The cluster of early season French races takes us to the south of the country with the three-day Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var taking place between February 19-21, following Étoile de Bessèges and the Tour de la Provence, and the event delivers another start list stacked with Grand Tour contenders vying for success.
The 2020 Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart leads a stellar line-up from Ineos Grenadiers, with the British team also including former Tour winner Geraint Thomas and Rohan Dennis, while there are strong contingents from Groupama FDJ, Team Arkea Samsic, Trek Segafredo and Astana-Premier Tech, with a grand total of 11 WorldTour teams set to take part.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting race cancellations might be the main reason for the depth within the field this year but the list of past winners includes some of the greatest names from the past few decades with Bernard Thevenet, Joop Zoetemelk, Sean Kelly, Luc Leblanc and Thibaut Pinot all standing on the top step since the race began in the mid-70s.
Last year’s winner Nairo Quintana returns once more and there is no shortage of Grand Tour caliber riders on the start list, with a number of three-week contenders aiming to tally up their spring miles in between altitude camps and their next racing forays.
Ahead of them, and the rest of the peloton, lay three extremely demanding days of racing with barely a metre of flat roads between the stage 1 start in Biot and the final of stage 3 in Blausasc. The opening day of racing between Biot and Gourdon will be selective, with three repeating climbs over the final ascent coming inside the final 50 kilometres of the 188-kilometre stage.
The popular finish at Mont Faron may be missing from this year’s race but the second category ascent to Gourdon will no doubt cause significant problems for the main field. Although the average gradient is only a shade above 4 per cent, the 7.8 kilometre climb provides the longest uphill finish in this year’s event.
Stage 2 starts and finishes in Fayence, where Luis Leon Sanchez famously beat a hunger-knocked Alberto Contador to win the 2009 edition of Paris-Nice, and where Tour de France director Christophe Prudhomme praised climbers at the time who were willing to gamble for overall glory.
While the opening stage 1 will have set the pattern for the overall standings, the next day provides the sprinters and the opportunists with their best possible chance with the third category GPM Majoris, and the second category Col de Mons coming inside the first half of the stage. The finish is still uphill but will require different skillsets to the ones that decided the first stage.
The third and final day will see the peloton tackle three first category ascents over the relatively short 127 kilometre stage. The first climb of the Col Saint Roche comes after 42km of racing, while the Col de Braus comes shortly after the first ascent. There’s rarely a metre of flat roads before the race hits the legendary Col de la Madone de Gorbio and its 11km ascent. Once synonymous with Lance Armstrong and Dr Michele Ferrari and their pharmaceutical-fuelled relationship, Chris Froome one wrote that the climb “is a fallen woman. Her name is tainted by the sins of a former lover…The Col de la Madone had poor luck. That’s the only way you can explain it when a mountain falls in with a bad crowd.”
There will be no time for the riders to ponder either the climb’s associated history or those words from the former Tour winner as they hurtle towards the finish. However, with the climb peaking out 24 kilometres from the line it will be difficult for a rider or a small group to stay away from a well-marshalled peloton before the finish in Blausasc but a final unclassified ascent during the long descent could provide a launch pad for one final roll of the dice.
Grand Tour contenders on show
There is no denying that this is one of the most star-studded line ups the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var has enjoyed in recent years, with a glut of Grand Tour leaders heading to the start line.
Nairo Quintana leads a handy looking Arkea-Samsic team as he looks to defend his 2020 title, while there is a strong homegrown presence with David Gaudu and Thibaut Pinot leading the line for Groupama-FDJ. Pinot has not raced since last year’s Vuelta a España, where he didn’t make it beyond the first few days, while Gaudu will be looking to assert himself as he builds towards a GC leadership role at the Tour de France. Cofidis bring the always aggressive Jesus Herrada, who was ninth overall in Provence, but Cedric Vasseur’s team might find more success with Christophe Laporte on stage 2.
Ineos Grenadiers arguably send the strongest overall team with Tao Geoghegan Hart making his season debut as part of a team that includes Thomas, Rohan Dennis and new arrival Tom Pidcock. The British team have already won four times this year and will look to continue that run of form.
The Israel Start-Up Nation squad arrive with a flurry of new signings, including Michael Woods, Daryl Impey, Patrick Bevin, and Sep Vanmarcke, who won a stage here two years ago. They also line up with Dan Martin, who will no doubt relish the chance to attack on such accommodating terrain and close to where he raced as an amateur.
Pierre Latour (Direct Energie), Bauke Mollema (Trek Segafredo), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana Premier Tech) also feature among the possible GC contenders, while the likes of Simon Carr (EF Education Nippo), and Fabio Aru (Team Qhubeka Assos) could all play a part in the outcome of the race.
Greg Van Avermaet leads AG2R Citroen and is likely to target stage 2 before he switches his complete focus on the Opening Weekend, which is just over a week away. The Belgian lines up alongside the highly rated Clement Champoussin, and with Ben O’Connor aiming at either GC result or stages, the team has plenty of options.
UAE Team Emirates have most of their big hitters, including Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar, competing in the team’s home race, the UAE Tour, but Rui Costa and David de la Cruz have the quality to be effective on every single stage.
Kevin Vermaerke makes his debut in the pro ranks and forms part of an underrated but talented DSM. The German-registered team rank as the youngest in the race, even behind the Swiss Racing Academy, but there is Grand Tour experience within their ranks with Martijn Tusveld, Michael Storer and Martin Salmon part of the team.