Words and photo by Peter Cossins
Although I relish working on the Tour de France and the other major races on the calendar, I always get a particular thrill from being on the smaller and lesser known events, such as the Étoile de Bessèges, where I’m making a very belated working debut this week.
It’s a race that I’ve always been intrigued by, taking place in the garrigues around Nîmes and on the south-eastern fringes of the rugged Cévennes massif.
The name’s part of the attraction. There used to be a good few other Étoiles on the French calendar, but Bessèges’s “Star” is now the last significant one left. The title perfectly encapsulates the spread of the race’s geography, with the small town of Bessèges as its fulcrum and stages radiating out in every part of the compass around it. It’s also the first stage race on the French calendar, clinging on tenaciously despite the increasing pull of much newer events in sunnier early season climes.
The race was founded in 1971 by Roland Fangille, president of the Bessèges cycling association. That first edition was a one-dayer featuring just two dozen riders, Raymond Poulidor among them. Over the subsequent five decades, Fangille and his organising team expanded it to five days, the rolling terrain and unpredictable weather establishing it as a race of choice among sprinters and Classics specialist keen to experience racing with real intensity in the first weeks of the season.
The Étoile’s palmarès underlines its significance, with Didi Thurau, Jan Raas, Eddy Planckaert, Adrie van der Poel, Robbie McEwen, Thomas Voeckler and Bob Jungels among its champions. Last year’s edition was won by rising French star Benoît Cosnefroy.
Like most of the smaller races on the calendar, it has had some more difficult moments too, not least in 2019, when only last-minute agreement between its various sponsors and stakeholders enabled it to survive. During the last 18 months, the event has also been hit by the deaths of Raymond Poulidor, who is said to have attended every edition either as rider or race ambassador, and, last November, of race director and founder Fangille, who succumbed to Covid.
His loss came so close to this year’s event that there were fears that it might not take place, especially given the ongoing restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus. However, his daughter, Claudine Fangille-Allegre determined that the race would go ahead in tribute to her father. When, last week, the French government opted against taking the country into a third lockdown, she was able to confirm to the teams that Bessèges would be taking place and that the organisation was ready to receive them.
At that point, with every other concurrent race either cancelled or postponed, teams were clamouring to be on the Bessèges start line, and especially those at the elite WorldTeam level. Three years ago, just three WorldTour teams (as they were known then) participated in the race. This year, there are 11, while at least three others had their requests turned down because they came in when the field had already been filled.
Although Fangille-Allegre and her organising team have undoubtedly benefited from events elsewhere in the cycling world, they have, at the same time, remained loyal to the squads that have supported Bessèges in the past. Fran Reyes, the press officer on the Spanish Kern Pharma team, explained that the Spanish squad had been selected precisely because they had appeared last year. The same consideration has no doubt been shown to other teams.
As the peloton gathered at the stage one start in the small town Bellegarde for a minute’s silence in tribute to Roland Fangille, it must have been quite something for long-time members of the race organisation to see no fewer than three Tour de France winners, the Olympic champion, three world road champions and the current world TT champion, plus the Olympic champion in their midst. It’s no wonder TV broadcasters have also scrambling to get the rights to the race over the past few days.
Assuming a return to something approaching everyday normality by the start of next season, the Étoile de Bessèges is unlikely to attract the same quality of field in 2022. However, I fervently hope that some of the big teams that opted in for this edition will show the same kind of loyalty to this gem of a race that it has consistently shown to its supporters. By doing so, they would likely guarantee continued live TV coverage and the event’s wellbeing in the long term. That would be an even more fitting tribute to Roland Fangille.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, available to buy here.