Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
The opening salvos of early season racing peak this Sunday with the first real summit finish of 2022, at the Montagne de Lure in Provence. The Lure is Mont Ventoux’s quieter, more serene, little brother, the less mythologised, less fabled climb to the feared ‘Giant,’ overlooking the Durance valley in the eastern Provencal Alps. The pair may be 50 kilometres or so apart but you can still see the unmistakable humpback hulk of the Ventoux from the Lure, dominating the view westwards towards the Rhone valley.
Unlike the Ventoux, the Lure is remote and hidden away, untouristed and some might say unspoilt, infrequently visited by major races and never used by the Tour de France. Maybe it will be though, one day soon, given the potential for high-altitude drama offered by the degeneration of part of the broken summit tarmac into rough white gravel.
There are two routes up the Lure. The first, from the north, leaves the Jabron valley road leading to Sisteron, and on increasingly fractured tarmac, weaves its way towards the Pas de la Graille, before winding across on a rocky false flat to the summit. The climb from the south is the one used in major races, the narrow road exiting the soporific village of Saint-Etienne-les-Orgues before joining the route de Lure.
On Sunday, the Tour de la Provence will climax on this wooded and lengthy climb of the Lure, the first proper summit finish of the 2022 European season, ascending to 1570 metres. In fact, the stage ends just short of the Lure’s exposed summit, at Station de Lure, but it will nonetheless be a rude and gruelling test of climbing legs, so early in the year.
The winding hairpins to the finish will take the fastest riders a little over 30 minutes and the climb is steep enough to suit the best climbers, rather than all-rounders or rouleurs, such as overall race leader, Filippo Ganna. The roll call of winners on the Lure is not long, but it reinforces that assessment.
In 2009, Alberto Contador climbed clear through the snow banks to seize the overall lead in Paris-Nice, while in 2013, Richie Porte, then racing for Team Sky, leapfrogged a gauche Andrew Talansky, who misjudged the climb and attacked too early, before running out of gas in the final kilometres. Porte went on to win that year’s Race to the Sun overall.
Although the Tour de la Provence field lacks the most renowned mountain goats — Egan Bernal, recovering from his crash, Tadej Pogacar, Primoz Roglic and Richard Carapaz, who tested positive for Covid, are all absent — there is enough climbing talent in the field to make for an exciting finale to the four day Provencal race.
Nairo Quintana is rumoured to be restless at Arkea-Samsic, and there is even talk of a return to Movistar, but the Colombian has won the Tour de la Provence before and also has shown well in the past on the nearby Ventoux’s early season ascent to Chalet Reynard.
Likewise Julian Alaphilippe — seemingly in better form than anticipated after a bout of flu, and maybe doubly motivated by the prospect of winning the queen stage of a race that is directed by his partner, Marion Rousse — who, with one eye on the Ardennes Classics, needs to test his climbing legs.
Keen too, to make his mark early with his new team, is Michael Storer, now with Groupama-FDJ, after moving from Team DSM. The Australian climber won two stages in last year’s Vuelta a Espana and, form allowing, may try his hand in a characteristic break on the narrow roads leading to the foot of the Lure.
Pierre Latour, fifth in the race prologue, can also be expected to figure in the moves on the mountain’s lower slopes, but with Quintana hinting at his best form after finishing sixth in Saturday’s uphill sprint to Manosque, the steady gradients of the Lure offer the Colombian a chance to remind the sport what he is capable of.