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PROVENCE, France (VN) – World champion Julian Alaphilippe, Olympic champion Richard Carapaz, former Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España winner Nairo Quintana and defending Provence champion Iván Sosa are the headliners in the seventh edition of the Tour de la Provence. The French race begins with a 7km prologue time trial on Thursday and concludes Sunday with a summit finish at the Montagne de Lure ski station.
Runner-up last year, Alaphilippe will be making his first appearance of the season in the four-day race that’s co-directed by his partner, Marion Rousse. The Frenchman will be joined in a strong QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl line-up by punchy Davide Ballerini, and GC prospect Ilan Van Wilder, who will be making his first competitive appearance since leaving Team DSM last September. Tour of Flanders champion Kasper Asgreen was slated to race but has been forced out due to COVID.
Attracted by the finale on the 1,570-meter Montagne de Lure, the field at Provence also features many of the leading climbers, including 2020 winner Nairo Quintana. Like Alaphilippe, the Colombian is set for his season debut for Arkéa-Samsic. His compatriot and defending champion Iván Sosa is also in the field, although now in Movistar colors having left Ineos over the winter. American Matteo Jorgenson is in the Spanish team’s line-up too.
Ineos Grenadiers have confirmed that their Olympic road champion Richard Carapaz should start despite a crash at last week’s Étoile de Bessèges that led to him sitting out that event’s final-day time trial due to soreness resulting from his fall two days earlier. The Ecuadorean will be backed by a typically strong line-up that includes young American Magnus Sheffield, who was impressively strong at Bessèges, the highly experienced British domestique Luke Rowe and his compatriot Ethan Hayter, an all-rounder who should be among the contenders for the opening TT.
Last year’s Vuelta King of the Mountains and double stage-winner Michael Storer is set for his debut in Groupama-FDJ colors following his transfer from DSM. Other climbers who will be aiming to be in contention on the Montagne de Lure and for the GC include Trek-Segafredo’s Giulio Ciccone, AG2R Citroën’s Aurélien Paret-Peintre and Total Energies’ Pierre Latour, who finished fourth at Bessèges.
The race begins Thursday with a 7.1km time trial at Berre l’Étang, just to the north of Marseille. The out-and-back course alongside the Étang de Berre lagoon is flat and fast. Hayter and Sheffield will among the favorites for victory, along with Israel-Premier Tech’s Patrick Bevin and Total Energies’ Maciej Bodnar.
The second stage from Istres to Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer in the marshy Camargue area Rhône river delta looks the easiest of the three road stages, but could be affected by strong winds. It should suit the sprinters, including Hayter, B&B Hotels’ Luca Mozzato, and DSM trio Nikias Arndt, John Degenkolb, and Casper Pedersen.
Day three is the longest stage of the race, the 180.8km route between Arles and Manosque bumping relentlessly through Provence’s rugged interior, crossing three categorized climbs. The finish is uphill, but only rising at 3-4% for the final kilometer, ideal for a punchy sprinter such as QuickStep’s Davide Ballerini or AG2R’s Andrea Vendrame.
The race ends with the “queen” stage, which includes two circuits of a loop featuring the third-category Col de Buire before the 14km ascent to the Montagne de Lure ski station, a long climbing test considering how early in the season it is. It’s a steady haul, averaging 6% with occasional steeper pitches into double figures in the final 5k at the end of what should be the race’s critical GC stage.
Paris-Nice has tackled this southern side of the Lure on two occasions, Alberto Contador winning in 2009 and Richie Porte victorious in 2013. Quintana, Alaphilippe, Carapaz, Sosa, and Storer will be among the favorites to join that exclusive list on a day where temperatures are currently forecast to be just above freezing at the resort, with a strong possibility of rain or snow.
Tour de la Provence stages
Prologue TT, February 10: Berre L’Étang, 7km
Stage 1, February 11: Istres – Les Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, 151.8km
Stage 2, February 12: Arles – Manosque, 180.6km
Stage 3, February 13: Manosque – Montagne de Lure, 166.1km