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Superstar field puts Bessèges back in spotlight for Europe’s first stage race of 2021

Former Tour de France winners Vincenzo Nibali, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal are among marquee starters for the French race.

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With nowhere else left to race, the peloton’s superstars are piling into southern France for this week’s five-stage Etoile de Bessèges.

Marquee names that typically would only converge at the Tour de France are creating a superstar start-list for the 2.1-rated race in France’s Gard region starting Wednesday and running through Sunday.

Three of the peloton’s five active Tour winners — Vincenzo Nibali, Geraint Thomas, and Egan Bernal — will be lining up. Classics stars Philippe Gilbert, John Degenkolb, Niki Terpstra, Alberto Bettiol, Mads Pedersen, and Greg Van Avermaet are stretching their legs as well.

Add former road world champions, Michal Kwiatkowski and Pedersen, and the current time trial world champion, Filippo Ganna, and the Bessèges is seeing a super-sized peloton for Europe’s first stage race of 2021.

“Every race could be the last one,” said Trek-Segafredo’s Pedersen. “Now, going into all races, I’m motivated 100 percent to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s Flanders or whatever it is, I’m here to win.”

Once a staple of the early season racing calendar, the five-stage Bessèges is seeing a resurgence in 2021 thanks in large part to the raging coronavirus pandemic. Races around the globe that would typically draw the peloton’s top stars are shuttered or postponed.

Events in South America, Australia, and the Middle East that fill out January and February are not happening as COVID-19 reaches into 2021. Even races in Portugal and Spain scheduled for February were taken out at the knees.

With nowhere else left to go, the peloton is putting France back at the center of elite men’s road racing.

Citing rules that allow professional sports to continue, French racing rolls on, and the peloton is showing up in droves. Ten WorldTour teams that are part of the 22-squad field are settled into Nîmes as a base for five days of racing.

Things kicked off in France on Sunday with the GP La Marseillaise. Following the 51st edition of Bessèges, a full French calendar follows, with the Tour de la Provence (February 11-14), Tour des Alpes Maritimes et Hart Var (February 19-21), a pair of one-day races in the Ardèche (February 27 and 28), all leading up to Paris-Nice (March 7-14).

Seeing the French races remaining on the calendar — at least right now — is a boon for the pandemic-weary peloton.

“Apart from the United Arab Emirates for the UAE Tour, travel outside of Europe will be limited. We will have most of the events in Europe,” UCI president David Lappartient told DirectVelo. “For the moment, things are fine at the [WorldTour] level. Only the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race have not taken place, and they will not be rescheduled.”

Along with La Marseillaise, the Bessèges race — contested among the hills of France’s Gard region — has long been the traditional French calendar opener. Now in its 51st edition, the race was started in 1974. Sprinters and stage-hunters typically win the race, with France’s Benoît Cosnefroy (not racing due to injury) as defending champion.

There are no major climbs in the mix of stages in the hill country on the western side of the Rhone Valley, so don’t expect the likes of Bernal or Nibali to light things up. The opening stage features a sharp uphill sprint, with stage 2 and 3 covering rolling terrain before likely bunch sprint finales. Stage 4 finishes on a circuit course, ending with a steep 1km climb at 5.5 percent to the line. Sunday’s final stage will see the first European individual time trial of 2021.

Stages of the 51st Etoile de Bessèges

Stage 1, Wednesday: Bellegarde—Bellegarde (143.5km)

Stage 2, Thursday: Saint-Geniès-de-Malgoirès to La Calmette (154km)

Stage 3, Friday: Bessèges—Bessèges (155km)

Stage 4, Saturday: Rousson to Saint-Siffret (151.6km)

Stage 5, Sunday: Alès—Alès (ITT, 10.7km)