French racing offers alternative to Belgian semi-classics

The Faun Ardèche Classic and the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic offer muscular terrain that suits puncheurs and climbers alike.

While much of the professional peloton makes their pilgrimage to Belgium this weekend for the first of the great cobbled classics, another bunch of elite riders will take refuge in southern France, for the Boucles Drôme-Ardèche. Situated in the heart of the Rhone River Valley, Les Boucles represents another chapter of a new generation of French races that are quickly taking hold in the early season. Only two weeks after the Tour de la Provence, another young race, Drôme and Ardèche have become the final warm-up race to the historic Paris-Nice, which starts on March 8, 2020.

Romain Bardet takes the win at the Ardèche Classic in 2018. Photo: James Startt

The Faun Ardèche Classic and the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic are situated on two opposing sides of the Rhône River, outside of Valence. Both regions offer muscular terrain that suits puncheurs and climbers alike, and each year these races attract more and more top-tier riders. This year is no different, as Vincenzo Nibali, Julian Alaphilippe, and Romain Bardet are just a few of the big names on hand.

The Drome Classic. Photo: James Startt

Bardet, of course, is a veteran of Les Boucles as he won the 2014 Drôme Classic, and the 2018 race in Ardèche. He will again be on hand for the Drôme Classic, only days after becoming a father for the first time earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Alaphilippe will return to French soil after starting the season in South America. Although Nibali is making his debut at these races, it is hard to imagine the wily Italian simply sitting in for two days.

The Ardèche Classic offers an alternative to the Belgian early-season races. Photo: James Startt

While the racing is always aggressive, and the landscape is memorable, the two events wind their way through picturesque villages in southern France as they make their way up and around the Rhône River. “The Ardèche Classic began in 2001, and it was met with a good response. While the teams liked it, they often asked if we could create a second race so that they didn’t have to travel here just for one day. And so, the Drôme was created in 2014,” said Guillaume Delpech, the founder of the two races. “We wanted to create races that inspire active racing, and I think that is one of the reasons for their success.”

Riders pass rows of fruitless vines, early in the season. Photo: James Startt

“It’s an important weekend. It’s the last test before Paris-Nice,” says French national champion Warren Barguil, who will also be on hand this weekend. “Last year I finished third in the Drôme Classic and hope to have a good weekend in both races this year.”

The scenery at the Faun Ardèche Classic is quite memorable. Photo: James Startt

“We are going into the weekend with a good team that will give us several options to be in the mix for a nice result,” said Deceuninck–Quickstep sports director Davide Bramati. “Of course, Julian [Alaphilippe] is our leader, as the parcours suits him perfectly, but we can also count on other guys who have enjoyed a strong start to the season and can be up there. The two races aren’t easy, and hardly give you a moment of respite, but we’ve had some good results here in the past, and are motivated to try to repeat them.”