Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Watching the early season racing unfold during February, it’s sometimes felt like I’ve slipped through some kind of portal in time and been transported back to the early 1980s, when I first started following bike racing.
At that point, a lot of riders were still following what was then the time-worn path into the new season, taking part in training camps on the Côte d’Azur, these interspersed with participation in a string of Grand Prix along the French Riviera, at Monaco, Hyères, Aix-en-Provence, Antibes, Cannes, Grasse, Saint-Raphaël, as well as the Tour of Vaucluse, the Étoile de Bessèges and, usually the biggest of all, the Tour of the Mediterranean. The weather was usually good, the hotels cheap, the racing comparatively gentle, enabling riders who had barely touched their bikes for two months or more to ease their way back towards competitive fitness.
Of those races, Bessèges is the only that has survived into the modern era, and even that race almost went under a couple of seasons back. They’ve fallen victim to increasing organisational requirements and costs and, later on, to the sport’s shift in focus, to mondialisation. Given cycling’s very parochial perspective back then, this adjustment was vital and resulted in the early season developing a very new look, to the emergence of the Tour Down Under, the Tours of Langkawi and of Qatar and, more recently, the Vuelta a San Luis, Tour Colombia and the Saudi Tour.
Rather than Mont Faron, the low scrubland of the garrigues and the beautiful villages perched high in the Provençal back country, our attention has switched to Willunga Hill, echelons in wind-swept Middle Eastern deserts and other destinations where warm weather racing and training can be guaranteed.
This season, though, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed southern France back into the racing spotlight again and with it once-familiar locations – the Col de l’Espigoulier and Col de la Gineste from the GP La Marseillaise, Bessèges and Alès during the Étoile, Chalet Reynard and the Alpilles during the Tour of La Provence, the Col du Gourdon and the Mur de Fayence from the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, each of them a signpost for those of a certain age to that former era and the early-season exploits of Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and many others.
WorldTour teams, or WorldTeams as they are now designated, were falling over each other in their rush to sign up for them. Bessèges race director Claudine Allègre-Fangille told me that she had to turn down requests from big-name squads to participate in that five-day race, Deceuninck-QuickStep and UAE Emirates among them. She added that Ineos and Bora, the final two teams she’d been able to give starting places to, had sealed these by committing to return to the event in 2022.
This highlights the principal issue faced by these races in recent years, that of securing a field strong enough to attract the TV coverage that is essential to the tourist agencies, regional development bodies and other local government agencies that now primarily back them. They’ve done it this year, but can they do it again when, hopefully, the calendar returns to normal? Will teams remember how these events accommodated them when representatives from San Luis and Saudi start lobbying them later this year?
Let’s hope many of them do because the racing and the locations over the past three weeks have been magnificent. It began with the topsy-turvy conclusion to the GP La Marseillaise, eventually won in a 20-odd rider sprint by Aurélien Paret-Peintre, better known for his climbing than as a finisseur. At Bessèges, stages three and four were thrilling almost from the off. On the first of them we saw Egan Bernal burying himself on the front of the break for Michal Kwiatkowski, but the Ineos Grenadiers ultimately outgunned by Lotto-Soudal trio Tim Wellens, Philippe Gilbert and Stefano Oldani, a second-year pro who looks a cracker of a prospect. Ineos struck back the next day with the latest demonstration of unparalleled power from Filippo Ganna, the Italian handing off the bunch like a two-wheeled Jonah Lomu.
Provence served up four frantic days, Davide Ballerini opening Deceuninck’s account for the year by winning the opening two, followed by a thrilling stage to Chalet Reynard, where Ineos’s Iván Sosa took a fine solo win, just ahead of teammate Bernal and world champion Julian Alaphilippe, already looking close to his irrepressible best. This weekend’s action in Alpes Maritimes and Haut Var has offered a reprise of that non-stop action, with Trek-Segafredo and Israel Start-Up Nation taking the spoils.
Speaking to Tour de France route director Thierry Gouvenou at Bessèges about that race, where he was acting as lead commissaire, and others in the south of France, he suggested that the ongoing health crisis had sent the sport back to its roots and to “the true values of cycling” found in these French races that have been around for several decades. While there’s a touch of jingoism in Gouvenou’s take, it is well worth stressing the efforts of these race organisers in ensuring these events went ahead in extremely difficult conditions and to the participating teams for taking full advantage of the opportunity to race.
The result was that the 2021 season started in much the same way that 2020 ended, with lots to watch, plenty of positive things to debate and some good memories rekindled. Let’s do it all again next year, please!
If you enjoyed this, why not try our review of the 2020 season
‘Racing in the Time of Covid’ – available to purchase here.