Etoile de Bessèges 2021 – Stage 1 Preview

By David Hunter

Bellegarde > Bellegarde 143.5km

The opening stage of the race is the same as last year. Back then the wind blew, and the peloton was smashed to pieces, before Alexys Brunel escaped from the small front group to take a surprise win. Will we see something similar this year?

Weather

No, the wind just isn’t strong enough. The lap circuit the riders finish on is very exposed, but we’re only talking about a wind of 9km/h, this isn’t enough to cause splits. We’re also going to get a sunny day and with temperatures expected to hit 17 degrees, it’s like a Scottish summer!

Finale

The final 800m averages 5.6%, but that doesn’t really tell the full story. There is a 300m section that averages 11%, and it tops out with just 200m left. This is a horrible little finish; you’re talking about 90 seconds of pain. It’s a finish that will interest the puncheurs, but also the sprinters. Most sprinters will look forward to the challenge, but there is no guarantee they walk away with the win.

Tactics

With the weather looking good, I don’t see any surprises in the opening stage. Yes, the bunch do have to take on the climb for the first time with 40km to go, but I don’t see a long-range attack sticking. This should be a controlled stage, setting up a grandstand finish.

DS Cycling Mole

Time to get technical, got to help out the pros that read my previews.

The first important point comes with under 2.5km to go. As you can see, the riders come off the main road and onto a narrow approach road. It goes without saying that you need a good position at this point. There is a roundabout soon after, so good position at this point ensures you are still on the front for the roundabout.

The next important turn comes with 800m to go and basically marks the beginning of the climb.

This is where the fun begins. With 600m left, the riders head up that tiny little road and it starts to get very steep.

To win this stage you need a strong team who can help to place you near the front of the race with 3km to go. We’re talking about a full on lead out to ensure good position for the first narrow road, but you still need men to keep the pace high until the flamme rouge. If you are still in a good position at this point, you’ll have a chance to win. A poor position in this stage doesn’t just mean you won’t win; you could also see some time gaps at the finish. That means GC teams getting in the mix with the sprint trains, which isn’t great news considering the width of the roads.

Contenders

Giacomo Nizzolo – given his love of an uphill sprint, the Italian would normally start this stage as the favourite, but there are some injury doubts. He started his recent team camp with a knee injury, which meant he couldn’t do all the planned rides. By the end of the camp he was better, but that doesn’t sound like a rider who’s going to win the opening stage.

Pascal Ackermann – the German was a late addition to the Bora team for this race. 2020 was a bit mixed for him, some good results, but also quite a few disappointing efforts. I found this rather strange as Ackermann’s consistency had always impressed me. He starts this race without his usual sprint train, I can’t remember the last time he lined up without Schwarzmann and Selig, but he does have new signing Jordi Meeus to help. The finish isn’t too bad for Ackermann, he strikes me as a rider with a lot of grunt.

Bryan Coquard – I was so impressed by the way he was climbing in Marseille. We’re not talking about him simply following wheels, Coquard was on the front of the peloton in the final kilometre of the Crêtes, closing a 15 second gap to Tim Wellens. Okay, he made a mess of the sprint, but I was still left a little in awe of the Frenchman. This finish is brilliant for him, as he has the power and weighs significantly less compared to most of his rivals. One issue could be positioning in the closing kilometres, but I would expect B&B to have done their homework as this is a race they do every year.

Ethan Hayter – the young Englishman gives Ineos a real option in this stage. He took his first pro win back in 2020, the first of many. Not only does he sprint well, but he can climb much better than most fast men. Also in his favour is the ability of Ineos to dominate the closing stages of sprint stages, they have lots of horsepower available to put Hayter into a good position, they rest will be up to his legs.

Mads Pedersen – time for a history lesson. Back in 2017, a certain Mads Pedersen absolutely smashed up the little wall at the end of the Vejle stage in the Tour of Denmark, on his way to the stage win and GC title. Fast forward to now and we have a rider hungry to start the season well. He’s one that normally needs a few races in the legs before he starts to challenge, but he’s spoken about treating every race like his last due to the uncertainly surrounding the upcoming races. Trek-Segafredo have a brilliant sprint train at their disposal, Mullen, Kirsch and Theuns are awesome at what they do. It’s hard to imagine Pedersen not starting the final climb at the front of the bunch, these boys always deliver. He has the speed to win bunch sprints, he has the power to smash up little hills, this is a great finish for him.

Tim Wellens – the best of the puncheurs, but it’s going to be very hard to beat the sprinters. The problem is that the really difficult part of the climb only lasts for 300m, that makes it tough to shake off the fast men, especially as we have a flat finish.

Felix Großschartner – another one who would prefer a slightly longer effort. The Austrian is fast, but winning will be tough.

Tim Merlier – unlike most of the bunch he arrives with racing in his legs, thanks to the CX season. I’m not too sure this finish is ideal for him, especially as his team will find it difficult to find a good position.

John Degenkolb – can big John roll back the years? I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers him smashing up the Hatta Dam, but was it really 6 years okay? We’re getting old! Lotto are good enough to get position in the closing kilometres, we’ll then see if Degenkolb can remind these youngsters how to do it. If not him, Lotto have another option in Gerben Thijssen, a young sprinter who shouldn’t be underestimated.

Marc Sarreau – the Frenchman has a wonderful record in home races. This will be his first race for AG2R, and he’ll have the honour of being led out by Oli Naesen and GVA! The problem could be sticking to the wheels of these guys, but if he gets a good position he could surprise the big names.

Prediction Time

I think a sprinter will win, not a puncheur. In my head this is a fight between Coquard and Pedersen, both have what it takes to cope well with the steepest section of the climb. Coquard has the form, but I do have a little worry about his team being able to position him well enough, but I’ll throw that to the side and go for Bryan Coquard to take the day.

David Hunter

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