The season has started the Tour Down and the Tour de San Luis. But this weekend marks the return of road racing in the Northern Hemisphere with the Grand Prix d’Ouverture-La Marseillaise. With it comes a sense of familiarity and repetition and if there are only a few hours to go before this race starts you sense there’s another clock ticking too and this race along with others might have only a few years left on the calendar.
The start and finish are in Marseille, France’s second city. A loud place with a touch more hustle than bustle that’s often in the news for violence and strikes but away from the scare stories often good for a visit. The race offers a series of climbs makes up the route, in general the race is either going up or down. The biggest climb is the Pas de la Couelle, known to cyclists as the Petit Galibier or “small Galibier” with sections at 7% but the decisive point is usually the Col de l’Espigoulier.
None of these climbs are tough, they are usually done in the big ring and are a useful test of early season form. A sprinter in good shape can get over them with the leaders. Indeed the race has been won by sprinters in the past but the course can make it hard to organise a chase. The countyside was made famous by Marcel Pagnol and works like Marius and Manon des Sources (made into a successful film t00).
The finish is flat and outside the Stade Vélodrome. Once a cycling track, today the stadium is the home of Olympique Marseille, one of France’s top soccer clubs. The Tour finished here last summer where Mark Cavendish won the stage ahead of Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Superstition: it’s said this is a race you don’t want to win, even that the winner is cursed for the rest of the season. The more rational explanation is that the winner is the strongest on the day and they’ve peaked too early and perhaps the winner gets too self-congratulatory and loses focus on training. Curse? Anyone starting wants to win.
Contenders: it’s hard to pick a single rider because most have yet to start racing and because the race is so open. Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol) has a fast finish and will find the hills no problem, the same for Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Michel Kreder (Wanty-Gobert) too. Watch Romain Feillu to see if Bretagne-Séché’s new signing is back; the same for Julien Simon (Cofidis). But the prime pick is John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) with the outside tip of IAM Cycling’s Matteo Pelucchi. Update: Bryan Coquard is a late addition to the start list so “the Green knight” is a worthy pick too.
You’ll find the full startlist over at procyclingstats.com
Weather: a cool 10°C (50°F) with the infamous Mistral wind promising to rip things up as it gusts to 65km/h.
Why might this race have only a few years left? Ouverture means “opening” as in the start of the season. But this doesn’t mean accessible. There’s no race website and you have to sleuth details like the profile from fan sites. Nobody in France is talking about it. Even the newspaper that promotes the race has nothing on its website. Locals wanting to see the event are thwarted in their struggle to find where the race goes. This is the opposite of sports promotion, it’s cyclesport confidential.
Meanwhile teams and riders can look at new races like the Dubai Tour which offer an equal amount of UCI points but way more in terms of publicity and promotion with TV promised as well as generous prize money, appearance fee payments and more including five star hotels to pamper the riders, team staff and visiting media too.
The competition is tough and maybe unfair. Rather than knock La Marseillaise we should salute the local organising committee, it’s an effort just to get the race on the road especially given the rising police costs this year in France. But they can’t compete against the petrodollars flowing out of Dubai. This race started in 1980 and its future is not eternal.