As was the case with the Étoile de Bessèges last week, the Tour de la Provence has attracted a star-studded field as a consequence of coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements of races elsewhere in the cycling world.
There are no fewer than 14 WorldTour teams among the 20 squads on the start-line, with world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), sprinters Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and new Qhubeka-Assos team leader Fabio Aru among the big names making theirs season debuts at the French four-day race.
Provence’s sixth edition follows the format of last year's, won by Arkéa-Samsic’s Nairo Quintana. It kicks off with a stage between Aubagne and the Mediterranean resort of Six-Fours-les-Plages that should suit the sprinters.
This begins in the rugged terrain to the east of Aubagne, crossing the first-category Col de l’Espigoulier, the main difficulty on the GP La Marseillaise a fortnight ago. A trio of third-category climbs follow, the last of them topping out 28 kilometres from the finish.
As well as Démare and Kristoff, there are several other notable sprinters who’ll be looking to open their season’s account, including Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic), who won the equivalent stage last year, Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels) and John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal).
Stage 2 runs north from the coastal town of Cassis through Provence’s backcountry to reach Manosque. The riders will pass through the finish to start a circuit that includes the day’s two main hurdles, the second-category Col de la Mort d’Imbert and the third-category Col Montfuron. A fast pace over the two climbs could see most of the sprinters tailed off, providing the many puncheurs in the peloton with an opportunity of victory on the long drag up to the finish-line.
There are plenty of riders of this type in the field, including world champion Alaphilippe, Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), who was third overall in Provence last year, Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), GP La Marseillaise winner Aurélien Paret-Peintre (AG2R-Citroën) and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), who looked very strong at Bessèges.
Starting on the coast at Istres and finishing at the Chalet Reynard ski station/restaurant that lies just above the forested section on Mont Ventoux, stage 3 should decide the general classification.
There are no significant difficulties before the riders crest the rise in the village of Blauvac and the Ventoux fills the view ahead of them. They’ll quickly reach Bédoin and, half a dozen kilometres later, the virage de Saint-Estève, the bend that marks the start of the first-category climb to the finish. Rising for 9.7km, it averages 9.1 per cent.
Although 2020 Chalet Reynard and Provence GC winner Quintana isn’t defending his title, there’s plenty of climbing talent looking for success on this fabled peak, including the Colombian’s teammate Warren Barguil. Alexey Lutsenko was second here last year and his Astana teammate Aleksandr Vlasov was fourth, a place ahead of Eddie Dunbar, whose Ineos Grenadiers team also features 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal and his Colombian compatriot Iván Sosa.
Bahrain Victorious will be hoping that Jack Haig and Wout Poels can live up to their team's new name, while Alaphilippe and young Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Bora’s Grossschartner and Patrick Konrad, Movistar's Enric Mas, and Trek-Segafredo duo Giulio Ciccone and Bauke Mollema are among the other names to look for.
The race concludes on Sunday with another stage that should go the way of the sprinters. Much will depend, however, on the wind.
Starting in Avignon, it initially follows the Rhône valley south, but with regular twists and turns that will offer the strongest teams the opportunity to split the race apart if the prevailing wind from the north is blowing vigorously. Ineos, Deceuninck and Lotto, who feature Bessèges winner Tim Wellens, should all be prominent if it is.
The stage continues through the Alpilles hills to pass through the finish at Salon-de-Provence for an 85-kilometre finishing circuit where the terrain is mostly flat, very open and often swept by strong winds. The finale in Salon-de-Provence is also flat and ideal for the sprinters, if their teams can keep the peloton together.
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