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Five things to watch at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var

We're keeping our eyes on Tao Geoghegan Hart, Nairo Quintana, and the stunning scenery in France's Var Valley this weekend.

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OK, OK — this weekend’s Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var in southern France isn’t the biggest bike race on the planet. Longtime fans may remember this race from its former name, “Tour du Haut Var,” and from its lineup of past champions, which includes all of the top French guys from the ’90s and 2000s: Thomas Voeckler, Laurent Brochard, Sylvan Chavanel, and of course, Laurent Jalabert.

This year’s Tour du Var carries significantly more star power than it has in recent years past, and we can attribute this to the cancelation of races across Spain and Portugal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While half of the peloton heads to UAE Tour, the other stars will be at Tour du Var among them four grand tour winners: Nairo Quintana, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Geraint Thomas, and Fabio Aru.

The race boasts a challenging route in the Maritime Alps above the French Riviera. It’s early, so riders’ fitness is still coming into form. And it’s February, so the weather can be a factor. Here are a few storylines to follow at this year’s race:

Tao Geoghegan Hart builds for Paris-Nice

Geoghegan-Hart opens his season this weekend. Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images,)

Winning Paris-Nice has been a rite of passage for Team Sky/Ineos’ grand tour greats, and the team has won six of the last nine editions. Brad Wiggins won it in 2012, the same year he won the Tour de France. Richie Porte won it in 2013 and 2015, and then Geraint Thomas won it in 2016. Thomas credits that Paris-Nice victory as the point at which he decided to focus on grand tour racing. Sergio Henao won it in 2018, and then Egan Bernal’s 2019 Paris-Nice, like Wiggins’, was a harbinger for winning the Tour de France.

It makes sense, then, that Ineos Grenadiers would throw its weight behind Tao Geoghegan Hart to win Paris-Nice this year. Yes, Geoghegan Hart won the topsy turvy 2020 Giro d’Italia. Following that up by winning Paris-Nice against a stacked field would give more confidence to team leadership that Geoghegan Hart is the next in line to be a Tour de France leader. In this quest, the Tour du Var is a tasty snack for Geoghegan Hart to bite into before Paris-Nice. And the team has a stacked squad to help him win Tour du Var, with Geraint Thomas, Rohan Dennis, and Pavel Sivakov on the squad, alongside WorldTour debutante Tom Pidcock.

Early season Nairo Quintana

Nairo Quintana set a new best time on the Mont Ventoux ascent, at the 2020 Tour de la Provence. Photo: James Startt

Last year, Nairo Quintana was the fastest rider on the planet … in February. Quintana burst from the gate with his new French team, Arkéa-Samsic, and absolutely decimated the peloton at the Tour de la Provence and Tour du Var before winning the final stage at Paris-Nice. All of that early-season fitness went to nothing, of course, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered racing after Paris-Nice, and Quintana and his impeccable form went into hibernation. Still, those early season wins showed that Quintana was committed to his French team. For 2021, Quintana is making his debut at Tour du Var, and he could be taking a more mellow approach to the early season following double knee surgery in the off-season. He’s not racing the Giro, which means he has more runway to build up to the Tour de France. There’s a chance that Quintana could be a few speeds slower at this year’s race.

Triple Col de Gourdon on stage 1

Stage 1 Image: Tour du Var

This little race packs a punch, especially for it being so early in the season. The opening stage includes three consecutive ascents of the Col de Gourdon, with the stage finishing atop the climb. The ascent is shallow, at 4 percent. But it’s 14km long, meaning the group faces 42km of climbing inside the final half of the stage. And stage 3 has three Cat 1 ascents, including the Madone — OK, the Col de la Madone de Gorbio — which will provide a final fitness test before the descent into Blausasc. This race is a real early-season test for the climbers.

Stage 3. Image: Tour du Var

Kevin Vermaerke’s debut

American Kevin Vermaerke won’t win Tour du Var. But hey, we’re Americans here at VeloNews, and thus we always have our eyes on the new crop of U.S. greats. Vermaerke is making his debut with WorldTour squad Team DSM (formerly Sunweb) at Tour du Var. He’s a graduate of Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon team and a strong all-rounder.

Sights of the Maritime Alps and Var Valley

Last year’s Tour de France stage 2 took riders into a region just north of the Var valley.  Photo: James Startt

Our roving photojournalist James Startt will be at the race, so keep your eyes on for photo galleries of the riders and racing bikes, and of the stunning scenery in the Maritime Alps and Var Valley outside of Nice. One of the best things about following bike races is checking out the photography from the racing region, and let me tell you that the Tour du Var’s landscape is absolutely stunning. We’ll have the photos, race reports, and analysis from the race on the site, so stay tuned.