Traditionally the season-opener for the French calendar, this Sunday’s GP La Marseillaise is now the first pro race for everyone. It could also be the last for a while given several early-season Spanish races have been scrapped and sanitary restrictions are likely to be tightened in France meaning more races in February could be called off too (Update Saturday AM: the French government has brought in new measures but it looks like upcoming races can continue).
All the more reason to enjoy this one, starting with a race preview with the usual look at the course, the contenders and the TV schedules…
The Course: a traditional route but the change for 2021 is the distance, at 171km it’s over 20km longer than usual in a bid to offer a tougher challenge to a deeper field of riders. Normally three world tour teams have shown up (the obvious presence of FDJ and Ag2r over the years, plus regular appearances from Lotto-Soudal), only now there’s Cofidis in the World Tour, plus UAE Emirates, EF Education and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert join too.
It’s a scenic course in the hills of Provence. After an uphill start on the outskirts of Marseille the first 100km are on rolling terrain, there are some small mountain passes but the gradients are gentle, typically less than 5%. This time the longer distance means some new roads and different approaches, for example the Espigoulier is climbed from the other, shorter side this time. It’s on the approach to La Ciotat with 40km to go that the route is familiar again and where things get lively with the climb out of Les Bastides, passing by the vineyards. It’s not a steep climb but riders need to get into position here as there’s a quick descent into La Ciotat and a roundabout-strewn approach to the decisive climb of the day.
The Route des Crêtes, as in “ridge road”, is a staple for this race. It’s a 3.5km climb at 8.5% and crucially exposed to the wind over the top, so once the ascent is done the hard work isn’t over as they zig zag across the top of the cliffs. There’s a sharp descent into Cassis and then the race tackles the final climb of the Col de Gineste. It’s a climb in two parts with a steep start before levelling off. At the top there’s 10km to go.
The Finish: a quick descent off the Gineste and into Marseille with the long Boulevard Michelet as the finishing straight, 2km in one straight line and a gentle 1-2% gradient downhill before the flamme rouge and then a drag up to the line.
The Contenders: this is the hard bit given there’s no form to go on. It’s an open race at the best of times and in recent years its gone to a punchy rider who’s typically joined the attacks on the Route des Crêtes and made their move on the Col de Gineste to win from a small group. With more World Tour teams could we see a more controlled race? Maybe although it’s not as if Ineos and Jumbo-Visma have come to town and there’s a summit finish. Last year’s winner Benoît Cosenefroy is the archetype but he’s out with a knee injury. Still think of a World Tour quality rider who can finish the job from a breakaway as the obvious pick and then add some sprinters as safe picks in case of a regroupement in the final.
So rather than the usual storytelling about rider chances and team tactics we’ll cut straight to the chainring ratings.
|Anthony Turgis, Tim Wellens, Matteo Trentin|
|John Degenkolb, Lilian Calmejane, Pierre Latour|
|Thomas, Herrada, Coquard, EBH, Geniez, Vendrame|
|Laporte, Eiking, Capiot, Carr, Pasqualon, De Bie|
La Marseillaise: the name means “of Marseille” in the same way you could have a New Yorker Grand Prix or a Londoner GP. But it’s also the name of the local newspaper which organises the race and the race director Pierre Guille is the events manager for the newspaper. He is also the man behind the pétanque world championships which boldly claims to the be world’s largest sports event even if most people outside of France and Thailand won’t have heard of it. In a good year it can have 15,000 participants which is substantially more than the summer Olympics.
First race? Yes there have been races in New Zealand and Spain so far this year but not at the professional level of .1 and above on the UCI classification.
The Curse: there’s been talk of a winner’s curse here, a malédiction. But much like the “problem” of winning the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad the issue here isn’t one of superstition but timing and attitude. Win this Sunday and you might have peaked too soon or you think everything’s on track so go easy on the training or diet and so lose out in the weeks to come. Or simply that if win once here you’ve done alright.
Weather: Updated Sunday AM – cloudy with some sunshine later on. A breeze of 30km/h from the NW could gust to 45km/h. It means a headwind for a lot of the final, from the start of the Route des Crêtes right to the finish line and this should give the sprinters an advantage as it makes life hard for any late attacks. Top temperature 14°C.
TV: it’s on France 3 locally in the Marseille area and Eurosport/GCN for the rest of the world between 2.30pm and 4.30pm Euro time.