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Gallery: A view of Provence from alongside the peloton

Photographer James Startt captures the sights, scenery, and culture of Southern France during Thursday's opening stage of le Tour de la Provence.

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It’s hard to say why I favor some races over others, I just do. And le Tour de la Provence is one of those races high on my favorites list. As soon as it started five years ago I was enamored with the idea of a great race in the heart of French Provence. So, for the past three years, I have made it a fixture on my calendar.

French stars like Thibaud Pinot are out in full force here at le Tour de la Provence. Photo: James Startt

And the race never disappoints. After all, what is not to like about riding through Provence in February? The stages are wonderfully routed, going from one picturesque town to the next. And, year after year, the race consistently pulls together an impressive field.

Nairo Quintana is opening his season at le Tour de la Provence with his new French team. Photo: James Startt

Thursday’s opening stage was a case in point. Starting just outside of Avignon, the route made its way down to Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer, on the edge of the French Camargue, which sits on the Mediterranean coast. Ever since the race announced that it would once again visit Les Saintes Maries, I was excited. It was here where the opening time trial was held last year, and it is an utterly picturesque backdrop for a bike race as the cyclists make their way over a long exposed narrow road through the marshes that make up the Camargue.

Spring is just around the corner in Provence as the vinyards come to life. Photo: James Startt

And because of last year’s race, I already had a sense of where I wanted to be as the race came through. The fact that a local was riding by on one of the region’s horses just as the race came by made my “Camargue” shot even better (see below). That made me happy and I could have pretty much packed it up and left right then and there. But there was still some bike racing to come and so after the pack sped by along the marshes I made my way to the finish.

Startt captured a local horseback rider who was out to view the race. Photo: James Startt

I was only too happy to see Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni cruise to his second stage win of the season on Thursday. It seems he is on a roll. I mean, barely a week after winning a stage in the Saudi Tour, the Arkea-Samsic rider stormed to victory in the opening stage here in Provence. While Bouhanni was one of the heavy pre-race favorites today, he nearly botched his chances for victory, as he was poorly placed in the final kilometer.

The breakaway makes its way past fields and open water at le Tour de la Provence. Photo: James Startt

“I was really far back with 300 meters left and so I just had to go for it,” Bouhanni said afterwards. “But I caught the leaders coming out of the last turn and just kept going.”

For 29-year-old sprint his second victory in less than a month could not come at a better time, as it puts a long dry spell with his previous team—Cofidis—well behind him. And for the moment at least, life is coming up roses with Bouhanni at Arkéa Samsic. He is not the only star on this modest French team, as he is sharing the leadership responsibilities here in Provence with his new Columbian teammate Nairo Quintana.

Bouhanni picked up his second victory of the season. Photo: James Startt

“I am really happy to win here,” Bouhanni said afterwards. “But now we want to try and help Nairo win the overall race.”

Le Tour de la Provence

Stage 1 (Châteaurenard – SAintes-Maries-de-la-Mer)

  1. Nacer Bouhanni, Arkéa Samsic, 3:16:35
  2. Jakub Mareczko, CCC Team
  3. Giacomo Nizzolo, NTT Pro Cycling
  4. Pierre Barbier, Nippo-Delko
  5. Hugo Hofstetter, Isreal Start-Up Nation
  6. Chris Lawless, Team Ineos
  7. Timothy Dupont, Circus-Wanty Gobert
  8. Kasper Asgreen, Deceuninck-Quick-Step
  9. Marc Hirschi, Team Sunweb
  10. Quinn Simmons, Trek-Segafredo