By David Hunter
Marseille > Marseille 171km
Missed me? There is still a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season, and it’s very likely we won’t see a large amount of racing until March or April. Luckily for all concerned, COVID numbers are relatively low in France, which means the European season will properly kick off on Sunday in Marseille.
The organisers have decided to add around 25km to the route, which might not sound a lot, but it does take the race up to 170km. Given that this is the first race of the season, the extra kilometres could well catch some riders a little cold. As usual, Route des Crêtes looms large. Before this point the race is a bit lumpy, but nothing to worry professional cyclists. The climb comes with just over 30km to go, and it normally blows the race apart.
I’m not a cycling historian, but as far as I can see the climb was introduced into the race in 2015, and immediately stopped the race ending in a sprint. Since that point, the climb has featured towards the end of the race every year, apart from 2019. This has resulted in a small group always contesting the win, the placement of the climb is bad news for the fast men. 4.1km at 7.6%, is long, and difficult enough to make a significant selection. Make no mistake, this is the most important point in the race.
After that, the road doesn’t really go down, making it very hard for dropped riders to get back to the front. Eventually, the road does descend before the bunch hit the final climb of the day.
Col de la Gineste isn’t that hard, but it does present a problem for the teams trying to catch those who attacked on the Crêtes. After the crest there is only 10km left in the race, and it’s all downhill, which makes it very hard for the peloton to make the catch.
It’s going to be a sunny day in the south of France, but not very warm. The wind will be relatively strong, around 35km/h, and the direction is good news for the fast men. The final two climbs will both be a headwind. The Crêtes is very exposed for the final 3km, the wind will have a significant impact on the attacks.
The finale of the race will be a battle between teams who want a sprint, and those who do not. The foot of the Route des Crêtes is very challenging, the opening kilometre averages 9.2%. Teams will want to set an infernal pace, in the hope of dropping as many domestqiues as possible. Once that happens the attacks will start and a group will get away from the peloton, even with the headwind.
If you are a team that wants a sprint, it is vital you have riders left to chase once the climb has been completed. This means going at a steady pace and hoping the gap to the front group isn’t too big. One of the problems is the road between the two climbs, it is full of twists and turns and also contains a little bit of climbing. This isn’t ideal for teams wanting to organise a chase.
The other issue is which teams will do the chasing? This race is usually dominated by the big French squads, but the pandemic means that Lotto and UAE are racing, which significantly changes the dynamic of the race. Which teams will make the front split after Route des Crêtes? If you miss the move you have to chase. Looking at the start list it’s hard to imagine UAE, Lotto and AG2R missing out, they have lots of climbing talent. The pressure could well fall on the shoulders of Groupama-FDJ, as they have a couple of fast finishers, but lack a real puncheur to attack on the climb.
Given the headwind for the majority of the final 30km, the group that gets away on the Crêtes needs to be relatively big. This will mean plenty of riders to take turns, but also more teams who don’t want to chase back in the peloton. The success of the move could well hang on the size of the group.
Tim Wellens – he finished 2020 in brilliant form, winning two stages in the Vuelta, and Wellens is a rider who always goes well at the start of the year. Lotto Soudal arrive with a strong team, I expect Wellens to be the out and out team leader. They will try to make the race as hard as possible, setting up a huge attack on the Crêtes. Hopefully Tim reads this preview, he needs to make sure he takes riders with him, not simply ride off into the distance. Lotto will then sit back, and hope that Wellens can grab the win, but they also have John Degenkolb waiting if the move isn’t successful.
UAE – they arrive with three riders who could win this race: Trentin, Gibbons and Riabushenko. The Italian has recently joined the team and will start the race as the team leader. We all know he climbs very well for a fast man, but the Route des Crêtes is right on his limit, although the headwind will help. Gibbons is another new signing, and just like Trentin he climbs well and has a fast sprint. Riabushenko is not as fast as the other two, but he’s certainly not slow. UAE will want a hard race, they need to put the faster men into difficulty, as Trentin is unlikely to beat someone like Coquard in a sprint. However, they won’t want it to be too hard, especially as Trentin might not be able to follow the attack of Wellens. Will they decide to try and control the late attack and set up a small sprint? That would be a risky strategy, but possibly their best option.
AG2R – Calmejane and Gallopin are their two big options. Calmejane is riding his first race for the team, he’ll be very eager to impress, especially as he only got a one-year contract. It’s been a while since Calemjane has looked anything other than average, maybe a change of team will reignite the fire in his belly. Gallopin hasn’t been at the pointy end in races for a while, but he has a lot of class and if he’s enjoyed a good winter, he should be able to provide a sprint option for AG2R. The French team have won two of the last three editions of this race, but they don’t start with one of the big favourites this year.
Jesús Herrada – the medium mountain King. The Spaniard goes well in this race, he’s finished 4th both times he’s taken to the start. As he doesn’t have a big sprint, winning this type of race will always be difficult, but he should make the front split after the climbs and then try to take his chance. If the front group contains fast men, there is a chance it will lack cohesion, allowing a rider like Herrada to attack and take the win.
Odd Christian Eiking – the Norwegian was 2nd here back in 2018, riders always enjoy coming back to a race where they’ve experienced good results. He should start as the Wanty team leader, but they also have Pasqualon if it comes back together for a sprint. Similar to Herrada, his lack of a sprint makes winning this race very hard.
Total Direct Energie – another team with multiple options. The French squad have Boasson Hagen, Latour, Vuillermoz and Turgis as potential winners. Vuillermoz has just made the switch from AG2R, he is very strong in races like this. He’s been unlucky with injuries in the last year or so, but he’s enjoyed a good run of health, and I was surprised that AG2R let him go. He should be their attacking option, with Turgis hoping to survive in the peloton. Turgis won this race in 2019, but it didn’t contain Routes des Crêtes. He sprung a shock by finishing 4th in the Tour of Flanders, a result I didn’t see coming. With multiple options, the team are in a strong position and should make the podium.
FDJ – not as strong as they usually are when racing at home. With many of their big stars currently at altitude, there is a chance for others to shine. Alexys Brunel offers an attacking option, with Jake Stewart hoping for a sprint. In my recent interview with the young Englishman, he told me he usually struggles with distance at the start of the season. I guess he won’t enjoy the extra 25km.
Stefan Bissegger – the young Swiss rider is certainly one who could do well in this type of race. He has a very fast sprint and is one that the others won’t want to take to the line. His fate will be decided by the pace on the big climb, and he does seem to lack teammates of quality.
Since the start list was revealed I had this race done as an easy win for Tim Wellens, but the wind forecast has made me change my mind. The headwind on the climbs means it will be very hard for Wellens to drop all the fast men. I think we’ll see a group of around 10 riders fight for the win, with Matteo Trentin being successful.
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