No one can take any great pleasure in the circumstances that have led to this restructured cycling season, but the organisers of the Tour de l'Ain have acknowledged that 2020 has 'smiled' upon them.
A small stage race in the east of France, sitting on the third-tier of the racing circuit, has been transformed into a key juncture on the road to the Tour de France, and has attracted perhaps the strongest start list in its 32-year history.
Previously set to take place in late May, having moved from its traditional mid-August slot in 2018, the three-stage 2020 edition will now take place from August 7-9. Sandwiched between the Route d'Occitanie and the Critérium du Dauphiné, it will see a host of Tour contenders move through the gears, including the Team Ineos trio of Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas, and Chris Froome – the past three winners of La Grande Boucle.
Indeed, while the Ineos hierarchy will be one of the key talking points, another key theme will be their highly-billed rivalry with Jumbo-Visma, who are also bringing their leadership trio of Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin, and Steven Kruijswijk.
The Tour de l'Ain's newfound status as a Tour de France preparation race is underlined by the fact that the decisive mountain stage on the final day is an almost-exact replica of stage 15 of the Tour, which caps the second week with a summit finish on the Grand Colombier.
Before it heads for the real hills, the 2020 Tour de l'Ain begins with a modest 139.5km stage from Montréal-la-Cluse to Ceyzériat. However, it's no simple sprinters' affair. With 2.5km to go, the route tilts uphill on a narrow country lane. With an average gradient of seven per cent over an 800-metre stretch, it could prove a perfect launchpad for a late act of aggression. Before the finale is reached, the riders will have already covered four short climbs in the opening half of the stage on what is the gentlest of the race, but still an undulating and tiring day in the saddle.
Stage 2 heads into the Jura mountains north-west of the Alps for a tough 140.5km route from Lagnieu to Lélez, with barely a metre of flat after the first 15km. The parcours contains six climbs and is roughly divided in two, with the Col de Montgriffon (12.km at 4.1 per cent), Col de Pezières (3.9km at 6.5 per cent), and Col de Cuvillat (3.4km at 7.4 per cent) all coming before the half-way mark. Things then get serious with an up-down-up-down-up finale that takes the riders over the Côte de Giron (7.6km at 6.2 per cent) and Col de Menthières (9.1km at 6.3 per cent) ahead of a final uncategorised climb to the line in Lélex.
The final day is the 'queen stage' that will both decide the winner of the 2020 Tour de l'Ain and offer a valuable preview of the upcoming Tour de France. From kilometre-35, the 144.5km stage will pick up the exact route of stage 15 of the Tour, heading over the steep back-to-back climbs of the Montée de la Selle de Fromentelle and Col de Biche ahead of the summit finish on the Grand Colombier.
The climbing starts with 75km to go on the Selle de Fromentelle (11km at 8.5 per cent), followed after a steep descent by the Col de Biche (6.4km at 8.9 per cent). A longer descent is followed by a stretch in the valley ahead of the Grand Colombier, which is tackled from the Culoz side, measuring 17.3km at 7.1 per cent. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) won on the climb last year, while the lacets hairpinned section was used on the 2016 Tour de France, although the summit of the Grand Colombier, at 1,500 metres, has never hosted a Tour finish.
Ineos dominate the start list with the past three winners of the Tour de France and a support cast that's set to feature three of the key domestiques for La Grande Boucle. Bernal has already stamped his authority by winning the Route d'Occitanie, where Froome was cast in a support role, but it remains to be seen how Thomas affects the dynamic on his return to competition.
Jumbo-Visma come with their own leadership trio and mini Tour de France squad, and the race should offer an insight into their ability to disrupt Ineos' hegemony, and how the two teams may approach things from a tactical perspective. With the exception of Roglic's appearance at the Slovenian national championships – where he won the road race – none of the trio have raced in 2020, and so this is a crucial outing. For Dumoulin, it'll be his debut for the team he joined at the turn of the year and his first race in almost 14 months.
Beyond the two super-teams, Arkéa-Samsic's Nairo Quintana should have a say. The Colombian was the stand-out rider of the first part of the season and looked every inch a Tour contender again until racing was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Trek-Segafredo are lining up with their Tour de France leadership duo of Bauke Mollema and Richie Porte, while Fabio Aru spearheads UAE Team Emirates. It will be interesting to see what Carl Frederik Hagen (Lotto Soudal) can do after placing eighth at last year's Vuelta a España, while his future teammate Dan Martin leads Israel Start-Up Nation.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) won't be there to defend his title, but there are other Frenchmen to watch in Cofidis' Guillaume Martin and AG2R La Mondiale's Clément Champoussin, who could be seen as a long-term replacement should Romain Bardet leave the team. Finally, another youngster who could have even more of an impact is Deceuninck-QuickStep's Joao Almeida, who has been so impressive in guiding Remco Evenepoel to victories this season at the Volta ao Algarve and Vuelta a Burgos, where he picked up third overall for himself.
Tour de l'Ain teams
- AG2R La Mondiale
- CCC Team
- Team Ineos
- Israel Start-Up Nation
- Lotto Soudal
- Team Sunweb
- UAE Team Emirates
- B&B Hotels-Vital Concept
- Circus-Wanty Gobert
- German national team
- Hagens Berman Axeon
- Kometa Xstra
- Nippo Delko One Provence
- Sport Vlaanderen Baloise
- St Michel-Auber 93
- Swiss national team
- Total Direct Energie
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