Racing returns to France on Saturday with the start of the four-day Route d'Occitanie, which features a host of Tour de France hopefuls – notably defending champion Egan Bernal and four-time winner Chris Froome, both of Team Ineos, and a trio of French favourites in the shape of Thibaut Pinot (Gropupama-FDJ), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and road race national champion Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic).
What was for many years the Route du Sud – a race that stuck extremely close to the Pyrenees – the Route d'Occitanie (pronounced 'Oxy' rather than 'Ocky') now covers a huge swathe of terrain across southern France, including much of the ground that once featured in the much-missed GP de Midi Libre. Its format, however, remains essentially the same as it was under its Route du Sud guise, with two relatively straightforward stages to begin with, a tough stage in the mountains on day three that's very likely to decide the overall winner, and a sprinter-friendly finale to finish.
After opening up with two stages that will appeal to sprinters such as Niccolò Bonifazio (Total Direct Energie), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain), Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) and Elia Viviani – who'll be looking for his first win for Cofidis – day three looks to be a corker. Starting at Saint Gaudens, the home terrain of Pavel Sivakov, another member of a very powerful Ineos septet, it features four climbs: the third-category Cap de la Serre as a leg-warmer, followed by three first-cat ascents – the majestic Port de Balès, the historic Col de Peyresourde and the relatively unknown finishing climb to the Col de Beyrède, a close neighbour to the Aspin and Hourquette d'Ancizan passes.
According to Sivakov, the Beyrède "is a climb in three parts with an opening two-three kilometres that are steep and difficult". The road reaches a brief plateau and then rises more gently for the next four kilometres, before arriving at the final 4km where, says the Russian, "the race will be decided". This final section includes ramps at up to 17% and a kilometer-and-a-half averaging a touch more than 12%. The gradient eases in the final kilometre to the finish.
The race then concludes with another sprinter-friendly stage to the spectacular setting of Rocamadour.
Ineos' line-up features several names under serious consideration for the Tour de France start sheet at the end of August. Alongside Bernal and key domestiques Jonathan Castroviejo and Dylan Van Baarle, the British team is also fielding Andrey Amador, Tao Geoghegan-Hart and Sivakov. Froome is their other selection, and questions about his presence at the Tour are sure to be one of the themes of this four-day event.
AG2R La Mondiale and Groupama-FDJ are also putting strong support behind their leaders, Bardet and Pinot, respectively. Bardet will be backed by a strong group of climbers, including Pierre Latour and Alexis Vuillermoz, while Pinot will be looking to Valentin Madouas and Sébastien Reichenbach in the mountains.
Other names to watch for include Miguel Angel López, whose Astana team is also well stacked with key lieutenants – notably Spaniards Omar Fraile and Luis León Sánchez – and Trek-Segafredo, whose challenge will be led by Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema. With Nairo Quintana delaying his return to racing following a recent training crash until next week's Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, Warren Barguil is Arkéa-Samsic's sole leader.
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