Over recent days I have been gazing at the landscape of the Département du Gard unfolding behind the peloton of the wonderfully named Étoile de Bessèges, the first professional stage race of the European calendar. If your French geography needs a little light sharpening, then the Gard is right down in the south of the country, hemmed in to the north west by the Cévennes national park, which Vincent van Gogh celebrated in intense swirls of oil, and studded in the middle by the jewel that is Nîmes.
Bessèges is a tiny little town, constructed to supply the local coal mine with workers in the early 19th century, whose population has now dwindled to just over 3,000. And yet, for those us with road racing coursing through our veins, its name is heavy with meaning.
Fifty years ago this year, the recently retired Roland Fangille, a moderately successful son of Bessèges and president of the local cycling club, created a race which this year reaches its half century. Originally a one day race it is older than the Grand Prix La Marseillaise which it now follows, as the French cycling season trickles into life through the lemony sunshine and frigid hillside air of Gard, winding along narrow villages and gentle plains, past meandering rivers like the Cèze. The race passes by huddled figures by the side of the road, clapping gloved hands in support, bonfires lifting winter smoke aloft as fallen leaves are burnt in readiness for spring, still some way off.
1971 was the first edition. There were only 24 starters, one of whom was Raymond Poulidor, a lifelong friend of Fangille. Barry Hoban finished in third place. By 1974 it had become a stage race. Remarkably, and this is a rare achievement in the febrile world of cycling’s finances, the race has continued uninterrupted for fifty years. It has been an important test of early season form, especially for French riders; producing a string of home-grown winners. In fact, it is one of those races which is specifically targeted by riders whose class would perhaps not reach to greater heights, but who would nevertheless count their wins at the Étoile de Bessèges as a lifetime high. But equally, it is a stepping stone to greater things as the 2020 champion Benoît Cosnefroy will doubtless go on to prove.
Sadly, Roland Fangille will not be around this year to witness the half century of his race. Covid 19 claimed his life last year. He died on the 19th of November at home in Bessèges, at the age of 81. In French cycling circles, from Cyrille Guimard to Daniel Mangeas and Marc Madiot, there was an outpouring of sadness and gratitude.
Because we now know how fragile the cycling calendar is, each race that starts feels like a win. Each race which is completed feels precious. Each race has its own character. This one, given such prominence in 2021 as the big names in the sport put in a rare appearance to bank up some racing kilometres, has more personality than most. On behalf of us all, watching on this unique distance in time and space, M. Fangille’s legacy is shining more brightly than ever. Merci, Roland!