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With the European racing calendar coming to life amid a wave of race cancellations, the Etoile de Bessèges is the first European stage race of the 2021 season.
Starting on Wednesday February 3, the five-day race will welcome a stronger than usual start list, with 10 WorldTour teams lining up in Bellegarde, up from seven in 2020.
Names like Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R La Mondiale), Alberto Bettiol (EF Education -Nippo) Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos), Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), Pierre Latour (Total Direct Energie) and Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) will all be in action at the race. 2020 winner Benoît Cosnefroy will be missing though, as he recovers from a knee injury.
Last year, the Frenchman won the race thanks to a strong ride on the summit finish at Mont Bouquet, having finished second on the stage 1 uphill finish. He defended his lead on the final day time trial, holding off Bettiol for second overall.
Ben O'Connor and Magnus Cort were among the other riders to taste success at the race, taking home stage wins.
A potted history
After first being held in 1971, the Etoile de Bessèges was held as a one-day race for its first three years, switching to a five-day stage race in 1974. In 2004 it became part of the UCI European Tour, and remains one of the traditional European season openers.
Befitting the region's geography – the Gard department in southern France – the race consists of four largely flat stages and a short closing time trial which can be decisive for the GC battle.
Jérôme Coppel, Jo Planckaert and inaugural winner Jean-Luc Molineris hold the record for most wins at the race, though both men only have two victories.
Oddly enough in this age of globalised sport, the race has trended more towards home winners in the past decade.
French riders, including reigning champion Cosnefroy, have won eight of the past 10 editions, with 10 of the previous 35 going to Frenchmen. Tobias Ludvigsson and Bob Jungels were the two most recent foreign winners in 2014 and 2015.
Riders to watch
This year, there is no summit finish on the route, so the likes of Bernal, Nibali, and the Italian's teammate Bauke Mollema don't have one big stage on which to despatch the rest of the peloton.
Stages 1 and 4 offer uphill finishes – measuring in at around a kilometre at six per cent – though, while the stage 5 time trial will provide another opportunity for time gains.
Classics men Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen make their season debuts for AG2R La Mondiale, while Michał Kwiatkowski and Filippo Ganna head up the strong Ineos Grenadiers team. Lotto Soudal pairing John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert will be ones to watch, as will Tim Wellens.
Ex-world champion Mads Pedersen joins Nibali and Mollema on the Trek-Segafredo squad, while Rigoberto Urán and MIchael Valgren line up with Bettiol at EF Education -Nippo. Felix Großschartner and Lennard Kämna lead Bora-Hansgrohe.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of sprint opportunities, too, coming on stages 2 and 3. Look out for Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Direct Energie), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos), Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels p/b KTM) and Rudy Barbier (Israel Start-Up Nation) on those stages.
Cyclingnews will have full coverage of the Etoile de Bessèges, with full stage reports, news and interviews.
Etoile de Bessèges - Tour du Gard 20213 February 2021 - 7 February 2021 | Bessèges | 2.1
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