Etoile de Besseges, the tough season-opener bucking the trend

Five-day race Etoile de Bessèges should begin on Wednesday. We look back on Hampsten, Kirsipuu and Halgand trading tales from France’s back-to-school race “keeping cycling in good tradition”

He was nervous. In the winter of 1985-86, he hadn’t ridden his bike as much as he’d have liked. The La Vie Claire team training camp had consisted mainly of skiing, and there was barely any snow on the slopes, so getting to know his new team-mates had been the order of the week. Now the Etoile de Bessèges was upon him, the first spring race of his professional cycling career, as it had been for many youngsters before him.

Little Bessèges sits in the back and beyond of Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, over the quiet side of the Rhône river to tourist-friendly Avignon. Nowadays, you’d never get a new stage race centered round a town of 3,000 people (at its mid-19th century peak, as a provincial coal-mining hub, Bessèges had almost four times that). Ruthless modern money men would take one look at the idea and rip it up. But cycling was smaller fry back then.

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“The Etoile de Bessèges was the back-to-school race; the atmosphere was pretty convivial, as I recall,” says Serge Beucherie, a former Sem rider and long-time French directeur sportif when we spoke in 2014. There was little pressure, fewer winter kilometres in the riders’ legs and the mercury sat just above zero on the thermometer.

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Andrew Hampsten recalls chasing down a descent in the spitting rain, shivering, with mud across the road. “It was as dangerous as it could be; if it had been pouring, it would have washed the road a bit cleaner,” he recalls. As he fought to get to the front of his group, he spotted Dag Otto Lauritzen riding without gloves. Welcome to the spring races, kid.

That very first day, Hampsten was trying to move up the side of the bunch to get to the front, “with 200 other people doing the same. I remember being very terrified… we had to lead out Steve Bauer or [Roy] Knickman or someone, and I didn’t want to be seen as the rookie who was just staying in the back. And Bernard Hinault saw my trouble and he just said ‘Stop it! Come over here!'"

“He showed me that day how to stay in the first quarter of the peloton: he would sit in the middle of it, about fifth or tenth row back. And as riders, like I had been doing, moved to the sides to try to get back to being in the first ten or fifteen, they would open a gap and he would move up the centre without hitting the front."

Hampsten’s first full season in Europe coincided with Hinault’s last, and it showed in the champion’s motivation. “He was looking forward to the Tour de France. So the whole spring at the dinner table, he would talk to [team-mate] Niki Rüttimann about farming. He’d just gotten into it, he’d bought a farm, and he wanted to know about animal husbandry: his cows were having a hard time, birthing, do I just yank the calf out? That kind of thing. He was very Hinault-ish about the whole thing: ‘I’m gonna be a farmer, I’m here at a bike race, I don’t want to talk about racing at the table.'"

All the nocturnal agricultural natter can’t have done Rüttimann any harm: the Swiss ended up winning the Etoile de Bessèges that year. And little more than two years later, Hampsten – this slight, determined kid from North Dakota – had his iconic ride over the Gavia in a bitter snowstorm, which helped him to win the Giro d’Italia. Sure, Hampsten had the flying form and neoprene kit that day, but he had also gained the mental toughness and constitution from races like Bessèges.  

"A lot of that comes from 1986. I wanted to be a pro, I was answering my dream, it was tough. I was bad at cold weather and crosswinds. Since I was doing all sorts of small stage races that spring, I had plenty of opportunities to get better at both."

He had plenty of company in the chasing groups too. “There were a lot of riders who were like ‘there are months before I need to be worried about being selected for the Tour or the prep races for them’… Races were used for training in that period.”

“I felt that that ended some time in the ‘90s. You couldn’t go to a race just to train at, call it, 90 per cent fitness. Because you’d finish out of the time limit, be brutalised. It would be unhealthy to race as hard as I needed to make the time limit."

So, the overweight and under-trained professional cyclist pitching up to Bessèges with a few thousand kilometres in his legs became a thing of the past. In the ‘80s, the race became a domain for hard riders - Eddy Planckaert, Adri Van Der Poel and Frans Maassen all won it - looking to peak for the spring Classics. That said, it wasn’t always the tough guys or, more logically, ferocious winter mile-munchers who were rewarded with success at the Etoile.

At the start of the 1997 season, Festina rider Patrice Halgand had been off the bike for two months after an operation on his spine. “I did a fortnight-long training camp with the team in January. I’d done a lot less riding than anyone else. They reckoned I wasn’t ready to race much before March,” he recalls.

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At the end of the camp, Halgand rode La Richard Virenque, a sportive in the Var put on by his compatriot’s supporters' club. “[Gianluca] Bortolami hit a spectator, crashed and broke his collarbone there. And so, with my name as first reserve for the Etoile de Bessèges, I found myself on the start line of the race. It was really bizarre.” 

