Normally, the Etoile de Bessèges would be little more than a candidate for the hipster’s choice award, alongside TroBroLeon and the eternally-maligned-but-actually-quite good, BinckBank Tour. This year things are different, it’s gone mainstream. There are not one but three former Tour de France winners down to start, not to mention a bevy of WorldTour squads ready to fight it out for the overall win.
Etoile de Bessèges is a small race, with a parcours that favours sprinters and puncheurs, and you have to dig back to 2016 to find a name on the podium that might be classed as an out-and-out GC specialist; Thibaut Pinot, who only came third even then.
The parcours sees four stages of either flat or intermediate terrain, followed by a final day TT, which should throw the cat among the pigeons a bit. At just 11km, however, it’s right on the brink of being long enough to really throw the balance in the favour of the TTers.
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All that is to say that we may not learn anything too definitive about the course of the stage racing season this week, but Etoile does represent the beginning of a long road to Paris. The first big European stage race of the year, and perhaps the last one for some time given the way others are toppling over like dominoes; it’s a vital opportunity to put some racing in the legs.
This will be a first chance to get a look at some of the road riders who will be hoping to define this coming season. Geraint Thomas is back on the bike, as is Egan Bernal, who has not raced since abandoning Le Tour last year with a back injury. Vincenzo Nibali also turns out for Trek-Segafredo.
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Who could win?
Based on past year’s winners, we’re looking here for a fast guy who can get among the time bonuses at the finishes, but also deliver a decent 11km TT effort. Second last year and winner of the TT, Alberto Bettiol (EF Education Nippo) would be a great shout for the overall, and in his pomp this sort of race would have been ideal for Edvald Boasson Hagen (Total Direct Energie). Mads Pedersen is another good bet for being in the mix across all five stages.
Lotto Soudal bring the same mighty triumvirate to Gard as they fielded at the GP La Marseillaise in Provence on Sunday, but of their three marquee names, only Tim Wellens really shone on Sunday. John Degenkolb and Philippe Gilbert did not really deliver the goods, but Lotto will be delighted at the performance of 22-year-old Dane, Andreas Kron, who was pugnacious in the final part of the race.
Christophe Laporte has done well historically in Bessèges and might have done much better in Marseille at the weekend had he not taken a fateful wrong turn in the finale that led him off the course and out of contention. As such, it’s impossible to know if he has the same form that saw him secure two stage victories and a second-place on GC in past editions.
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AG2R La Citroën also bring heavyweight names in Oliver Naesen and Greg van Avermaet, so look out for them trying to break up the race a bit in search of stage rather than overall wins.
And of course, the form book only goes so far. This year’s startlist is packed with some awesome TT engines, riders who would not have given Etoile de Bessèges a second look in a regular season. They could be too strong for the likes of Bettiol, Pedersen and Laporte, who are handy testers, but not world class.
Based on his Giro d’Italia and World Championship performances, Filippo Ganna might just be good enough in the individual TT to overturn any lead accrued by the sprinteur-puncheurs over the preceding four days. Thomas, too, is extremely able in the TT when at full strength – but his level at this point of the season is a total mystery, with the Ineos franchise historically having placed little weight on early-season results.
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