Road

Small French races big winners in new racing calendar

The Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and the Tour de l’Ain provide the perfect preparation for riders gearing up for the Tour de France.

While questions continue to swirl around the new UCI calendar that is scheduled to begin again on August 1, a series of small French races could well prove to be the big winners, as events like the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and the Tour de l’Ain provide the perfect preparation for riders gearing up for the Tour de France.

The Ligue Nationale du Cyclisme announced a revised French calendar for the end of the season on Tuesday, and it provides abundant opportunity for riders in search of race miles, without a lot of transfer miles. La Route Occitanie, which is held in the south of France is scheduled from August 1st to 4th. The Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge is then just two days later, followed by the Tour de l’Ain on August 7th to 9th. And just three days later, the Critérium du Dauphiné — always a key warm-up to the Tour — kicks off in the same region.

The Tour de l’Ain will be a good test before the start of the Tour de France.  Photo: James Startt

“We’ve been working to find a new date for the Mont Ventoux Denivele Challenge. The only condition for us was that it came before the Tour de France and could be used as preparation,” said Nicolas Garcera, director of the Ventoux race. “That was important for us when it came to convincing the elected officials in the area.”

The Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge — the first single-day race to finish on the Ventoux — got high marks for its debut edition last year. After all what is not to like about a race in French Provence that finishes on such a mythic climb. But held on the Monday after the Critérium du Dauphiné it only attracted a sprinkling of World Tour teams, and EF Pro Cycling was the only major international team present.

But this year could well be different, and while these races are part of the UCI EuropeTour and can have no more than 50 percent WorldTour teams, Garcera admits that he has already been contacted by a lot of WorldTour teams.

Joe Dombrowski of EF Pro Cycling at the top of Mount Ventoux

Joe Dombrowski of EF Pro Cycling at the top of Mount Ventoux. Photo: James Startt

“You know it is only about a three-hour drive on the autoroute from the finish here to the start of the Tour de l’Ain. That’s not much different than certain Tour de France stages,” Garcera adds. “And the first stage of the Tour de l’Ain is flat. In principle the races are really placed well together and I think we can expect to have a good line-up.”

Philippe Colliou, director of the Tour de l’Ain agrees. “The races run really well together and the Tour de l’Ain finishes just two days before the Critérium du Dauphiné. For the teams, I think that is almost perfect, and a lot of teams are definitely interested.”

The Tour de l’Ain, although held in May for the past two years, was planning to return to its traditional August dates. But with the new calendar they still made major changes.

“We completely re-did our race route,” Colliou says. “We are right before the Tour de France. We are only three days instead of four, but we are right before the Tour de France, and stage three which finishes on le Grand Colombier, is virtually the same as that of stage 15 of the Tour. It is pretty much a cut and paste of the last 100 kilometers of that stage.”

Bardet and Herrada

The race director is insistent that the Tour de l’Ain appears before the Tour de France on the 2020 calendar. Photo: James Startt

On that day the riders will actually climb the Grand Colombier twice, with the first ascension using an often-overlooked road on the west side that is rarely used in races.

“We haven’t climbed it since the Tour de l’Avenir in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And riders had to walk up it. That’s how steep it is!” says Colliou.

Certainly the Tour de l’Ain will conflict with one of cycling’s monuments as Milano-Sanremo is currently scheduled on August 8th. But certain riders may well prefer the continuous races days offered in France, not to mention the chance to recon a Tour de France stage.

Certainly the race organizers understand that all race dates still depend on the evolution of the coronavirus crisis, and they could easily be canceled if there is a second or third wave later this summer in Europe.

Bardet and Herrada ascend Ventoux

The Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge — the first single-day race to finish on the Ventoux — got high marks for its debut edition last year. Photo: James Startt

But Colliou is already working on the health and sanitary issues that promise to be at the forefront if racing does return. “We are studying the sanitary questions. And there will be a big structure in place that must be approved by the Préfet of Departement du L’Ain. We are planning to have the team area completely closed off only to teams and staff before the start, and there won’t be a big podium presentation.” Colliou also adds that the race will have the same restrictions as the Critérium du Dauphiné, which is organized by the Tour de France.