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The first European stage race is usually a sprint festival but the GC will come down to a battle between the time triallists

Photo: Sirotti


03.02.2015 @ 12:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

While many riders prefer to head to the Middle East to do their early racing kilometres, some riders still prefer the traditional way of preparing for the new season. For almost 50 years, the Etoile de Besseges has offered riders a chance to do a very early stage race on European soil and even though the race has often been hampered weather conditions, it remains the preferred early testing ground for a group of tough riders that will prepare themselves for further objectives in a race that has traditionally been dominated by sprinters.


Before events started to pop up in warmer areas, the place to start racing was Southern Europe. Hence, it is no surprise that the traditional opener of the European season has been the combination of the one-day race GP La Marseillaise and the Etoile de Besseges in Southern France. This year racing kicked off unusually early as the Challenge Mallorca had an earlier schedule but for many riders, the two French events are still the best place to start the season.


While the GP La Marseillaise has lost its position as the first European one-day race, Etoile de Besseges remains the first stage race in cycling’s traditional heartland. Even though it is held in Southern France, it has often been plagued by very bad weather, with stages having had to be cancelled or shortened in past editions. However, the terrain is perfect for an early-season race as it is not too hard. The organizers usually design pretty short stages that are usually dominated by the sprinters who have plenty of opportunities to shine. A couple of hilly stages have made it possible to make some kind of selection and strong escapees have managed to win the race in past editions, mainly if the weather has been bad. In recent years, however, the organizers have introduced a time trial which has tipped the balance to a new kind of riders.


The course

The race has had a time trial since 2012 when Jerome Coppel used a splendid performance in the race against the clock to win the race overall and since then, the race has had a pretty similar format, with many stages being used unchanged from year to year. This year the organizers have again decided to use their trusted formula and the race is very similar to last year’s event that was won by Tobias Ludvigsson.


As said, the terrain in this part of France is not very tough and the organizers wisely avoid the biggest climbs. This means that there will be lots of room for the sprinters but the organizers traditionally have a hillier stage that often comes down to a sprint from a reduced group and requires a bit more toughness. In recent years, however, it has not been hard enough to make a difference and so the GC is likely to come down to the final time trial.


The first stage is an almost identical copy of the first stage of last year’s race and it should be one for the sprinters. A pair of category 2 climbs feature in the first two thirds but the final part is flat. The race ends with 3 laps of a 6.6km circuit and unless the wind plays a role, it should be one for the sprinters.


Stage 2 should be another one for the fast men as it doesn’t contain a single categorized climb. It is very similar to a stage used in 2013 and ends with 3 laps of a 7.7km circuit. Again the wind will always be a danger but it should end in some kind of sprint.


The queen stage usually comes on the third stage and it is unchanged from year to year. It mainly consists of three laps of a tough 44.4km circuit around the city of Besseges and this means that the riders will go up the hard Col de Treylis three times. However, the climb comes in the early part of the circuit and as the race ends with three laps of a 6.8km finishing circuit, there is time for a regrouping to take place ahead of what is usually a sprint from a reduced peloton.


The fourth stage is a tricky affair that could come as a surprise for some of the sprinters. After a mainly flat first part that only includes a small climb, the race finishes with four laps of a 15.4km finishing circuit that includes a small climb just after the passage of the line. It may offer the chance for riders to make a late attack but history proves that it is hard to avoid a bunch sprint. However, the finish is located on the climb, meaning that the uphill sprint will be a tough affair.


For the fourth year in a row, the race is set to be decided in the final time trial which is almost identical to the one that has been used for the past three years. At 10.7km, it is a short affair and the first 8km are completely flat. However, the final 2.7km will take the riders to the top of the Montee de l’Hermitage on the outskirts of Alés, meaning that the stage is one for the powerful puncheurs who can handle both the flat opening section and the tough climb in the finale.







The favourites

Since the time trial was introduced in 2012, the race has always been decided on the final day and it is hard to imagine that it will be any different in 2015. Every year a breakaway has managed to stay away in one of the stages – last year Sander Helven denied the sprinters on the opening stage while Pierre Rolland and Jerome Cousin managed to win the queen stage in 2012 and 2013 respectively – but their time gains have always been very small. The sprinters usually manage to take some bonus seconds but have never been strong enough to defend their advantage in the TT which doesn’t suit them very well.


This year the weather forecast looks reasonably pleasant as there will be lots of sunshine and no precipitation. However, there will be a very strong wind and this could make the racing a lot more nervous and quite a bit harder. To win this race, one needs to possess three qualities: solid climbing skills to survive the selection in stage 3, a strong team to make the first echelon if things split in the crosswinds and most importantly great time trialling skills.


Headlined by Bryan Coquard, the list of sprinters is a long one and many of the fast finishers are pretty equally matched. This means that many of them will be hopeful that they will be able to win a stage. This should make the racing more controlled and the time trial more decisive. With strong winds, however, a surprise breakaway can’t be ruled out but the time trial will be expected to decide the race.


