Étoile de Bessèges is a five-day stage race from Wednesday 2nd February until Sunday 6th February in and around, you guessed it, the Bessèges commune in France. The race has a variety of stages on offer which will entice sprinters, puncheurs and time trial specialists.
The race is 2.1 category, which means no WorldTour teams are obliged to compete. However, nine WorldTour teams will line up this season, including Trek-Segafredo, UAE Team Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers. With Richard Carapaz, Bauke Mollema and Thibaut Pinot set to race, it could be a true early season spectacle.
Tim Wellens won in 2021 after a decisive long-range attack on stage 3, which finished in Bessèges. Wellens has mastered the early season calendar, with many of his victories arriving in the first races. The other stage winners in 2021 were Christophe Laporte, Timothy Dupont and Filippo Ganna.
Let's take a look at the five stages, shall we?
Stage 1 - 2nd February 2022 - Bellegarde › Bellegarde
The first stage is almost identical to last season. The race is defined by the uphill ramp in the final kilometre, where percentages surpass 10%. Despite the tricky gradients, we must not discount the sprinters — Christophe Laporte and Nacer Bouhanni finished first and second in 2021. It may be steep, but the hill is short enough for the powerful sprinters to remain competitive.
Stage 2 - 3rd February 2022 - Saint-Christol-lès-Alès › Rousson
Stage 2 is slightly more challenging. The Côte du Pradel (6.4km @ 4.5%) is crested with 25km remaining. This may make the race harder, but isn’t steep enough to serve as a launchpad for attacks. Instead, it’s the final kilometre or two which will define the stage, this time in Rousson. The road begins to rise with 1.6km remaining, but steepens severely to 12% in the final 500 metres. This is more suited to a pure puncheur than a sprinter.
Stage 3 - 4th February 2022 - Bessèges › Bessèges
Over its 155km, stage 3 features 2,000 metres of climbing – the most of the race to this point. Many of these climbs occur in the opening 35km, with the Dieusses (5.8km @ 3.7%) and Col de Portes (6.9km @ 3.4%) ascents. The breakaway will form in this phase of the race, which could be critical. Tim Wellens' race-winning victory came on a similar stage last year after a large breakaway evaded the peloton. Later on, the Col des Brousses and Col de Trélis are the final opportunities to drop the sprinters before arriving in Bessèges.
Stage 4 - 5th February 2022 - Saint-Hilaire-de-Brethmas › Mont Bouquet
The queen stage. The road undulates for 140km on stage 4, but the final 5km are where Étoile de Bessèges could be won or lost. The Mont Bouquet ascent averages a searing 9.1% over 4.6km. Here, the climbers will come to the fore and must be on the offensive to gain as much time as possible before the final stage.
Stage 5 - 6th February 2022 - Alès › Alès l'Ermitage
Stage 5 is a short, 11km time trial in Alès. Filippo Ganna won on a similar course last season. Although the time trial is relatively short, the steep gradients found in the final 2.5km will allow the strongest riders to move up the standings.
Richard Carapaz and Michał Kwiatkowski (Image credit: Alex Broadway/ASO/SWpix)
The Ineos Grenadiers lineup with a supercharged squad, featuring Michał Kwiatkowski, Richard Carapaz and Filippo Ganna. Without a formbook to assist us, it’s hard to pick out which of the Grenadiers could be at the pointy end of the GC. Nonetheless, they certainly start as the race favourites. Kwiatkowski finished second here last season, and the route suits him this season again. The talented Ben Tulett also makes his Grenadiers debut. The 20-year-old has impressed on hilly terrain with Alpecin-Fenix over the previous two seasons.
Alexys Brunel won stage 1 of Étoile de Bessèges back in 2020, finishing the race third overall in one of the best performances of the Frenchman’s career. He has since joined UAE Team Emirates, and will look to put together a strong performance with his new team. He starts alongside Alessandro Covi and Diego Ulissi, who represent strong stage-winning potential, particularly on uphill finishes. Pascal Ackermann is one of the highest profile sprinters on the startline.
Thibaut Pinot will compete in his second race of the season at Étoile de Bessèges, after finishing 37th in Grand Prix Cycliste de Marseille a few weeks ago. Pinot failed to start a Grand Tour in 2021, which hasn't happened since 2011. After rumours of Pinot returning to the Giro d’Italia for the first time since 2018, the team have announced he’ll focus on the Tour de France this year. Pinot is without a victory since Stage 14 of the Tour de France in 2019, where he won atop the revered Col du Tourmalet. Will Pinot recapture his best form here?
EF Education-EasyPost enter with an array of talented riders who have a good track record at Étoile de Bessèges. Alberto Bettiol won the stage 5 time trial in 2020, a result which helped him to second place overall. In the same year, Magnus Cort won the points classification after he won stage 2. With Michael Valgren and new addition Owain Doull also set to start, they boast great strength in depth.
Bauke Mollema and Mads Pedersen headline Trek-Segafredo’s lineup. Mollema finished fourth here in 2019, and has the skills to do well on the array of uphill finishes. Pedersen is more dangerous in the sprint finishes.
Following four seasons with Groupama-FDJ, Benjamin Thomas has joined Cofidis for 2022. Although Cofidis’ lineup also features the likes of Jesús Herrada and Bryan Coquard, Thomas may be their primary option. He has shown strong form before at Étoile de Bessèges, finishing second in the Alès time trial last year. He also won the youth classification back in 2018.
Uno-X are set to start with Rasmus Tiller and fast finisher Kristoffer Halvorsen in their ranks. However, we are carefully watching the 22-year-old Tobias Halland Johannessen. Johannessen won the Tour de l'Avenir last season, despite a late surge by Carlos Rodriguez of the Ineos Grenadiers, who has been tipped for success himself. Johannessen is a great climber who could perform particularly well on stage 4.
Other riders to keep a close eye on include B&B Hotels' Franck Bonnamour, Alpecin Fenix’s Tobias Bayer and Equipo Kern Pharma's Francisco Galván.
Although it's hard to look past the glaring strength of the Ineos Grenadiers, that is exactly what we're going to do. Our pick for overall victory is Alberto Bettiol. He has demonstrated great form at Étoile de Bessèges previously and can gain time in the hills and on the time trial bike.
Cover image: A.S.O./Alex BROADWAY