France’s 2024 road racing season gets underway in style this weekend, with the hilly, technical Grand Prix La Marseillaise on Sunday preceding a punchy, varied five-day course in the Étoile de Bessèges-Tour du Gard, which starts on Wednesday.
Double defending champion Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost), who took a stunning solo win in the GP La Marseillaise last January before narrowly outpowering Mattias Skjelmose (Lidl-Trek) at the last possible moment for the overall victory in Bessèges, is not taking part, but there are plenty of high-profile potential successors.
Veteran Italian allrounder Matteo Trentin will show off his new Tudor colours at La Marseillaise with Magnus Cort (Uno-X) another key name to follow, while home interest will be high in U23 World Champion Axel Laurance (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and former winners Amaury Capiot (Arkéa-B&B Hotels), and Aurélien Paret-Peintre (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale).
Traditionally a battle between teams fielding fast finishers strong enough to get over the climbs – like Trentin and Lotto-Dstny’s Milan Menten – and the allrounders, this year Marseillaise has switched around the order of some of its more familiar ascents. After a rugged early section to the 167.5km course, the steep Route des Crètes (4.1km at 7.6%) precedes the draggier, much more irregular Col de la Gineste in the last 30 kilometres, culminating with a fast descent back to the coast and the finish in Marseille.
After Marseille gets the ball rolling, there will be a much deeper field for the five-day Étoile de Bessèges. This includes recent Trofeo Calvia winner Simon Carr, Irish allrounder Ben Healy and double Bessèges runner-up Alberto Bettiol, leaving EF Education-EasyPost with three potential options despite the absence of Powless.
Former World Champion and multiple Grand Tour stage winner Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek), winner of last year’s final time trial, will make his 2024 debut, and veteran Classics star Alexandre Kristoff (Uno-X Mobility) and two former winners, Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis) and Benoit Cosnefroy (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) are also taking part.
Bessèges’ first three stages are of steadily increasing difficulty, the first two with uphill grinds finishes and stage 3 much hillier throughout. Stage 4 sees the GC riders come to the fore with a final grind up to Méjannes-le-Clap, and a short time trial, again with an uphill finish, then acts as a last challenge for the overall favourites on stage 5.
Organisers will be hoping there will be no repeat of the events of last year’s stage 2 of the race, when a huge crash with 25km to go left one rider, Valentin Ferron, clinging to the side of a bridge, and indirectly led the stage to be cancelled.
Now in its 54th edition and sometimes affected by the occasional spell of tough wintry weather conditions, traditionally Bessèges is a course which features a fair share of flat, exposed terrain, often running on technical, twisting country backroads. As a result, echelons and time bonuses on the mass start stages may well once again play their part in deciding the overall winner next Sunday afternoon in the southern French town of Alès.