There probably won’t be another event on the calendar this season where the organiser can say that they turned down requests to race from the likes of Movistar, Astana, Deceuninck-QuickStep and UAE Team Emirates. That one fact says much about the change in status that the Étoile de Bessèges has undergone in recent weeks, as Covid-related fears and restrictions led to a flurry of race cancellations. Blessed with just three WorldTour teams on its start-list as recently as 2018, it has a full quota of 11 this week and could have welcomed most of the rest.
That this small but well-established five-day race has benefited in this way is partly down to circumstances, but also to the tenacity of its organising team, led by Claudine Allègre-Fangille. She stepped into the role when her father and Étoile de Bessèges founder Roland Fangille fell ill last year. He died in November having contracted the coronavirus, and his daughter was determined for the event to go ahead in his memory.
“We’ve had to cope with all kinds of hurdles,” she says in between welcoming VIPs and directing race traffic at the stage two start in Saint-Génies-de-Malgoirès. “The key thing that we’ve had to contend with is making sure that the teams can remain within a secure sanitary bubble when they’re on the race.
“We were told a week and half ago that we’d have to make sure that the public were kept away from the start and finish areas, but it’s very difficult to achieve that because, after all, a bike race is entertainment and people are drawn to it, especially bearing in mind the level of the field we’ve got here, with the likes of Egan Bernal taking part. Trying to ensure that has meant that we’ve had to provide a double layer of barriers, for example, and that’s just one of the many things that we’ve had to implement at very short notice.”
Allègre-Fangille admits that there were plenty of occasions when she thought that the race would join the growing list of events forced into abeyance, for one season at least. “There were moments when we thought that it might not go ahead. We didn’t know what President Macron might announce last week,” she says.
“We got an email in our inbox just last Wednesday saying that it was likely that the president would announce a new lockdown and that the race wouldn’t be able to take place, but that didn’t happen. But we were still uncertain about what might happen right to the last moment.”
As races such as the Tour Down Under, the Tour of San Luis, the Ruta del Sol, the Tour of the Algarve and, most recently, the Tour of Valencia were either cancelled or postponed, Allègre-Fangille’s inbox was also being filled with requests from teams for a place on the start list. They mainly came from top-level WorldTeam outfits.
“We had an awful lots of teams that wanted to come and race here. We had requests from Astana, from Movistar, from UAE, from QuickStep, but I was the one who selected the teams in December and there was no way that I was going to let down those teams that I’d already told could have a place,” she explains.
“We wanted to respect the fact that some of those teams have supported this race for many years. But we did ask whether we could invite more than the 20 teams we were allowed and were told that this would be fine if there was enough space within the bubble to accommodate them safely. We went out and checked the parking areas and decided that we could invite two more teams, and those were Bora and Ineos, who did apply to race before the end of December.”
While it is very sad, of course, that Roland Fangille didn’t see his race adorned with what is probably its strongest field ever, including no fewer than three Tour de France winners and three world champions, it does act as a tremendous tribute to him, and to the work that he and the volunteers did over the previous 50 editions of the Étoile.
“I think my father would be proud of what we’ve achieved this year. He loved the riders and this race was his life. I think if he could be here he’d be so impressed with the teams and riders we’ve got, it’s turned out to be a great homage to him,” says his Allègre-Fangille, beaming with pride.