While we still await the start of the women's WorldTour season, the men are already in full swing. Following Étoile de Bessèges, next up on the French cycling calendar was the Tour de la Provence.
The race is fairly new, with the first edition taking place in 2016 which was won by Thomas Voeckler of Direct Energie. The startlist has seemingly increased in quality year upon year, with a star-studded field arriving to take part this season. French Champion Arnaud Demare, World Champion Julian Alaphilippe and former Tour de France winner Egan Bernal headlined the field.
When looking at the stages ahead, it was impossible not to be drawn to Saturday’s queen stage, where the riders would climb the revered Mont Ventoux. The participants would not climb to the peak of the mountain, however, with the finish line set at Chalet Reynard. Still, a menacing climb of 15km @ 7.3% awaited. It would be our first chance to see the peloton attempt a mountain-top finish this season.
Here’s what we learnt at the 2021 edition of the Tour de la Provence.
INEOS are a talent factory
Ivan Sosa riding for Team INEOS (Image credit: Gomez / CorVos / SWpix)
We highlighted in last week’s Étoile de Bessèges debrief how the INEOS Grenadiers cannot underrate the talent of Ethan Hayter moving forward. Just a week later, several other INEOS youngsters shone on very different terrain.
Stage three, the Ventoux climb had just begun. An attack from Astana-Premier Tech and BORA-hansgrohe shook things up, but Eddie Dunbar did well to bring them in, with the familiar Ineos train on the front. As Dunbar pulled over, a new name emerged: Carlos Rodriguez.
The Spaniard has just turned 20 years old but completed his neo-pro season with the INEOS Grenadiers last season after skipping the U23 ranks entirely. Rodriguez pulled on the front for a number of kilometres, where he decimated the group, even dropping his more senior teammate Laurens De Plus. De Plus suffered a terrible year last season due to injury, so he should be afforded time to get back to his top level.
Nonetheless, Rodriguez’ turn was really impressive, and saw pre-race favourite Alexey Lutsenko drop out the back. With less than 20 riders remaining in the group, Rodriguez was done.
Step up, one of the more prevalent talents that has risen with INEOS in recent seasons - Iván Sosa. The little Colombian has won the Vuelta a Burgos twice, but has generally struggled to replicate his climbing ability in Grand Tours and WorldTour races thus far in his career.
Despite that, as soon as Rodriguez pulled to the side, Sosa attacked aggressively whilst Bernal dropped away from his wheel, forcing others to chase his compatriot. This move instantly put the majority of the group into the red. Sosa would hold a 20-second gap to the line, where Bernal toyed with Julian Alaphilippe before sprinting past the Frenchman, who was the strongest rider not wearing an INEOS jersey.
The move was decisive in the overall and Sosa held on to become the winner of the Tour de la Provence.
Sosa’s climbing talent is undeniable. We cannot wait to see what he can do at the UAE Tour next week, and the Giro d’Italia later in the year, where he is set to ride for his friend and teammate Egan Bernal.
Astana-Premier Tech's Struggles
Alexey Lutsenko at the 2020 Tour de France. (Image credit: Alex Whitehead / SWpix)
Astana-Premier Tech entered the Tour de la Provence with one of the strongest teams on paper. Alexey Lutsenko, Alex Vlasov, the Izagirre bros, the list went on. However, the team were undeniably underwhelming. Their best result came when Alex Aranburu sprinted to third on the difficult stage two finish.
Vlasov and Lutsenko started the race as two of the premier (no pun intended) favourites to win overall. Vlasov is aiming to win the Giro d'Italia later this year and won on Mont Ventoux last season, whereas Lutsenko is usually dominant early in the year.
It would not be the case this season, though. Lutsenko dropped away on Ventoux with 6km to go – a big surprise. Vlasov performed better, but couldn’t hold the wheel of Sosa, nor Alaphilippe and Bernal. The Russian ended the race tenth overall.
Alexey Lutsenko is set to start the UAE Tour next, where he finished third overall last season, whereas Vlasov will stay in France for the Tour du Haut Var. Both riders will be looking to revitalize their early season.
