The five-day Étoile de Bessèges kicks off on Wednesday with what is arguably its strongest field ever, featuring no fewer than three Tour de France winners in Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and Vincenzo Nibali, as well as Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, who will be making his first racing appearance for his new AG2R-Citroën team.
There are 11 WorldTeams among the 22 squads participating in the 51st edition of France’s traditional season-opening stage race. It’s the first edition of Bessèges to be organised since race founder and long-time director Roland Fangille died after contracting COVID-19 last November.
His daughter Claudine has taken over his role and she is determined to keep the race going in her father’s memory, a task that has been eased in the short term at least by the quality of this year’s field and the consequent sale of TV rights by the race organisation.
Taking place entirely in the Gard department in southern France, with Nîmes and Alès as its focal points, Bessèges is usually dominated by the sprinters, and there are several notables on the startlist. They include 2019 world champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos).
Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Démare apart, the pick of the French sprinters are also set to start. Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels p/b KTM), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) and Marc Sarreau (AG2R-Citroën) have all done well here in the past, Laporte taking the overall title in 2019, while Coquard has bagged eight Bessèges stage wins over seven previous appearances.
Even before the coronavirus-enforced cancellation of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, which was due to take place over the same five days, the field included several leading Classics and Grand Tour names. Ineos Grenadiers had already selected Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski for the race, but have also added Egan Bernal to their line-up since the loss of Valencia from the calendar.
Similarly, a Trek-Segafredo team headed by Pedersen and Bauke Mollema has been further boosted by the appearance of Vincenzo Nibali. Other riders who were slated to start in Valencia but will now be kicking off their racing season in southern France include AG2R Classics hitters Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet, and Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens.
Other teams who have fielded some of the biggest names include EF Education-Nippo, who feature Rigoberto Urán and Alberto Bettiol, Total Direct Energie, who include new signings Edvald Boasson Hagen and Pierre Latour, and Bora-Hansgrohe, who have Felix Grossschartner and Lennard Kämna in their line-up.
The race begins with a 143.5km stage starting and finishing in Bellegarde that features a sharp ramp up to the line. Groupama-FDJ puncheur Alexys Brunel won here last year, beating AG2R’s Benoît Cosnefroy, who went on to win the overall title.
Extending to 154.1km, stage 2 is based in Nîmes and should see the sprinters contesting the spoils.
The 154.8km stage 3, starting and finishing in Bessèges, pays tribute to French racing legend Raymond Poulidor, who had attended every edition of the event either as a rider or as an ambassador up to his death at the end of 2019. Featuring a touch more than 3,000 metres of vertical gain as it heads west into the rugged Cévennes, it should result in a much-reduced group duelling for victory.
At 151.6km, stage 4 from Rousson to Saint-Siffret is another that ramps up to the finish line, but not enough to force the sprinters out of the frame.
The race concludes on Sunday with a 10.7-kilometre time trial. Taking place in Alès, it’s a test of two parts. The opening 8km are flat on an out-and-back course that runs mostly alongside the River Gardon. In the final three kilometres, the riders will climb to the Ermitage above the town, the ascent averaging close to 8 per cent.
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