FIRST EDITION: 2001 (Ardèche) and 2014 (Drôme)
FIRST WINNER: Thomas Bernabeau (Ardèche) and Romain Bardet (Drôme)
While many cycling fans associate the last weekend in February as the opening of the Belgian classics season, with races like Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, in recent years I have focused on a pair of races in southern France, the Royal Bernard Drôme and Faun-Ardèche Classics, two races whose reputation has been growing steadily in the past 10 years.
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Race director Guillaume Delpech first founded the Faun-Ardèche Classic in honor of his father. The original title was Boucles du Sud Ardèche-Souvenir Francis Delpech, and back in 2001, he launched the event as a top-tier amateur race. And as the race evolved into the professional ranks, he added the Drôme Classic. His thought was that a full weekend of intense racing was more likely to attract top professionals.
Today, the two races are virtually inseparable, known simply as the “Boucles Drôme Ardèche,” a duo of hilly, punchy races on the two sides of the Rhône river valley in Southern France.
I have been covering both races as the official photographer for the past five years, and they have undoubtedly become some of my favorite races of the year. There is always a great atmosphere, as crowds congregate in the many villages found along the various racecourses. With a little luck, the mood is made even better with some of the first glimpses of the southern French sun!
But good weather is no guarantee here. After all, it is still February in France. And last year, in particular, the riders were greeted with a weekend of Dantesque weather conditions.
But that did not get in the way of some truly spectacular racing as Frenchman Rémi Cavagna went on the attack early in the Ardèche Race and eventually soloed to victory, while Australian Simon Clarke weathered a hail storm in the final kilometers — not to mention stiff competition from the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and French champion Warren Barguil — to win the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic.
There are plenty of unknowns in these races. In certain editions, the peloton is simply dismantled by the heavy Mistral winds that blow down from the Rhône river valley.
In other editions, it is the rain that does its damage. I have seen certain races where two-thirds of the peloton is out of contention after only an hour of racing. But one thing I have never seen is a classic field sprint.
No, that just doesn’t happen here. The climbing is simply too steep, the descents too technical, especially in the early-season. As a result the races always splinter apart.
“Suspense is important to me in bike racing,” Delpech told me once. “And perhaps more than anything I want to create races that guarantee suspense.” By all accounts, he has done just that.
That is why these modest early-season French races always attract a high-quality international field. For many, it is the perfect warm-up to races like Paris-Nice which starts the following weekend. But for me, there are simply two classic bike races tucked away in the heart of Southern France. The Drôme and Ardèche Classics are simply bike racer’s bike races.
Riders to watch:
Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), David Gaudu and Sebastien Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis, Solutions Crédits), Alberto Bettiol and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo), Michael Woods and Daryl Impey (Israel Start-Up Nation), Fabio Aru and Simon Clarke (Qhubeka-Assos), Omar Fraile and Ion Izagirre (Astana-Premiere Tech), Marc Hirschi and Brandon McNulty (UAE-Team Emirates), and Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic).