From a cycling commentator’s perspective, there was something pleasingly reassuring about the first few stages of the Tour du Haut Var (I refuse to call it anything else, unless pursued through the courts to do so).
This time of year is a period of deep-set panic. When we are waiting to make our commentary debuts for the season (mine starts with Paris-Nice this year), we devour race footage to try and get up to speed on a peloton that has mutated into something different over the winter.
New sponsors, bafflingly similar kits, most of which are either red or white this year it seems, and transfers that you already know will trip you up for weeks and months to come. He wasn’t a part of the Haut Var peloton, but as I write this I am watching a feed of the UAE Tour and have noticed that Gregor Mühlberger rides for Movistar. How was this allowed to happen? What was he thinking? It’s insane. Austrians have no place alongside Alejandro Valverde.
Anyway, back to France.
The first two differing uphill finishes of the Haut Var threw up some decent attacks from familiar figures. Nairo Quintana had a little bit of a dig on stage one, which was good to see (though French TV only offered us a miserly non-live 2 minutes of highlights). Quintana’s move to Arkea Samsic had promised so much this time last year, but post-lockdown, delivered much less and ended in double knee surgery.
Stage winning form from Bauke Mollema (long drag of a climb) and Michael Woods (punchy wall) produced popular results from well-liked campaigners. Also, the strength of Greg van Avermaet in his new and eye-catching colours was like watching the GVA of a couple of years ago. We’ve missed him of late.
Ineos came to the race with a couple of Grand Tour winners in their team, as well as a couple of former world champions of various different kinds. Rohan Dennis looks like he’s picked up exactly where he left off last year, relishing his role as a super super domestique deluxe.
There was even a short-lived but very enjoyable flash of anger from Dennis when he’d swung off the front on stage 2 only to find that his teammate van Baarle was nowhere to be seen. This led to Dennis turning into an Australian wicket keeper, with van Baarle playing the role of an Indian batsmen (niche cricket reference, folks) and Geoghegan Hart seemingly on the radio trying to smooth things over. That was one of the more satisfying cameos of the race, as was middle-distance runner Tom Pidcock’s race – at the back with 10k to go, one of his favourite distances. Suddenly he appears by magic on the front with 3 to go, catches the breakaway and sets the battle up. Nothing if not dynamic, the Pidcock.
And then came stage three with its difficult to manage breakaway being dictated by three of the best from Groupama FDJ.
Israel Start-Up Nation had their work cut out to control a frightening group of GC players and opportunists up the road. Up and down and around the hills to the north of Nice and Menton the race wound, offering absurdly tantalising views of the Mediterranean behind perched villages that were heartbreakingly beautiful for anyone whose yearning for travel is built into their DNA. When will this enforced distance from life simply be a distant memory, and no longer an ongoing agony?
Ah, but the race blew the locked doors off.
Over the Madone it produced one of those wonderful hanging outcomes where one of ten or so riders could plausibly win, something at one point or another almost all of them almost did. Distinct groups with varied motivations all descending with a minute of one another and 20k still to run. All this, with the still-winter sun slipping ever lower and the shadows extending. The low autumn sun had been such a feature of the postponed Vuelta last year and this felt like the racing had never gone away.
And in the end, despite Groupama FDJ throwing everything; heart, soul and sinew at the race, they came away with nothing more than our affection and gratitude, which was such a Groupama FDJ thing to do that it made the world feel whole and normal.
Gianluca Brambilla won even though no one had said that Gianluca Brambilla would win this race, packed with world class talent as never before. This was mainly because Gianluca Brambilla hadn’t won a bike race for almost five years, since he raced for Quick Step, took a Giro and wore the Maglia Rosa then went to Spain and won at the Vuelta too.
After years of service to others, this was a very handsome victory against sustained and serious opponents. Which was great. I like him.
I like bike racing.