Davide Ballerini Could win a Classic this season
Davide Ballerini sprinting alongside Peter Sagan and Arnaud Demare, Giro 2020 (Image credit: CorVos / SWpix)
If there’s one thing you can be sure of in cycling, it’s that Deceuninck-Quick-Step win a lot, every single season.
One of the latest cogs that has been added to the DQS engine is Italian Davide Ballerini. He’d only won three times in his career before joining the team in 2020, however, he is fitting in just fine.
After the Belgian outfit lit up the opening stage of the Tour de la Provence, Ballerini reaped the rewards, sprinting to victory past Arnaud Demare on the line. Stage two presented a more difficult final with an uphill finish. Most of the pure sprinters dropped away, looking to stage four as their next opportunity, not Ballerini. He was comfortable holding position at the front of the group, before sprinting to his second win in a row just ahead of Trek’s Giulio Ciccone.
He only just failed to make it a hat-trick after he was beaten to the line on stage four by Bahrain-Victorious’ Phil Bauhaus.
Nonetheless, Ballerini is staking his claim for a bigger role in the upcoming classics. Next on his schedule, he is set to ride Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. He is a strong sprinter who is evidently capable of winning mass sprints, but also able to withstand shorter climbs alongside the punchers - perhaps making him an option for MSR this March.
Matteo Jorgenson is a special talent
Matteo Jorgenson (Photo credit: Team Movistar)
There were many breakout young stars that emerged at the Tour de la Provence, but none were more impressive than Matteo Jorgenson.
The American was snapped up by Movistar last season after a short-stint with AG2R-La Mondiale in 2019. Now just 21-years-old, he is showing he is more than capable on a variety of terrains. Last season, he finished 17th at Milan-San Remo and in the top-25 at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
He first showed himself this week with an attack in the final 10km of stage two, which featured a nasty uphill drag to the line. He followed Florian Vermeersch up the road, but the duo were caught after an increase in rhythm by Astana.
However, Matteo Jorgenson held position in the group after the catch was made and looked to be sprinting to a top-5 or even a podium finish, but was involved in a crash with a spectator, ending his chances.
Following the stage, Jorgenson tweeted, "Sucks to miss out on a real chance at my first pro win like that. Let’s all refocus on the real safety problems in our sport @UCI_cycling Barriers, road furniture; NOT RIDER POSITION".
The very next day, however, on the contrasting terrain of Mont Ventoux, Jorgenson performed excellently. He crossed the line with Warren Barguil and Aurélien Paret-Peintre for company in 12th place, just over a minute down on Iván Sosa.
Jorgenson has displayed his ability on cobbles, mountains and hills already in his young career, and he’s clearly very good on all of them! He is a very exciting rider to watch closely this year.
Julian Alaphilippe is really fun
Julian Alaphilippe in the yellow jersey. (Image credit: ASO / Pauline Ballet / SWPix)
Okay, no awards for one of the most obvious statements of 2021 thus far, but the World Champion is relentless.
There wasn’t a day in France that wasn’t animated by Alaphilippe. DQS fired the opening stage into life when Remi Cavagna attacked, but after he was caught, Alaphiliippe went up the road alongside Gianni Moscon and Guilio Ciccone with 70km remaining. The group held their lead until just 2km remained, but Alaphilippe's day wasn't finished yet! He slotted straight into his team’s lead-out train, ultimately helping Davide Ballerini take stage victory.
Next, Alaphilippe looked set to challenge for stage two, sat in a great position entering the final kilometre, but was denied the opportunity when he was brought down by Alex Vlasov.
His most impressive performance, though, came when he finished on the podium on Mont Ventoux, only beaten by Colombian duo Iván Sosa and Egan Bernal. It was enough to put him on the overall podium, too, ahead of Egan Bernal.
This raises questions as to what exactly Alaphilippe can achieve this season, and we can't wait to find out.
To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Alaphilippe came close to winning the Tour de France in 2019. He stated earlier this season that he won’t be aiming to win the maillot jaune this year, but with a great performance on Ventoux already in the legs, he may have a greater chance than he believes.
(Cover photo: ASO / Thomas Maheux / SWPix )