Throwback Thursday: The romance of the traditional season debut in France

Long before races sprouted up in the Middle East or Australia, the elite of the peloton clicked a new racing season into gear in southern France.

Photo: James Startt/VeloNews

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There was a time when the bike racing season started in southern France.

Long before the Tour of Qatar, Tour Down Under, UAE Tour or the Vuelta a San Luís in Argentina, the crème de la crème of professional cycling raced along the Mediterranean coast in races like l’Etoile des Besseges, Tour Med, the Haribo Classic and Tour du Haut Var.

And while some of these races no longer exist, as travel becomes increasingly complicated, some teams and riders are returning to their roots.

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VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt have been covering European cycling since the 1990s. And for this week’s Throwback Thursday they look at the past, present, and future of these small but unique races.

What’s special about the early-season French races?

Warren Barguil and Vincenzo Nibali hit out in last year’s action. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

James Startt: Well, my first memories probably come from the days when I would comb through the pages of Miroir du Cyclisme as I tried to learn French as well as the history of this incredible sport.

That early winter light down on the Mediterranean Coast is just timeless, as is the landscape. And when I first moved to France and started covering the sport for VeloNews, these were some of the first races I reported on.

I discovered l’Etoile des Besseges, which still exists today as well as others like the Haribo Classic that have long since faded. Many of the best riders would come to prepare for the first big races like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico. After all what choices did they have?

In recent years I have returned frequently and I really love new races like the Tour de la Provence or the Ardèche and Drôme Classics. It’s cycling at its purest.

Andrew Hood: I typically bang around the Spanish equivalent south of the Pyrénées, but the scene and mood are the same. These early season races are a pure throwback to the old-school days – before team buses and the glam of the WorldTour. The crowds are sparse, the weather is unpredictable, but the racing is usually top-notch.

I very much enjoy some of these second-tier, old-school races that are managing to survive across Europe. These races harken to the base and history of racing and are living relics of what bike racing is really all about. Most of the races are organized by local clubs on bare-bones budgets. The backers are there for pure passion, not chasing some corporate bottom line or trying to fill up VIP tents and sell TV rights.

There’s nothing too fancy about any of them, with ramshackle infrastructure at the starts and finishes. And therein lies the unique charm.

The mood is so relaxed that fans and nosy journalists can usually mix in with the riders, sometimes right at the start line, getting in a quick word before the flag is dropped.

There’s no real pressure on anyone, but it’s all about getting the legs moving again and having a chance to reconnect with teammates, colleagues, and the larger peloton.

How have these races evolved to stay up with the times?

Riders tackle the Col de la Madone in early season action. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Hood: Some of them didn’t or couldn’t manage to embrace the challenges presented by rival races beyond Europe. The main problem was that the other early season races in the Middle East, Australia, or South America will often pay big money to attract the top teams and stars.

So instead of getting riders like Julian Alaphilippe or Tom Boonen, some of these races had to try to manage things with a bit of a B-list peloton. Rising costs and economic malaise across France certainly haven’t helped in the past two decades, and a few of those traditional races are no more.

COVID is delivering all kinds of surprises in everyone’s lifestyle and priorities, and one of them, at least for professional cycling, is that some of these overlooked early-season European races are seeing a fresh look from the top teams. Maybe some of them will stay on after the pandemic fades away.

Startt: Well for years it was really more about how did I see these races devolve. First, there was Down Under and Qatar, and since then, so many other races around the world have popped up that are ranked higher in the UCI standings or are in ideal weather conditions. And they have attracted a lot of teams and riders. So for years the French races took a back seat and only managed to get some of the French teams and a sprinkling of others. Some of the races collapsed, like Tour Med and Haribo.

In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance. The Tour de la Provence pretty much replaced the Tour Med and has grown tremendously over the past six or seven years. And the Drôme and Ardèche Classics have really grown in popularity and attracted more and more international competition as they offer an ideal weekend of racing just before Paris-Nice.

What is your favorite of the early season French races?

Bad weather is often part of early-season racing dynamics. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Startt: Hmm, that is tough to say. Probably the Tour de la Provence. As soon as I heard about this race I wanted to cover it and I have for the past five years or so. I mean the idea of photographing bike racing in French Provence at this time of year is just a no-brainer. Visually it is just stunning, and the race director Pierre-Maurice Courtade has a real eye for taking the race into the heart of Provence.

Hood: You gotta love the Grand Prix Cycliste La Marseillaise. Being first has its upside, plus you’re in one of the great French cities. My favorite French race — any time of year — is Paris-Nice. It’s beyond the category of “early season,” but the “Race to the Sun” marks the first real engagement of the top riders on the calendar.

By March, the dress rehearsals are over, and Paris-Nice packs the prestige and parcours to make it one of the season highlights. The race name quite literally lives up to its name, and the course leaves what’s usually a bleak and dreary Paris and central France to finally hit the sun-splashed Côte d’Azur.

After a long winter, Paris-Nice truly is the start of a new season.

How do you see these races developing in the future?

Philippe Gilbert
Philippe Gilbert racing during the Étoile de Bessèges in France in February 2020. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Startt: Well for the next few years at least, I think that their future is bright. Traveling around the world remains complicated as we enter into the third year of COVID and I think some teams and riders are even questioning its value when there are a lot of great races here in Europe.

There is a great vibe at these races as well and a lot more teams and riders are understanding that.

Everybody is motivated. The racing is good and varied. But at the same time, these are not World Tour races, so the pressure is not intense.

I covered them all last year. I returned to Etoile des Besseges for the first time in years and there was a great field, with teams like Ineos showing up. I was at the Tour de La Provence again as well as the Ardèche and Drôme Classics and I discovered the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var (what used to be the Tour du Haut Var), which was just a stunning racing with the final stage on the hills above the Mediterranean coast around Nice.

And the racing was stellar. So I have little doubt that the fields will again be tremendous for the second year in a row, and as a result, the races become more and more of an annual fixture on the international circuit. I am very positive.

Hood: I hope these races can connect with a younger, newer audience to assure their futures. Thanks to ever-improving streaming possibilities, outlets like GCN and FloBikes are giving many of these races new life. By February, the interest is sky high in road racing following a long, dormant winter. There’s definitely a niche to fill.

Key to many of these smaller races is backing from local and regional governments. These race organizers need to connect the dots between cycling’s international image and a sense that these races provide a link to something for the local communities.

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