With a number of races falling by the wayside due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a star-studded field heads to France on Thursday for the four-day Tour de la Provence.
In total, 14 WorldTour teams are set to compete, with a high quality batch of sprinters, breakaway specialists and GC contenders all vying for success.
World champion Julian Alaphillipe is the biggest name on the start list but Cyclingnews has selected nine more riders to watch as the race unfolds in a series of sprints, climbs and the iconic finish on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux.
Cyclingnews will have complete live coverage from the event, starting on Thursday.
There were a number of standout performances from the Russian in 2020 but the most memorable came on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, when he put the likes of Richie Porte and Guillaume Martin to the sword in the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge.
The buzz around Vlasov waned due to an early DNF at the Giro d’Italia due to illness but he bounced back from that, and a slow to start to the Vuelta España, to finish 11th in just his second Grand Tour. The former Baby Giro winner will have additional responsibility on his shoulders this year after Miguel Angel López jumped ship to Movistar, and with Jakob Fuglsang attracted by the prospect of racing the Olympic Games.
Vlasov is set for a second tilt at the Giro, and could possibly threaten the podium but there are a number of key stepping stones before we reach that point and they start with trying to create some early season momentum on the fertile terrain where he sowed his most impressive win to date. He was also second overall in Provence last year but he comes into the 2021 version a marked man.
- Age: 24
- Team: Ineos Grenadiers
Egan Bernal is the obvious standout, while Laurens de Plus is worth tracking after completing just two days of racing in 2020, but behind those two sits a rider who will be looking to get back on track after a complicated season that was disrupted by injury.
Dunbar finished 22nd in his maiden Grand Tour in 2019 and almost came away with a stage win but, having missed out on a three-week race last year, the 24-year-old finds himself having to climb the Ineos ladder once more as he establishes himself for a second time.
A Giro d’Italia return looks like the obvious choice at this stage but Dunbar has form for these early season events, especially when some of the more experienced stage racers are still blowing away the winter cobwebs. He was sixth in the race last year, and seventh the year prior, so with De Plus lacking race days and Bernal still building, Dunbar has the chance to send a timely reminder of his class.
He will be hoping that his luck has at least changed. He crashed in Tirreno last year and was ruled out of the Giro due to a broken collarbone and then crashed on the same side in training, which ended any hopes of riding the Vuelta.
- Age: 30
- Team: Qhubeka Assos
The Italian hasn’t raced on the road since he abandoned the Tour de France and Giuseppe Saronni gave his public masterclass in how not to manage athletes or people in general.
The passing months have seen something of a refresh for Aru, who has signed for a team that at least appear keen on having his presence on the team bus, while also returning to his roots and competing in a number of cyclo-cross races. After a frankly torrid time at UAE that was littered with mistakes, injury and self-doubt, the former Vuelta winner looks to be racing with a smile on his face. All of that goodwill and excitement will carry Aru deep into the spring, but a statement performance and a reminder of his climbing pedigree would go along way to proving that Doug Ryder’s team have picked up a bargain, and that there’s still plenty of life in Aru’s engine.
Provence is unlikely to define Aru’s season but it could still set the tone. For the neutrals, who just want to see a rider turn struggle into success, Aru is the rider to follow.
- Age: 29
- Team: Groupama-FDJ
Sam Bennett’s Tour de France achievements might nudge him ahead of Démare in the totally made-up title of ‘best sprinter of 2020’ but there’s no doubting the Frenchman’s record post-lockdown. From August 5 to the end of the Giro, the 29-year-old won 14 races and several points titles. He was simply unbeatable.
It’s been a case of constant building and refining for Démare at FDJ, who has lived in the shadows of other sprinters despite never having all of the opportunities many of his rivals have enjoyed.
In the last few years, Démare has taken a few races before he’s found winning form but, given the purple patch he had in the second half of 2020, and his newfound confidence, Provence looks like the perfect race for the Frenchman to keep his streak going ahead of more daunting challenges in the spring Classics.
