The European road season kicks up another notch on Wednesday with the start of the 2021 Étoile de Bessèges - Tour du Gard.
The five-day event has seen a wave of WorldTour teams descend on the start line due to several other race cancellations, with Egan Bernal and his Ineos Grenadiers team rolling into town alongside strong line-ups from EF-Education Nippo and Trek-Segafredo.
Along with a sprinkling of GC contenders, we’ve also highlighted a number of sprinters, breakaway specialists, and up-and-coming riders to watch over the coming days.
· Age: 24
· Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Bernal hasn’t raced since waving goodbye to the cycling world on stage 17 of last year’s Tour de France and it feels like an eternity since he was wildly anointed as the sport’s next Grand Tour superstar back 2019.
A back injury, the emergence of Tadej Pogačar, and the fickleness of professional sport in general has taken some of the shine off the Colombian star but he heads into 2021 with a clean slate and - hopefully, for his sake - a clean bill of health.
This race will certainly not determine success in several months time at the Tour de France but it’s imperative for Bernal to gain some early momentum, even if only for his confidence. When Pogačar and Primož Roglič start their seasons they’re likely to maintain their typically excellent early season form, and while Besseges’ profile is far from ideal for Bernal, he will at least want to demonstrate that he’s on the right path.
· Age: 28
· Team: B&B Hotels p/b KTM
The Frenchman did everything right in Marseille until the final few hundred meters when he blinked and opened his sprint a fraction too early. Until that point he looked comfortable, and his team were excellent in nullifying moves and having the legs to then set up a lead-out inside the final few kilometers.
The positives to come out of that near miss and finishing third are that Coquard and his team have the form, and with eight Bessèges stage wins to his name already, the 28-year-old will be looking to add to his tally over the coming days. Also, if he does win he might start posting a few photos of his dog, who, if you haven’t seen, looks like this.
A photo posted by on
· Age: 32
· Team: Qhubeka Assos
The European champion hasn’t raced since abandoning the Tour de France in 2020 but Nizzolo and his team will be hoping he can replicate his early-season form from last year, when he won stages in both the Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice before wining his national road title and the Europeans in the space of just a few days.
Frankly, his team desperately need him to shine throughout this campaign after a number of uninspiring signings in the off-season. They have mitigating circumstances, given they were fighting for survival, and Fabio Aru deserves another punt, but Nizzolo is the team’s real star and the undulating terrain in Bessèges is perfect for him.
His lead-out has been beefed up over the winter, and Simon Clarke is worth watching too. He took second on a stage here last year and generally starts the season in competitive form.
· Age: 22
· Team: EF-Education Nippo
The British rider made his EF Education-Nippo debut on Sunday in La Marseillaise and more than held his own against WorldTour opponents with a number of attacks in the closing hour of the race.
At one point, Carr prompted a move from Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), and then followed when the Belgian attempted to blow the race apart on the most decisive climb. Carr wasn’t able or willing to stick with Wellens but he was in the thick of it again on the final ascent before eventually finishing 24th on the line. That result perhaps didn’t do the young rider justice but it was a signal of intent from a rider who has risen through the ranks almost unnoticed in the last few years.
In Bessèges, the likes of Alberto Bettiol, Michael Valgren and Rigoberto Urán are likely to take centre stage but if they’re still easing themselves out of their winter training then Carr would be more than ready to step up and compete for his chance. Marseille showed that he has the form and the mindset to race at the highest level.
· Age: 27
· Team: Bora-Hansgrohe
The 27-year-old is arguably the most accomplished sprinter in the entire field with four Grand Tour stages to his name and the aim of competing in his maiden Tour de France later this season.
More sprint-friendly terrains await him at the UAE Tour later this month, and at the Clásica de Almería, where he’ll aim for three straight wins, but Bessèges provides Ackermann with chance to open his account with a dedicated lead-out train at his disposal.
· Age: 34
· Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Like Bernal, the Welshman is coming back from injury and a disappointing 2020 campaign that left many wondering if the 34-year-old would ever return to the level he displayed at the 2018 and 2019 Tours.
At some point, age will become a factor in Thomas’ career trajectory but his display in Tirreno-Adriatico indicated that he’s still motivated at the very least. Bessèges will provide the former track star with some early season miles and the chance to see where his progress is against a number of rivals within the peloton. The GC result isn’t imperative, but staying out of trouble, finishing near the front and then putting in a solid time trial will be on his to-do list.
It’s worth noting that Thomas typically takes a race or two before he finds his stride but it will be interesting to see how he and Bernal ride together.
· Age: 22
· Team: Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise
Reynders, a first year professional and just 22, made the break in the GP La Marseillaise at the weekend and for his troubles he had to endure Eurosport's commentator making an unnecessary and unwarranted comment about his weight, with the shamelessly crass line of 'he may have hit the KFC bucket'. If they had spent more time doing their research instead of making up such 'jokes' about a young rider's weight, they would have found that Reynders is an incredibly talented rider who graduated from Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon team and, despite only racing 11 days in 2020 due to the pandemic, still managed to win a contract on one of Belgium’s most respected teams.
In 2019, Reynders finished third in both the U23 versions of Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem and last Sunday he threw himself into the unknown with a hugely impressive ride in the break. He and his five other companions were caught well before the finish but Reynders impressed enough to demonstrate that he’s ready to step up. Bessèges will be another adventure but we shouldn’t be surprised to see him in the breaks again.
· Age: 29
· Team: Lotto-Soudal
Wellens was impressive in the GP La Marseillaise, attacking several times and even having the gas to take sixth in the final sprint. With Philippe Gilbert still feeling his way back to full health after his Tour de France crash, and John Degenkolb not quite on form just yet, Wellens will lead the line for Lotto-Soudal.
The course has several stages that will suit his gutsy and attacking style, while the time trial is short enough to keep him in contention for a possible GC challenge. He normally starts the season in scintillating form but if you want to go left field then watch out for Andreas Kron from Denmark. He’s stepped up to the WorldTour this year with Lotto-Soudal and he and Wellens took turns to attack the field in Marseille. He’s only 22 but already looks like a real find for the Belgian team.
· Age: 33
· Team: Total Direct Energie
Trek Segafredo’s Mads Pedersen almost made our list but he’s often slow out of the blocks at the start of the season, and his main aims come much later in the spring so it’s hard to imagine that the Dane will be too competitive this early. His fellow Scandinavian, however, might try and land some early season blows, especially in his new team kit.
Boasson Hagen’s career spans three decades, and while he doesn’t burn as bright as he once did – or perhaps should have – he’s still a competent rider capable of pulling wins out of the bag. His team arrive with a degree of good form having won already and posted three riders in the top-20 in La Marseillaise but Boasson Hagen represents one of their best chances of winning.
Pierre Latour also makes the team and has something of a point to prove this year after leaving AG2R, but Boasson Hagen gets the nod due to the fact that so many of the stages suit him better.
- Age: 28
- Team: Cofidis
Benjamin Thomas from FDJ caught the eye with an impressive ride in Marseille and Nacer Bouhanni is always worth following, but the final rider on our list is none other than Christophe Laporte. The Frenchman won this race back in 2019, and has three stage wins to his name.
All of his career wins have come just below the WorldTour level and, despite the heavy WorldTour presence, he should still be a major character in the five days of racing. The 2020 season was a tough year for Laporte but the year before saw him produce some of his best results with more than five wins and a string of top-10s. With a solid winter behind him, the Cofidis rider will be looking to kick-start his year on home terrain.
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