The time trial is a bit unusual as it ends with a pretty hard climb and this can make a big difference. Climbers may do a very good performance in this stage as they can gain a lot of time in the final few kilometres. This means that you often see some surprise names near the top of the standings while the pure time triallists may have a hard time. The race is usually dominated by the versatile riders that can go fast in both parts of the course.


At this point of the year, form is a very important factor and this makes the outcome of the race less predictable. However, one rider has already proved that he is in outstanding condition. Eduardo Sepulveda had an injury-filled 2014 season after he had started the year on a very high note with great performances in the Tour de San Luis and the Tour Mediteraneen. He is now back to full health and he proved that he has trained well over the winter when he finished fourth in the Tour de San Luis.


Sepulveda has clearly improved his climbing a lot and he is a very good time triallist too. His TT performance in Argentina was slightly disappointing but this course with a mix of climbing and flat should suit him well. At the moment, no one can go faster up the climb than him and as he should also be one of the best in the flat part, he is our favourite to win.


Trek will line up a very strong team that has multiple cards to play. Most of them have done no racing yet, however, and this makes their level of form a bit uncertain. However, we have big expectations for Riccardo Zoidl who will be making his season debut in France. The Austrian got his first professional year off to a great start but after he broke his collarbone at the Strade Bianche, he never found his best legs. Now he will be eager to prove his worth and if he can start his season at the same level as he did 12 months ago, he will be hard to beat in a time trial whose mixed course suits him well. He may have a hard time in the crosswinds but if he is still in contention on the final day, he has a chance to win.


If Zoidl fails, his teammate Bob Jungels will be ready to step in. The Luxembourger is an outstanding talent who is both a really solid climber and a great time triallist. At last year’s Dauphné, he was third behind Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in the opening time trial which was pretty similar to the one in this race. His form is very uncertain but if he has trained well over the winter, this race should suit him really well.


Jonathan Hivert won this time trial in 2013 but since his outstanding start to that season, he has had a hard time. Having joined Bretagne, he is ready to get new life into his career and with a fifth place in Marseille, he suggested that he is in very good condition. He is no time trial specialist but he is a great prologue rider who has the skills to do well in this kind of effort. If he can limit his losses on the flats, he could win the race on the climb. If the race turns out to be a hard one, he may even pick up some bonus seconds before the time trial.


Tony Gallopin may mainly be known for his puncheur skills but he is actually a very solid time triallist as well, especially on shorter, punchy courses. He could probably not have designed a better time trial than this one and it is certainly no coincidence that he was 7th in this stage 12 months ago. The Frenchman may even have the skills to attack in the hilly queen stage and like Hivert, he could pick up some bonus seconds along the way.


Thibaut Pinot is mainly here to build condition for later and there is a big chance that he could be one of the victims in the crosswind. If he is still in contention for the time trial, however, he could create a surprise. He has improved his TT skills a lot over the last few years and he should be able to limit his losses in the flat part. If his condition is solid, no one will be able to go faster up the climb that the FDJ rider who proved his skills in this kind of effort in the mountain prologue at the 2013 Tour de Romandie.


Arnaud Gerard may not have established himself as one of the best time triallists in the world but he usually does really well in TTs in France, especially on shorter courses. He is also a solid climber and even though this course doesn’t suit him perfectly, he definitely has a chance to be up there. He has not done any previous racing though and this makes his condition a bit uncertain.


Stefan Schumacher is no longer the time triallist he once was but he is still pretty decent in a race against the clock. He is also very strong on a short climb like this one. However, he abandoned the race in Marseille and he may not be in his best condition.


Young Sean De Bie could be the man to create a surprise. The Belgian is a very good time triallist who found his legs at the pro level in the second part of his debut season. By joining the attack in the finale of the race in Marseille, he proved that he is in very good condition and this will make him a contender.


On paper, Kristof Vandewalle should be the best time triallist in this race but the final climb should be too hard form. Furthermore, he is unlikely to be in his best condition. The same can be said for Stijn Devolder but the inconsistent Belgian is always good for a surprise. Finally, Maxime Monfort, Steve Morabito, Pierrick Fedrigo, Davide Rebellin and Fabio Felline should all be capable of good rides in this kind of time trial but we doubt that it will be enough to win the race.


***** Eduardo Sepulveda

**** Riccardo Zoidl, Bob Jungels

*** Jonathan Hivert, Tony Gallopin, Thibaut Pinot

** Arnaud Gerard, Stefan Schumacher, Sean De Bie, Kristof Vandewalle

* Stijn Devolder, Maxime Monfort, Steve Morabito, Pierrick Fedrigo, Davide Rebellin, Fabio Felline, Pierre-Roger Latour, Ben Gastauer, Stephane Rossetto, Pello Bilbao, Amets Txurruka, Yoann Paillot, Julien El Fares, Remy Di Gregorio, Mateusz Taciak



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