There was a time when southern France was the epicentre of cycling’s early-season, but though the peloton has long since scattered as far as the southern hemisphere in search of warm weather miles, the Étoile de Bessèges has remained a constant on the calendar since its inception in 1971.
In yesteryear, the Étoile de Bessèges was the site of French peloton’s rentrée, the first day back at school, with a patron like Bernard Hinault – wrapped up in a winter jacket and some generous winter padding – often on hand to put manners on some of the more enthusiastic young students, stifling and raising the pace as the occasion demanded in Languedoc-Roussillon.
Nowadays, of course, the peloton tends to hit the ground running, even in late January, and last season’s Étoile de Bessèges proved a portent of things to come for winner Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie). The second-year professional – who would go on to win a stage of the Tour de France – began an all-action season as he meant to continue, claiming a stage and the general classification.
Calmejane is back with the number 1 dossard this time around, and his third-place finish at the Grand Prix La Marseillaise suggests that he will be keen to defend his title here. He is joined by Sylvain Chavanel in a strong Direct Energie line-up.
Tony Gallopin has finished second overall in Bessèges in each of the past three seasons, and he will be determined to go one better in his first stage race with his new team, AG2R La Mondiale, where Alexis Gougeard also features.
Jérémy Roy is likely to be an aggressive presence for FDJ, Brice Feillu and Amael Moinard are part of a solid Fortuneo-Samsic squad, while Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Classics men Yoann Offredo and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck will look to shine.
In the sprints, much of the attention will be on Bryan Coquard, who makes his French debut in the colours of the new Vital Concept team. Jerome Pineau’s squad endured the early disappointment of missing out on selection for the Tour de France and Paris-Nice, and Coquard will be eager to get off the mark after two second place finishes at the recent Sharjah Tour in the UAE.
The weather at Étoile de Bessèges has often been wet or frigid over the years, but the forecast is for dry roads and relatively mild temperatures over the five days. After the flat opening stage to Beaucaire, the sprinters should get another opportunity at Générac, before the race hits rather lumpier terrain on stage 3, a 152km leg starting and finishing in Bessèges. The three ascents of the Col de Trelis should break up the peloton and offer the baroudeurs a chance to go on the attack.
Stage 4 features the short but stiff uphill finale on the Mur de Laudun, while Sunday’s concluding stage is the 10.7km individual time trial at Alès, which features the leg-burning climb to the finish line atop Colline de l'Ermitage. Gallopin won the corresponding stage a year ago, but Calmejane’s gritty second place was enough to preserve his race lead. Both men will expect to be to the fore again in 2018.