The Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var is in the books; we were spoilt with three days of action-packed racing in Southern France with a dramatic finale. Some 5,000km to the East, the men’s WorldTour season is now underway with the UAE Tour, and again, we have witnessed a fascinating race so far with crosswinds and echelons stealing the show.
But first, let’s examine the racing in France.
The Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var
The Tour des Alpes (previously Tour du Haut Var) boasts a rich history. The likes of Sean Kelly and Davide Rebellin have taken victory here before, and a strong startlist entered this year with the likes of Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot and Geraint Thomas in attendance.
This was one for the climbers and punchers with over 10,000 metres of vertical climbing spread across the three days.
The first two stages suited the punchers more, with Bauke Mollema and Mike Woods — two of the strongest punchers in the world — winning on consecutive days. Woods entered the decisive stage three with the yellow jersey and his Israel Start-Up teammates would need to work to protect it.
However, a stellar breakaway went up the road featuring the likes of Gianluca Brambilla, Rudy Molard, Valentin Madouas and Tao Geoghegan Hart. Israel found bringing in the breakaway problematic, largely due to the efforts of Frenchman Bruno Armirail. He was working for his Groupama-FDJ teammates in the break, and again proved why he is one of the most underrated domestiques in the peloton.
Valentin Madouas and Gianluca Brambilla attacked the rest of the breakaway on the Col de la Madone. Brambilla looked the spritelier of the two and shortly dropped his comrade, where he would solo to stage and GC victory. It was a fantastic showing from the Italian, winning his first race since 2016. He held off a determined Rusty Woods and co — Woods would finish second overall with Bauke Mollema in third.
Ben O’Connor is Fulfilling his Promise
Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ben O’Connor sprinting to podium finishes on stage two (Image credit: William Cannarella / Cor Vos)
Ben O’Connor is really finding his feet. The Aussie is now 25 years old and displayed promise with Dimension Data in his early years. However, he couldn't find any form in early 2020 which left him struggling to obtain a new contract. O'Connor turned his season around at the Giro d'Italia, though, where he won his first Grand Tour stage on Madonna di Campiglio.
That victory now seems to be the turning point in O’Connor’s career, enabling him to sign a one-year contract with AG2R Citroen.
O’Connor improved as the Tour des Alpes went on, finishing 20th and 7th on the first two stages. On paper, the final stage suited him best as it featured longer climbs, and it proved to be the case. After dangling off the back of the group of GC favourites, he returned on the descent of the Col de la Madone. He swiftly gained the strength to attack the group, allowing him to join up with the earlier breakaway. Brambilla and the stage-win were out of reach, but O’Connor sprinted to third on the stage, meaning he jumped up to fifth place in the general classification.
Following the departure of Romain Bardet, O’Connor finds himself riding for a team with pedigree climbers few and far between. He will get many opportunities this season and will surely be a top prospect when his one-year contract with AG2R comes to an end.
Simon Carr and Ben Tulett Impress
Ben Tulett of Alpecin-Fenix (Image credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix)
We have mentioned numerous talented Brits that could be going under the radar in our 2021 debriefs thus far. Well, that does not change today.
Simon Carr and Ben Tulett are 22 and 19 years old respectively, yet both performed in a strong and consistent manner over the three days in France. Tulett never finished worse than 23rd, a fine achievement among this field which enabled him to finish 17th in the GC.
Carr was also in the top-20 overall, finishing thirteen seconds behind Tulett. The EF-NIPPO rider also tried an attack on the Col de la Madone but was caught and passed by the group of favourites which included Woods, Fuglsang and Quintana.
Tom Pidcock made his road debut for the INEOS Grenadiers in France and his best stage finish was 37th on stage three. With much of the talk surrounding young British riders focused around Pidcock, we should be aware of the numerous talented riders that are already performing above their stock.
The duo of Carr and Tulett are two that sit atop that list, and should be watched closely this year and beyond, particularly when the road goes uphill.
Mike Woods is Full of Fighting Spirit
Mike Woods after winning in Fayence (Image credit: William Cannarella/Cor Vos)
Mike Woods made his debut for Israel Start-Up at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var. The Canadian was impressive throughout, not least when he won on the wall of Fayence on stage two, a win which saw him take the overall lead entering the final stage.
However, his team struggled to catch the breakaway on stage three and Woods was forced to chase himself, while many of the other GC favourites had teammates up the road. Nonetheless, Woods tried numerous attacks and accelerations, desperately trying to keep the speed up to reel Brambilla in.
Eventually, his effort fell short by five seconds. It would have been easy for Rusty Woods to settle for a stage victory understanding that the GC was out of reach, but that is not in Woods’ DNA. He gave his all until the line.
Woods will stay in France for the Faun-Ardèche and Royal Bernard Drome classics, where on current form, he starts as a favourite.
Arjen Livyns is Uber-Consistent
You may well have never heard of Arjen Livyns.
Well, take note, the 26-year-old has been one of the most consistent riders in 2021 thus far.
He finished in the top 15 on all three stages at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, with 9th place on stage two his best result. Livyns has already performed well at Etoile de Besseges this year, also finishing in the top 5 at the Grand Prix Marseillaise in January.
Next on Livyns’ schedule, the Belgian is set to ride the Belgian classics startling with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Riding for Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles, Livyns is one of the team leaders. He has shown to be capable on the cobbles before, and despite entering the races as an underdog, he shouldn’t be written off completely.
The Return of Quintana
Nairo Quintana at the Tour des Alpes (Image credit: William Cannarella/Cor Vos)
The Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var provided our first opportunity to see Nairo Quintana in action this year. Quintana won this race in 2020, however, his 2021 season was delayed following knee surgery at the end of last season.
The Colombian was coy ahead of his season debut, claiming that he is still working his way into form. This meant little was expected of him in France.
However, Quintana was impressive throughout. Although he is not yet back to his electric best, he has clearly displaced any issues from his injuries. He never finished outside the top 15 across the three days and finished in the group of favourites on stage three. After Arkéa–Samsic were denied entry to the Giro d’Italia, 'Nairoman' has some decisions to make regarding his race schedule this season.
(Cover image: William Cannarella/Cor Vos)