On the opening day, Halgand slipped into a six-man break, launched an early sprint and beat Eros Poli and the rest: “I won it with barely a month of training in the legs. I guess it was meant to be.”

His Festina team helped to defend the lead and by the end of the week, he took away the overall. “You could say it changed my career,” says the Frenchman, best known for a gutsy Tour de France breakaway stage win in 2002.

As a Frenchman, the race was his perennial season opener. Halgand found it stressful in later years: it was one to get through for morale, without mishap.

The attraction of the Etoile lies in history and weather-swept lack of glamour. It heralds the shivering return of cycling to Europe, the sport’s heartland. Sweeping past bare stalks of vineyard and sleepy Languedoc-Roussillon villages, riders in swaddling layers are shaken out of hibernation. It is hardy and authentic, a link to cycling’s rich history and in stark contrast to the post-millennial peloton trend of decamping to hot climates for packaged races.

It can be a fight for both the riders and the organisers. “The Etoile de Bessèges has always had a particularness. It’s down to the people, notably [organiser] Roland Fangille, who fight every year to find the money and put it on. Especially now, it’s very difficult, it’s always costing more,” Serge Beucherie reflects.

According to Fangille, their budget is 580,000 euros; compare that to the Four Days of Dunkirk, which has a million. He conceived the race and has run every one of its 43 editions. He sadly passed away since we spoke for this article back in 2014.

After retiring from racing as a hors-catégorie professional in the ‘60s, Fangille asked the UCI where his unborn race could fit. He was told the calendar was chock full: they could either put it at the beginning of the season or the end. The GP de Bessèges, a one-day race, was created and had its first running in 1971, before transforming into a stage race.

“We had no name for it. We had stages in Gagnières, a little town near Bessèges. Then it went to Alès, Nîmes, Molières-sur-Cèze. On the map, it made a star (étoile). One day, at a UCI meeting, Félix Lévitan, the organiser of the Tour de France at the time with Jacques Goddet, said ‘why not call it the Etoile de Bessèges?’ Voilà.”

Gradually, the traditional season opening races on the Côte d’Azur all disappeared, and Fangille’s hardy race has lived on, helped by his team of unpaid volunteers (roughly 120).

Now a string of far-flung foreign events precede and follow the sport’s traditional season opener. “Cycling has become international. There are countries that organise races and don’t know cycling; the bunch goes to Dubai, to Qatar,” Fangille says. “People don’t cycle there. It reminds me of what Marc Madiot once said: it’s regions of cycling and races like the Tour du Limousin and the Etoile des Bessèges that keep cycling in good tradition.”

His most abiding memory is the first edition of the race. “We only had 18 riders on the start line, and among those eighteen, there was Raymond Poulidor and Cyrille Guimard.” And the stars kept coming back to the Etoile. “We’ve had LeMond, Fignon, Hinault, Raas and Knetemann.” In fact, Poulidor still returns now to present the prizes.

That said, you have to wonder how long the Etoile de Bessèges can keep going. It is a traditional race surviving – scraping round to make the budget – rather than looking to expand in a cut-throat, competitive calendar, commanded by bigger organisers like ASO and RCS.

“It’s a nice race, but it’s clear that it will never be like Paris-Nice or a big one like that,” Beucherie says.

Let’s not pretend it’s always a humdinger of a spectacle either. It has traditionally been bunch sprint friendly, though the 2012 addition of a race-closing time-trial finishing on the steep climb of the Montée de l’Hermitage outside Alès has changed the GC competition.

The man with the record number of stage wins is Jaan Kirsipuu, the tough sprinter who won 13 stages between 1998 and 2006. His favourite was the final one around Bessèges. “I knew how to place myself: it was always a headwind sprint there,” Kirsipuu says.

A good start is crucial for morale. “A sprinter needs to perform well from the off. If you don’t win, you start to doubt yourself – and if you doubt your capacities, you start making wrong choices in other races, taking wrong wheels,” he says.

Coming from Estonia, Kirsipuu was less bothered by the occupational hazard of holding a race in early February: crap weather. While they’ve had rain, icy winds – 2012 winner Jerome Coppel called the conditions “Dante-esque” – snow and sleet, it takes something exceptional to stop this race.

“One year, we were forced to cancel a stage because of snow. One time, that’s all. In 44 years. We’ve had years with the rain and the cold, but it’s never exactly been big catastrophes,” Fangille says.

So, long may the Etoile continue to shine. At any rate, it has far exceeded the original expectations of its founder. “I never dreamed it would reach 43 editions," Fangille says, speaking in early 2014.

"When we hit five, we were happy; at ten, we had a party. At 25, we had a big do at the National Assembly in Paris. With the passing years, some people always say ‘maybe the next year will be the last’, but we have a big life, thanks to the volunteers.”

This was originally published in January 2014 and updated in January 2018.

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