up all three of the flat stages, then he will give himself a great chance of overall victory.
Tobias Ludvigsson won this race back in 2014, when he won the individual time trial. If Sarreau is not winning the sprints after the first couple of days, it could be left up to the Swede in the final time trial to see if he can pull a second win out of the bag for Groupama-FDJ.