Heavyweight sprinters and spindly climbers are set to converge at the Tour de la Provence this week.
The four-stage race, starting Thursday, welcomes a star cast of riders with either classics ambitions in the near-view or grand tour targets further out of on the horizon. Egan Bernal, Aleksandr Vlasov, John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Arnaud Démare and world champion Julian Alaphilippe are all set to line up for a race dominated by tough classics-style stages and an early-season showdown on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux.
If Étoile de Bessèges last week can be taken as a template, this week’s race in Provence won’t be treated as an early season social as riders look for every opportunity afforded to them in a season again overshadowed by COVID.
Here are three threads to follow as the peloton’s top stars return to racing:
Tour de France preview on the ‘Geant of Provence’
The GC battle will be decided on the fearsome slopes of the Ventoux on stage 3 Saturday. The ascent will be cut short at the midway point of Chalet Reynard, but the 14.6km, 7.6 percent haul on the notoriously tough climb from Bédouin will show who’s been training over winter and who enjoyed the off-season a little too much.
Last year, Nairo Quintana crushed the stage and conquered the GC on the climb. Though the Colombian star is sitting out this week’s race, grand tour hitters Bernal, Vlasov, Bauke Mollema and Enric Mas will be checking the climbing legs are still in shape in what makes for a tough test so early in the year.
For those heading to the Tour de France this summer, the stage also makes for an early preview of what’s to come early July when the peloton will face not one, but two ascents of the Ventoux, first from Sault, then from Bédouin.
A pre-classics clash ahead of the opening weekend
With the curtain-raising classics weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne just over two weeks away, the rolling hills and fast-finishes of Provence give burly sprinters such as Démare, Degenkolb, Kristoff, and Matteo Trentin the perfect playground to rev the engines.
Both stages 1 and 2 are littered with short punchy ascents that have kept pure sprinters such as Caleb Ewan and Pascal Ackermann on the bench and will leave the hardy sprinters and classics puncheurs room to move ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 27.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step has slammed its team with talent, with Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Štybar, Yves Lampaert and Rémi Cavagna all on the start sheet.
After the shutdown of races in the Southern Hemisphere due to COVID complications and next week’s Tour de Haut Var the only remaining pre-classics race on the calendar, Deceuninck-Quick-Step has brought out the big guns in their debut showing of the season.
The team last year missed out on monument victory and saw Alaphilippe regularly outfoxed by Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. The Belgian brawlers will be looking to bounce back in 2021 and prove the classics are no longer a two-man show, and Provence marks the first step in that journey.
“With so many races canceled or postponed, we had to make some changes in our line-up, that’s why we have a classics-orientated team for next week,” said sports director Geert Van Bondt. “The guys are feeling good, they are all motivated, and we are confident that this solid squad is capable of fighting for some nice results.”
Riders to watch:
- Aleksandr Vlasov, Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech)
- Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Štybar, Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
- Arnaud Démare (Groupama FDJ)
- Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa Samsic)
- Egan Bernal, Ivan Sosa (Ineos Grenadiers)
- John Degenkolb, Philippe Gilbert, Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal)
- Enric Mas (Movistar)
- Fabio Aru (Qhubeka Assos)
- Bauke Mollema, Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo)
- Alexander Kristoff, Matteo Trentin (UAE-Team Emirates)
If you’re looking for the likes of Primož Roglic, Tadej Pogačar and Chris Froome, they’re playing it patiently and making their season debuts at the UAE Tour, starting on February 21.
How to watch:
Viewers in the USA can tune in on the GCN Race Pass, while Flo Bikes will be carrying the race in Canada. European viewers can tune in via Eurosport, GCN Race Pass or L’Equipe.