Whisper it, but there could actually be a road bicycle race in France this weekend.
The last major obstacle that might have derailed the plans for the GP La Marseillaise to go ahead was a speech given Thursday night by Emmanuel Macron, and the French premier said nothing to indicate that sporting events would not be able to take place this weekend.
Ordinarily, the GP Marseillaise might not enjoy quite so much focus – but with cycling fans around the world starved of action, it will receive an unusually high amount of attention this year.
To illustrate just what a rare year this is, the race will welcome seven WorldTour teams. Normally the organisers manage to get the two top French teams, Groupama FDJ and AG2R, and one or two others. On paper at least, 2021 represents the strongest field the race has ever seen.
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But what exactly can we expect from this early-spring – arguably ‘late-winter’ – classic? It’s certainly lumpy, but at 171 kilometres it’s not especially long. The Route des Cretes climb with 28 kilometres to go could prove to be decisive – at 7.9% it’s just tough enough to force a split, and the rider who leads over its summit may very well cross the finish line first.
There will surely be a mismatch in ambition and fitness levels between the various teams – and with Continental level outfits also involved, a huge disparity in mental approach.
After all, for the riders on Conti-level St Michel-Auber93 this represents a huge opportunity to strut their stuff against the best teams in the world – and who knows, maybe even catch the eye of a WorldTour scout in the process. Race cancellations have had a disproportionate effect on the smaller teams in the UCI structure – because when there are a dearth of races to choose from, WorldTour squads tend to get priority from organisers. It’s the smaller teams who will be ‘bumped’ from the start list to make room, and so every opportunity to compete must be seized upon.
Don’t be surprised if the minnows are out for blood against a host of larger teams who have much bigger goals for the year than what they perceive as a minor one-day.
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Who can win?
Some of the WorldTour teams have sent their best one-day riders with dedicated squads behind them built for winning this sort of race. Others have not.
AG2R La Citroen will wear dossard number 1 as the team who won last year’s edition, but they have not sent reigning champ Benoit Cosnefroy as part of their 2021 squad. Instead, the flag will be flown by Lilian Calmejane, looking to kickstart his life on a new team after departing Total Direct Energie.
Lotto Soudal are holding nothing back and have sent a fearsome trio of John Degenkolb, Philippe Gilbert and Tim Wellens. Depending on how the scenario plays out, any one of these three could take a win here – don’t be surprised if Gilbert and Wellens each attack solo, leaving Degenkolb well protected to mop up the sprint.
UAE Team Emirates has also put together a decent roster, with new signing Matteo Trentin likely to lead the charge – although Ryan Gibbons could also do well in a bunch finish. If the finale does play out that way, don’t be surprised to see Intermarché–Wanty Gobert’s Andrea Pasqualon, or Cofidis’ Christophe Laporte in the mix.
Total Direct Energie have sent close to their best possible team for this race, although there are a lot of new faces there and it’s unclear how much of a cohesive team dynamic they will be able to count upon. Antony Turgis is the only previous winner of this race set to start, but he is unlikely to repeat the feat in such heightened company. Edvald Boasson Hagen and British rider Chris Lawless might both fancy this – and the team itself has the best form in Europe after winning the GP Valenciana last week, albeit via Lorenzo Manzin who is not in the squad for Saturday.