Well, it’s been a while hasn’t it. But following the Australian races succumbing to the pandemic, cycling is finally back.
We kick off in southern France for the Grand Prix la Marseillaise this Sunday (31st January). It's a UCI 1.1 event and will see a strong field of WorldTour teams. Since the first edition in 1980, winners have ranged from Bernard Hinault to Benoît Cosnefroy – the winner of the 2020 race.
(Credit: La Flamme Rouge)
The course starts and ends in Marseille, albeit in different locations with the finish beside the Stade Vélodrome, which regularly hosts Ligue 1 football matches. After leaving Marseille to the north, the peloton will meander up numerous climbs to the east of the city.
The road is scarcely flat along the 171km route, which is highlighted by four major climbs: the Pas de la Couelle (4.3km, 4.2%), Col de l’Espigoulier (3.4km, 3.2%), Route des Crêtes (3.8km, 7.9%) and the Col de la Gineste (7.2km, 3.1%).
Overall, the stage features 2,800 meters of climbing, but the final 10km is characterised by a quick downhill run back into Marseille. The combination of a large amount of climbing and a downhill finish opens up a wide variety of possible scenarios.
The stronger climbers will attack aggressively on the climbs, looking to put the heavier sprinters into the red, whereas the fast men will try to hold on for dear life so they are able to compete for victory. A solo victor or a reduced bunch sprint could cross the line in Marseille, perhaps somewhere between the two is the most likely outcome.
There are seven WorldTour teams in attendance (there were just four last season), including Lotto Soudal. The Belgians bring a strong team featuring the likes of Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert. The latter will be chasing Milan-San Remo in March as he aims to become only the fourth man to win all five monuments.
However, he is still working his way back from a fractured patella, so we shouldn’t have lofty expectations for Gilbert on Sunday. Alternatively, Tim Wellens has developed a knack of winning races often and early in the season - he’s won at least one race by the end of February in three of the last four years. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the offensive in an effort to go solo or with a small group to the line. John Degenkolb and Gerben Thijssen also race for Lotto Soudal – the two sprinters offer the team a variety of strategic options.
Matteo Trentin was perhaps one of the more underrated signings of the season. He will make his debut for UAE-Team Emirates this weekend. Trentin should fair well on the climbs and will surely be one of the quickest if it comes to a sprint.
Ryan Gibbons is another sprinter who possesses his fair share of punch for UAE, but Alessandro Covi could be a dark horse. The 22-year-old Italian shone towards the end of his neo-pro season, it will be interesting to see whether he is deployed as a pure domestique or given the opportunity to attack.
Matteo Trentin debuts for UAE-Team Emirates in France. (Image credit: Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
AG2R Citroën, Cofidis and Groupama-FDJ are the three WorldTour teams riding on home soil, with AG2R bringing a particularly capable squad – at least on paper. Lilian Calmejane will make his debut for the team. He’s struggled to recapture his Tour de France stage-winning form as of late and will look to be rejuvenated in new colours.
However, the team’s best option could well be Andrea Vendrame. The terrain suits the Italian almost perfectly. We doubt he could design a better-suited course himself. He finished fourth on stage four of the 2020 Giro in a bunch sprint, and also claimed a top-five on stage 20 to Sestriere in the final week, a day which featured over 5,000 metres of climbing. Vendrame is quick and can clearly climb well. He should be feared by his opposition.
Cofidis will aim to be aggressive when the road goes uphill as they are without a pure sprinter in their ranks. The likes of Jesús Herrada who finished 4th here last season, or Anthony Perez who demonstrated his punch at last season's Tour before fracturing a collarbone, could be their best bets. For FDJ, they may look to Jake Stewart. The Brit displayed his sprinting prowess when he was twice second at the Tour du Limousin last year. Just 21-years-old, his talent is undeniable. Whether he can survive the climbs is another question.
The final two WorldTour teams are perhaps not quite as potent. The day’s climbing could be within the capability of Intermarche-Wanty’s Andrea Pasqualon, though, who is also a quick finisher. EF Education-Nippo’s Simon Carr has made the step-up to WorldTour for 2021, he could attempt to replicate his solo victory at the Prueba Villafranca de Ordizia this Sunday. Born in Hereford, Carr was raised in the Pyrenees and has recently changed his nationality from Great Britain to France.
Naturally, you’d expect the WorldTour teams to feature the stronger riders, but there are an array of strong riders and squads elsewhere.
Total Direct Énergie look like the pick of the ProTeams. Now 33-years-old, Edvald Boassen Hagen is another to make his debut in new colours. The team has a range of options though, with accomplished climbers and sprinters in their ranks. Pierre Latour, Alexis Vuillermoz and Alexandre Geniez (2018 GP Marseillaise winner), who also make their team debuts, should be considered among the strongest climbers on the startline. Chris Lawless and Anthony Turgis are two punchy sprinters who will be confident the day’s climbing is tolerable, particularly Turgis – he won this race in 2019 by beating Romain Combaud to the line in a two-up sprint.
Pierre Latour is one of a number of riders to debut for Total Direct Énergie. (Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)
Orluis Aular, riding for Caja Rural, will be far from the most talked about rider entering Sunday’s race. The Venezuelan is a punchy sprinter though, and the terrain this weekend will be appetising for him. The 24-year-old has previously been dominant when racing in the Southern Hemisphere, but the same form didn’t translate to the European Tour in 2020. Caja’s other strategy could be to follow attacks when the road goes uphill, where Julen Amezqueta could be the man for the task.
Bryan Coquard lines up for B&B Hotels, he just might be the fastest sprinter in the entire bunch. Elsewhere, Delko bring Alessandro Fedeli, who looked strong when he claimed a brilliant top-5 at the Bretagne Classic last year.
Andrea Vendrame’s two professional victories have come in France, he’ll make it a French-flavoured hat-trick this Sunday. He has the ability to withstand the inevitable attacks which will be pivotal if he is to make it two-years in a row for AG2R.
With an average gradient just under 8%, the Route des Crêtes is perhaps the most suitable spot for the climbers to make their move, where Tim Wellens, Jesus Herrada or even Alessandro Covi could be active. But with over 25km still to go it could be difficult for them to hold on should they create any separation from the likes of Vendrame.
⭐⭐⭐ Andrea Vendrame
⭐⭐ Tim Wellens, Matteo Trentin, Jesús Herrada
⭐ Anthony Turgis, John Degenkolb, Alessandro Covi, Orluis Aular, Bryan Coquard, Jake Stewart, Lilian Calmejane