- Age: 29
- Team: Lotto Soudal
Wellens is the man in form after his win at Étoile de Bessèges, where he flourished on a course that suited his aggressive riding style. The Tour de la Provence route has different aspects to the terrain Wellens conquered in Bessèges but two things are guaranteed over the coming days: the Lotto rider is destined to attack before many of the pure climbers show themselves, and he’ll at least challenge for top-10 honours.
Wellens has established himself as a genuine GC threat in races that sit just below the Dauphiné, Tirreno and races of that ilk, but, like his teammate Thomas de Gendt, he’s worked to his strengths, dialled back some lofty ambitions, and won some highly-rated races to build a palmarès that’s both eclectic and impressive.
- Age: 21
- Team: Bahrain Victorious
Jack Haig will be hoping to make a good impression on his first outing in team colours, while Phil Bauhaus will lead the team in the sprints, according to a recent press release but Wright is the rider to watch.
The 21-year-old enjoyed a promising Grand Tour debut in the Vuelta a España, finishing fourth on a stage won by Jasper Philipsen, and while Bauhaus takes leadership of the sprints, it will be interesting to see where Wright fits in. Bahrain Victorious are desperate for a sprinter who can pick up a handful of wins each year to bolster team morale and keep the victory tally moving in the right direction, and, after two wins in two years, Bauhaus might not be the rider to do it.
Wright, a former stage winner in the Tour de l’Avenir, is ready for a chance to step up, either in Provence or later in the spring. In terms of other young sprinters, watch out for Max Kanter at DSM. He also won a stage in Avenir and looked strong during last year’s Vuelta a España.
- Age: 28
- Team: Deceuninck-QuickStep
The world champion hasn’t raced since the Tour of Flanders crash that ended his season but, even if the 28-year-old is undercooked and only at 80 per cent of his capacity, he can still be relied upon to light up the race.
Expect possible attacks on any of the stages over the four-day race and something either clinical or long-distance on the slopes of Ventoux.
Patrick Lefevere’s team have sent an incredibly deep line-up to the race too, so Rémi Cavagna and the promising Mauri Vansevenant are worthy of a follow too but there’s no way Alaphilppe can be ignored.
In terms of unadulterated talent, Ghirmay looks like the real deal. At just 20, he has made it through the convoluted visa process that many Eritrean riders stumble over and forged a blossoming career in Europe’s lower divisions.
He was fourth in the Giro della Toscana last year behind three WorldTour sprinters, while his even more impressive second place at Laigueglia demonstrated that the rider has more than one string to his bow. This kid can sprint, he can climb, and he’s clearly meshed with European racing at a rate of knots.
He has a contract with Delko until the end of 2024 but if Ghirmay’s trajectory improves at this sort of rate then expect a pack of WorldTour teams to show interest.
He probably won’t win a stage, and the GC isn’t his target with Enric Mas in the team, but watch out for this young rider from Puerto Rico because Movistar have unearthed a real potential star after signing the rider from the domestic ranks in Spain last winter.
González bumped from team to team last year as he travelled from Europe to America and back but his second half display after lockdown really caught Movistar’s eye, with a three-year contract agreed late in the year. González was sensational at times last year, winning the Torredonjimeno round of the Spanish Road Series before winning the time trial in the Vuelta a Alicante and taking third in the prestigious Memorial Valenciaga.
González also becomes the first rider from Puerto Rico to step up to WorldTour level and over the coming months could well make an immediate impact.
- Age: 25
- Team: AG2R Citroën
Our final spot almost went to Jesús Herrada from Cofidis but in the end O’Connor shades it. The Australian signed a one-year deal with Vincent Lavenu’s team after a superb Vuelta a España in which he won a stage and secured 20th overall. He also won the final stage of last year’s race, having turned away from his typical season opener at the Santos Tour Down Under.
He’s back in Provence again and part of a new-look team that includes Michael Schär and the exciting Aurélien Paret-Peintre, who won the Grand Prix La Marseillaise last month.