Words by Peter Cossins | Photo of Mont Bouquet by Peter Cossins
It’s hard not to be seduced by the Étoile de Bessèges, by its name that has a flavour of romance and especially by the Gard countryside that provides its setting
When does your road cycling season start? Much as I like the idea of the Tour Down Under and the Vuelta a San Juan, I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe that the off-season runs from early October to February. As a fan whose spectating clock was set well before GCN started providing wall-to-wall coverage of the racing calendar, I begin to emerge from viewing hibernation when the peloton has its sights on the climbs of the Espigoulier and Gineste in the GP Marseillaise. My focus really sharpens, though, with the start of the Étoile de Bessèges, which fills the latter half of this week.
Even though TV coverage of this opening event of the French stage racing season tended to be small or, more often, non-existent, I’ve always felt a pull towards it, purely because of its name. I can’t think of a more fitting title for a stage race that’s based on a town and the region around it than the Star of Bessèges, and there’s such romance to the name as well. How could you not be seduced by it?
Years back, I spent a weekend in the gorgeous Gard town of Uzès, just a few dozen kilometres from Bessèges, and I’d always imagined that the latter would be a similar tourist honeypot of elegant stone houses finished with shutters in pastel shades and a Saturday market that’s renowned right across the Midi – Uzès even boasts a Haribo museum, located on the site of a former liquorice factory established in the mid-19th century that was taken over in the last century by the bonbon manufacturer that’s long had close links with cycling and the Tour de France in particular.
However, when I finally arrived in Bessèges on the first occasion I covered its stage race, I realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think there’s a French equivalent of the book Crap Towns, which is billed as “a hilarious guide to the 50 worst towns in Britain.” But if there were such a book, Bessèges would likely be in it. Split by the River Cèze, it’s a former coal mining and steel town. The mine closed in the 1960s, the steel plant in 1987, although the skeletons of both are still very evident. Its population has since dwindled to less than 3,000, a quarter of what it once was, its decline emphasised by the lack of a boulangerie, an event horizon for any French town.
It remains on the map largely thanks to its professional bike race, which was established in 1971 by Roland Fangille, a northerner who came south to work in the local industry and stayed forever. A good amateur racer, he would have relished the roads around the town, rolling past farmland and through thick woodland, almost empty of traffic, the ideal location for a bike race. By the time he died in November 2019, little more than two months short of witnessing the 50th anniversary of his event, he’d seen his fledgling one-day race become a five-day event, while he’d become the doyen of French race organisers.
His daughter, Claudine Allègre-Fangille, succeeded him and has seen the race flourish during its most recent editions, welcoming eight or more WorldTour teams and the pick of the squads in the division below them. Some of those teams, including Ineos, have remained loyal to the race having been offered places at the last minute when Covid wreaked havoc with the early-season calendar in 2020.
All of them know that their riders will be in for a stern test over the five days, and particularly the final three. The first of that trio is a very lumpy stage based on Bessèges that was traditionally the race-decider. However, in recent seasons, the penultimate stage has been beefed up by the introduction of a hill-top finish. This year, like last, it takes place on the crest of Mont Bouquet, with its glorious view over the garrigue and across the vastness of the Rhône valley to the snow-capped bulk of Mont Ventoux. The event culminates with a time trial of two very distinct halves, the first on the banks of the Gardon in Alès, the second a stiff climb to the hermitage that overlooks the town.
Although it runs almost concurrently to Bessèges, I won’t be devoting very much attention to the Saudi Tour, beyond taking advantage of its running to highlight the Saudi regime’s repression of many of its citizens, and especially women, who continue to be subjugated by the male guardianship system. While the scenery looks spectacular, the race is clearly one of the raft of sporting events and teams being organised, sponsored and taken over with the purpose of washing the country’s reputation, like the LIV golf tour and the signing of Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain Lionel Messi as an ambassador for the Saudi tourist board.
In 2022, Human Rights Watch ranked the country’s execution of 81 men in a single day as the second most significant violation of human rights in the world after the war crimes committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. The same year, 50-year-old Noura al-Qhatani was sentenced to 45 years in prison for using social media “to spread lies through tweets”. Her crime was voicing support for political dissidents, although she wasn’t actively engaged in any political activity. Also in 2022, Salma al-Shebab, a PhD student at the University of Leeds in the UK, was sentenced to 34 years in prison after being detained during a holiday in Saudi. Her crime? Having a Twitter account and “assisting those who seek to cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security by following their Twitter accounts”.
I can’t give a thought to cycling when horrors like these are taking place.