The racing calendar continues this week with the Tour de la Provence, an early-season stage race popular among with the climbers.
As the list of cancelled and postponed races continues to grow, there are fewer opportunities for riders to test their legs at this early stage in the season, with attention on events like Étoile de Bessèges and the Tour de la Provence growing as a result.
Provence runs over four stages from February 11-14 in south eastern France.
This year’s race will feature the likes of Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), and Enric Mas (Movistar), among the start list of 14 WorldTour teams, four ProTeams and two Continental squads.
Provence is as tough challenge this early in the year, as it features an ascent of the dreaded Mont Ventoux, albeit to the lower point of Chalet Reynard, which is still a 9.6km stretch of road with an average gradient of 9.2 per cent.
Ag2r La Mondiale’s Ben O’Connor said: “Even if the climb stops at Chalet Reynard, I know it will be tough for February. And it will certainly let me know where I stand physically. I have no historical references on the Ventoux. I just know it’s very hard… and Chris Froome ran up it for a while.”
UAE Team Emirates sprinter Alexander Kristoff will also be racing in France, but Ventoux is an obstacle he must overcome, rather than an opportunity.
The Norweigian said: “It’s my first race and usually I need to get some races under my belt before I hit top form, but there are a few stages here that suit me.
“Obviously stage three to Mont Ventoux will be the decisive day for the GC where our climbers will aim to be active, but the other days are better terrain for me.”
Bahrain Victorious sports director Ralph Aldag said: “We will consider every Stage like a one day race and fight for the win. Phil [Bauhaus] will fight on the sprint stages, Dylan [Teuns] on the hilly stages and, Jack [Haig], Dylan, and Wout [Poels] during the GC showdown halfway up to the Mont Ventoux.”
“It is always tough to predict the first race of the season, since we don’t know how well prepared our competitors are and how they trained during the winter. That’s why we won’t wait to see what others will do but ride with an offensive strategy from the very beginning.”
The 2020 ascent to Chalet Reynard was won by Quintana, who smashed the competition and finished 1-28 ahead of Astana’s Alexey Lustensko and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo).
Quintana took the overall in Provence last season, finishing a minute ahead of Alexeksandr Vlasov (Astana), but will not be returning to defend his title.