France never fails to surprise even when you think you know it well

by Peter Cossins

Words and photo by Peter Cossins


The second stage of the Étoile de Bessèges seemed pretty unremarkable. It began in Saint-Christol-lez-Alès, a village that’s become a satellite of the town of Alès thanks to the strip of car show rooms, supermarkets, fast food joints and the other standards that line the arteries leading out of every French town and city. It finished in Rousson, which sits on the opposite northern side of Alès, looping over two middling climbs on the way.

The race’s roadbook didn’t offer up too many clues about the finale, beyond the fact that it lay on the Plateau de Castellas, 100 vertical metres or thereabouts above Rousson, but apparently not significant enough to feature on my Satnav. Approaching the finish, my only clue to its location was a TV crane perched on the hill above. Starting towards it, a short, magical journey began.

The road rose quickly, running straight out of the back of the village making for the ridge above, cutting through the low scrub that characterises the garrigue that covers much of southern France. Four hundred metres from the top, race marshals waved me into a car park and I continued the trip to the top on foot, the road steepening as it neared the line, with olive trees now on either side.

Dozens of fans were heading in the same direction, most of them taking up places on the 12% pitch between the 300- and 200-metre banners, sensing this was where the stage-winning move would occur. The gradient began to ease just above this second banner, but the narrow road still climbed all the way to the line, located on the very edge of the Castellas plateau and in front of the most perfect Midi hamlet of honeyed-stone houses with olive-green shutters. A picture postcard scene.

The view to the west from the hilltop was into the heart of the Cévennes massif, the setting sun making silhouettes of the hills. To the east, it was towards the Rhône valley. Taking the panorama in offered a reminder, if one were needed, of what a uniquely spectacular sport road racing is and of why France is so fundamental to its beauty.

When the race arrived, the riders did everything within their power to ensure the spectacle was as captivating as the setting. The peloton’s sprint into Rousson was like the mad rush into Huy for the finale of Flèche Wallonne. Arkéa-Samsic’s Connor Swift was the first hopeful to commit fully, getting a gap and holding it for a few hundred metres, but the Briton never gained enough distance to stay clear to the line.

I have huge affection for the Étoile de Bessèges and races like it that have been on the calendar for decades, clinging on to that status thanks to the assistance of numerous local benefactors and dozens of volunteers. The organisation may not be perfect, but the absolute enthusiasm for the sport is palpable.

Then the final surge began, led by Mads Pedersen in the coral-coloured leader’s jersey, who accelerated with 300 metres to go, just as the gradient became most acute. A gaggle of riders tracked him, flailing wildly as they fought the slope, but only one emerged. Cofidis’s recently signed sprinter Bryan Coquard, without a win for 551 days, came up on Pedersen’s right and the pair went elbow to elbow over the final 100 metres.

The Frenchman outlasted his rival, squeezing through to win by a matter of centimetres, wearily raising an arm to celebrate his success before stumbling off his bike and dropping to the road, chest heaving. A few metres away, Pederson sat on the kerb, his face the same colour as his leader’s jersey, which he’d managed to retain for another day.

I have huge affection for the Étoile de Bessèges and races like it that have been on the calendar for decades, clinging on to that status thanks to the assistance of numerous local benefactors and dozens of volunteers. The organisation may not be perfect, but the absolute enthusiasm for the sport is palpable.

Bessèges may be overshadowed in terms of the quality of its field by the Saudi Tour, that’s running concurrently, but I know I’m in the right place – and not just for political reasons. The Saudi race looks the cycling equivalent of an oligarch paying a world-renowned rock band to play at his favourite child’s birthday party. It makes a few people happy but is essentially soulless. Bessèges, meanwhile, is a warm-up gig for that same band in a small, unfashionable and sweaty venue where everyone’s having a great time.

After two days when the sprinters have had their chance to shine, Bessèges has reached the point where the GC riders will come to the fore, firstly with a tough stage today [Friday] in the hills around its home town, then with a new finale on the appropriately-named Mont Bouquet. The road to it climbs for 4km at an average of close to 10%. Olympic champion Richard Carapaz, the fast-emerging Tobias Johannessen and, everyone on the roadside will be hoping, Thibaut Pinot should take up the baton passed on by Pedersen and Coquard.

Like the stage to the ridge above Rousson, Mont Bouquet promises to be spectacular, another point on the map of France that you didn’t know was there but will always remember.


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