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Analysis: Five things we learned from the Étoile de Bessèges

Is Filippo Ganna the future for Ineos Grenadiers? Who's in form ahead of the classics? And who the heck is Jake Stewart?

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The European season started at top tempo at the Étoile de Bessèges last week.

Bessèges welcomed an elite field blowing off the winter cobwebs through a breathless five days that saw “top Ganna” steal the show, and monument contenders cranking into gear.

So with the “opening weekend” of the classics on the horizon and a host of grand tour greats in the field, what did we learn from the Étoile de Bessèges?

Filippo Ganna could be the future for Ineos Grenadiers

Ganna’s got time trials and stage wins under his belt – could classics and one-week races be next? Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Italian world time trial champ Filippo Ganna has got big watts and even bigger potential. With two stage wins in the bag at Bessegès, Ganna reconfirmed himself not only as the best time trialist in the peloton, but potentially also as the future for Ineos Grenadiers.

“Top Ganna” put in a blistering attack to score victory Saturday, repeating the race-craft he proved with a gritty breakaway stage win in the mountains of the Giro d’Italia last fall. The 24-year-old is targeting Paris-Roubaix this April and has his eye on racing for GC in flatter stage races in the very near future.

Ganna’s got the motor, he’s got the mentality, and he’s got time on his side with a contract through 2023. Dave Brailsford didn’t need to sign Wout van Aert – he’s got his own all-terrain, all-action young prodigy in his roster already. And he wears a rainbow jersey.

Jake Stewart emerges as new star in British Gen-Z bunch

Stewart (right) won the youth classification. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Forget Tom Pidcock and James Knox. Jake Stewart could be the next big thing in British cycling.

Riding in his first full WorldTour season with Groupama-FDJ having stepped up from the French outfit’s development squad last fall, Stewart wasted no time in showing his seniors that experience isn’t everything. The classics and sprint-focused 21-year-old stepped up in style to score four top-1o stage finishes, and dive-bomb into GC with fourth overall.

“I’m still discovering myself as a rider, and maybe I’m not limited to the sprint,” Stewart said Sunday. “It’s a great result, especially so early in the season, and it’s certainly not something I expected for this first year in the WorldTour.”

If Stewart’s top score wasn’t enough to give fans across the British Channel something to cheer about, 25-year-old Connor Swift (Arkéa-Samsic), 27-year-old Owain Doull, and 22-year-old Ethan Hayter (both Ineos Grenadiers) joined Stewart in the top-15 positions of Sunday’s time trial.

Ineos Grenadiers isn’t backing away from its bold new strategy

Ineos Grenadiers embraced its new offensive strategy. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Ineos Grenadiers may have taken team stalwart Geraint Thomas to France last week, but it wasn’t also reverting to the 2012 Team Sky days of strangling tempos and conservative racecraft. The British powerhouse twice put marquee riders into the breakaways of Bessegès, first with Egan Bernal and Michal Kwiatkowski, next with Filippo Ganna.

Dave Brailsford spoke of embracing a bold new offensive strategy through 2021, and he got the ball rolling from the team’s very first race of the year.

There was no massing in the peloton around future Tour leader Thomas and strangling escapes like years past. Instead, the team puts its energies into racing from the front. Old-style Ineos could have won the race with any of Thomas, Ganna, or Kwiatkowski if it had wanted to. But that would have been boring.

WorldTour teams are committed to racing as hard as they can, when they can

Ag2r-Citroën, Lotto-Soudal, EF-Nippo and Bora Hansgrohe went all-out at Bessegès. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Celebrating its 50th year, the so-called “Star of Bessèges” shined bright in 2021. Welcoming 11 WorldTour teams, the most in its long history, Étoile de Bessèges became the most important race you never heard of. With early season races through the southern hemisphere shuttered and creeping uncertainty over the schedule to come, WorldTour teams weren’t just there to please the sponsors.

“Getting some intensity is important for me,” said Ag2r-Citroën cobble-basher Oliver Naesen before the race. “There’s always the chance of echelons and there is always an uphill finish – there is something for everyone.”

With the non-European schedule shut down and last week’s Valenciana tour also on pause, sprinters and classics riders had to make the most of their opportunity to race and the likes of Naesen, Greg Van Avermaet, and Philippe Gilbert were all on the march throughout as the “opening weekend” looms on the horizon.

“I wanted to be competitive from the start of the season,” Van Avermaet said.”I hope that I will be able to benefit a little from the work done here in the next races.”

This was no anonymous five days in France for last week’s WorldTour contingent. For all but the grand tour top dogs, Bessegès became a “make hay while the sun shines” brawl for form.

Geraint Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uràn play cards close to their chest

Urán and Nibali both had respectable time trials but otherwise kept their heads down. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

If you want to start placing bets on grand tour contenders in 2021, you won’t get any clues from this past week in France.

Geraint Thomas, Vincenzo Nibali, and Rigoberto Urán all kept their powder very dry in their season debuts as they look to reverse their disappointing 2020 seasons. There were no GC challenges and early-season swagger for the three veterans in Bessèges, who instead lapped up some early-season mileage and put their minds toward their Giro d’Italia and Tour de France ambitions. Even the final stage TT failed to show many hints at form – though time trial ace Thomas did admit to blowing up early in his ride to a sub-par 23rd place.

With over a decade in the WorldTour in their legs, each of the three 30-somethings is gently easing onto the accelerator as they tread the long road toward summer.

“I got confirmation that the winter approach to the season was correct,” Nibali said. “We are going in the right direction, the one I was looking for in the first part of the season.”