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Étoile de Bessèges: A new star rises in Tobias Johannessen

Already third in two stages this week, Uno-X’s Tobias Johannessen’s 'queen' stage win gives him a final shot at Bessèges GC.

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MONT BOUQUET, France (VN) – The home fans at the Étoile de Bessèges were dreaming of a Thibaut Pinot victory in the race’s “queen” stage, but the three-time Tour de France mountain-stage winner was spot on when he predicted at the start in Saint-Hilaire-de-Brethmas that his form probably wasn’t good enough to win and the man to watch was Uno-X’s Tobias Johannessen.

Also read: Étoile de Bessèges stage 4 – Norwegian sensation Tobias Johannessen storms summit sprint

Third in the power sprint on the hill above Rousson on stage two behind Bryan Coquard and Mads Pedersen, and third again on stage three behind GC contenders Benjamin Thomas and Alberto Bettiol, the 22-year-old Norwegian proved Pinot right when he judged his effort perfectly at the summit of Mont Bouquet, outsprinting Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix), Antonio Tiberi (Trek-Segafredo) and Clément Champoussin (Ag2r-Citroën).

Victory in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir coupled with second place in the “Baby Giro” marked Johannessen out as a huge talent, although he admits that he’s still trying to work out what kind of racer he is. He’s a climber clearly, punchy too, and he can sprint. Can he time trial? He’s not sure.

In the wake of his victory that moved him into third place on GC, eight seconds behind Thomas and just one behind Bettiol, he admitted he had no idea of his chances in Sunday’s closing 10.6km time trial in Alès, which concludes with a steady ascent up to the hermitage above the southern town. Can you win, he was asked?

“I think like every day I will go full gas and we’ll see in the end. I haven’t done any time trials. In fact, I’ve only done two TTs in my whole life, so it’s gonna be a new experience,” he confessed, adding: “The last two I finished in the middle of the pack, so I need to find some good legs tomorrow.”

What is very clear is that Johannessen is a very talented racer. When the Australian Vine attacked from the lead group with 3km remaining to the summit on Mont Bouquet, the Norwegian went with him, but initially, he just tracked the Alpecin rider. Having watched a replay of the 2020 Bessèges stage on the same climb and driven up it with his Uno-X team director first thing on Saturday morning, he knew that the wind would be a big factor, especially higher up when the mountain becomes exposed to the blast of the Mistral that barrels down the Rhône valley and had every flag standing to attention as the race approached it.

“It was easy to go too early today because of the wind, so I was trying to stay calm and just follow the wheels,” he said. “I know that my sprint is quite good so I was just waiting for the final bit of the climb and hoping that I could rely on it to win. In the end, it worked out.”

The time trial sets up what now appears to be a three-way battle between Thomas, Bettiol, and Johannessen. Cofidis’s Thomas has a narrow lead and a strong time trial history on his side. A close second last year to world TT champion Filippo Ganna on a very similar Alès course up to the same finish, a four-time world track gold medalist and the current French TT champion, Thomas should breeze it. However, he admitted in his post-stage interview on Mont Bouquet that he’s not ridden his TT bike in a while because he’s changed his training focus much more towards climbing, a strategy that served him well as he defended his overall lead.

Then there’s Bettiol, who finished 25 seconds behind Thomas in the 2021 Alès TT and couldn’t shake the Frenchman on Mont Bouquet. He’s also seven seconds behind the Cofidis man on GC. But the 2019 Tour of Flanders can’t be discounted after four top 10 finishes on the first four stages in Bessèges.

Then there’s Johannessen. Relatively unknown at the start of this week, but undoubtedly Bessèges’s break-out rider. Will we find out that he can time trial when he needs to as well?