The 2021 European road race season started quietly last Sunday with the Clàssica Comunitat Valenciana but will click up a gear with the Grand Prix Cycliste la Marseillaise this weekend and then begin in earnest next week with the Etoile de Bessèges in France and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in Spain.
Despite new waves of COVID-19 infections across Europe and a number of other races being cancelled or postponed, road racing is finally back after the winter and the first stage races of the season have attracted WorldTour-level fields.
Egan Bernal and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Greg van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën), Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) will all be riding in Spain.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos) and John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal) are all expected to ride in France.
While both races are so far confirmed to go ahead, the COVID-19 pandemic means the road from early February to the first major goals of the season is impervious and full of unknowns.
Teams have formed protective bubbles and are testing their riders. The UCI is due to update and enforce a new, strict COVID-19 race protocol but nobody knows how or if the season will unfold as usual.
The sprinters and Classics contenders usually fill their boots with short stage races in February so they have a dozen race days in their legs before heading to Belgium for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. This year, most will only have ridden one stage race, while the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will head to Belgium after a long series of training camps.
The stage racers face a similar dearth of early-season racing before they target Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, with some riders unlikely to race before the March WorldTour races.
Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar wanted to race early in February before targeting the UAE Tour but the loss of the Volta ao Algarve, the Ruta del Sol and the Tour of Oman means he will have to replicate racing at home in the hills above Monaco.
Riders are training for the unexpected changes to their race programmes, and teams are ready to change their rosters and objectives depending on the COVID-19 data and government decisions.
“I just want to race. I feel like I'm just training, training, training,” Vanmarcke told Belgian newspaper Nieuwsblad recently, echoing the frustrations of many in the peloton.
“I was initially scheduled to ride the Volta ao Algarve. When it was cancelled, I was transferred to the Ruta del Sol. Now it will not take place either, so I’ll ride Haut Var. The Etoile des Bessèges is my alternative to the Volta Valenciana.
“Last year during the Classics I felt that I had too few race kilometres. During training you try to simulate things behind the moped but it is not quite the same. It wasn't bad, but I was a few per cent short in form.”
The cancellation of races sparks a ripple effect in teams. The domestiques get bumped from a race to make room for team captains. It bolsters the start lists as we have seen for Etoile de Bessèges, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and especially the UAE Tour, but it leaves lots of riders without races.
Yves Lampaert can pull rank at Deceuninck-QuickStep but even admits he could be forced to race some early-season kermesses in Belgium if the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana is cancelled.
Oliver Naesen and Greg van Avermaet will lead AG2R Citroën’s Classics squad and so will get priority on other riders in their team.
“That's not nice, because if Greg and I go to the French races, we’ll take the places of the riders who were selected for there,” Naesen said. “Nobody wins in this story, but the Classics are very important to AG2R, especially this year, so the leaders get priority.”
Valenciana holds its nerve despite high COVID-19 cases
High numbers of COVID-19 cases in Spain mean the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana is at risk of cancellation.
For now the race is still officially on, with the organiser defiantly talking up the race on social media and revealing the presence of big-name riders like Bernal, Geoghegan Hart, Nibali, Matthews, Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ), Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and others.
The race organisers have brought in a special medical team to carry out pre-race PCR COVID-19 tests, and everyone in the race bubble will stay in protected hotels and follow a strict protocol.
However, some teams are delaying naming their final lineups until at least Monday in case the event is cancelled and they have to reshuffle their teams for the Etoile de Bessèges, then inform some riders they will have to delay their season debut.
Last year Pogačar won the overall classification after dominating the queen stage to Sierra de Bernia. This year’s race will again include the mountain finish and several chances for the sprinters. However, with the number of COVID-19 cases so high in the region, race organisers have opted not to make public the stage details to stop crowds from travelling to see the race.
Only start and finish locations have been confirmed. The opening stage finishes in the small town of Ondara near the coast, stage 2 starts and finishes in Alicante, with a finish at Sierra de Bernia scheduled for stage 3. Stage 4 is a 14.3km time trial to the isolated Playa Almenara, with the final short stage finishing in Valencia.
Seventeen of the 22 teams on the start list are WorldTour, with Demare, Kristoff, Ewan, Matteo Moschetti (Trek-Segafredo), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) the stand-out sprinters alongside the Classics riders.
Traditionally early racing in the south of France
The Etoile de Bessèges was created by Roland Fangille and a team of volunteers in 1971 as a training race for the many teams that spent January on the French Riviera.
It was gradually overshadowed by the Tour Down Under, the Vuelta a San Juan and the Dubai Tour, but has shown remarkable resilience, in part thanks to support from the French teams and the Ligue Nationale de Cyclisme association.
Fangille sadly died this winter but his daughter Claudine has stepped up to take over the reigns for what will be the 51st edition. This year the race will be broadcast live on television and on Tuesday local officials gave permission for the race to go ahead. Only a full national lockdown in France would spark cancellation.
The race route again includes some rolling stages in the Gard department near Avignon, with stage 5 again a time trial to crown the final overall winner.
Benoit Cosnefroy won the red leader’s jersey in 2020 after Bettiol was a surprise winner of the around Alès. The Italian is listed as part of EF Education-Nippo’s roster, alongside Rigoberto Uran and new signing Michael Valgren. Thomas and Michał Kwiatkowski are expected to lead Ineos Grenadiers, along with sprinter Ben Swift.
There are 11 WorldTours on the provisional start list, with more, including Deceuninck-QuickStep, hoping to ride but left without a place.
Alex Dowsett (Israel Start-Up Nation) could be a contender for the final time trial, while Edvald Boasson Hagen and Pierre Latour make their debut with Total Direct Energie. The sprints should be highly contested with Pedersen, Bouhanni, Nizzolo, Degenkolb, Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) and Briton Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) all on the start list.
Cyclingnews will have full coverage of all the action from the Etoile de Bessèges and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
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