High level climbers will clash in Tour de la Provence 2022, which features Nairo Quintana and Ivan Sosa, who both performed at a very high level on Chalet Reynard in the 2020 and 2021 editions respectively. This year the Queen stage will finish on the mighty Montagne de Lure, a 13.4 kilometre long climb at a consistent 6.5% gradient. The race runs from the 10th to the 13th of February.
Due to the abundant Covid-19 situation in Europe, the virus has also taken its toll in the pro peloton. Many teams will race with incomplete squads, including AG2R Citroën, DSM and Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl who will participate with only five out of seven maximum allowed riders. Riders who were scheduled to participate, such as INEOS’ talent Magnus Sheffield and Quickstep’s sprinter Davide Ballerini, were withdrawn late after both testing positive for COVID. Ballerini began his magic February here last year, where he won two stages, including this well timed sprint to beat Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni.
The opening stage will be a seven kilometre flat prologue.
The ITT World Champion, Filippo Ganna will be by far the biggest favourite to clean up this stage, after opening his account for the season at the Etoile de Besseges time-trial last week which included a 2.5km climb.
Perhaps Ganna’s biggest competition coming from within his own team, in the form of young Brit Ethan Hayter. Other solid time trial riders such as Maciej Bodnar, Patrick Bevin, Tobias Ludvigsson will also try to challenge for stage podium placings.
Stage 1 is made for pure sprinters. It’s pancake flat in the last 115 kilometres.
Arnaud Demare last year in Provence lost to Davide Ballerini in the first sprint, with Bauhaus taking out the second. This year is one of the rare occasions that Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl will race practically without a sprinter. Their best option is … Julian Alaphilippe. Other sprinters that might challenge Demare include Elia Viviani (who looked ok at Valenciana), Bryan Coquard, Pierre Barbier, Rudy Barbier and Andrea Vendrame. With this level of competition even St Michel – Auber93 French continental team sprinter Jason Tesson might finish on podium.
Stage 2 profile reminds me of something from the Ardennes or Bretagne. A lot of small climbs and the finish ends on a slight rise.
The stage can end with a sprint between the big guys if it is raced passively. If the tempo is hard enough, then Coquard and Cofidis might try and put pressure on Arnaud Demare. INEOS also have a difficult decision to make in choosing whether to go for Ethan Hayer, who is very strong on a hilly stage with a slight uphill finish or their bunch sprinter Viviani. Alaphilippe will be the key for this stage, as he raced aggressively on late climbs in Stage 1 of Provence last year but here he might fancy himself in the uphill drag to Manosque. Due to incomplete squads it might be harder for teams to control attacks and set up a group sprint, so there might be more attempts later in the stage from climbers/puncheurs such as Paret-Peintre or Gilbert.
Tour de la Provence will end with a different mountain top finish to the previous two years, changing from Chalet Reynard to the longer Montagne de Lure of 13.4 km at 6.5%.
Steeper sections are at the end of the climb, with the last four kilometres averaging just over 7%. We would expect Movistar to pace the climb as hard as possible for Sosa as well as Arkea for Quintana if he is feeling good. Early attacks on the climb from these favourites are unlikely given the ease of the stage beforehand and the early shallow gradients. The last four kilometres are where it will kick off.
Nairo Quintana in the 2020 edition of Provence dropped a thermonuclear bomb on Chalet Reynard doing 6,67 w/kg for 28:12, which is one of the greatest climbing performances since the 1998 Festina Scandal. If Nairoman can get his early 2020 pre-covid form then anything can happen.
The winner of the 2021 edition of Provence, Ivan Sosa will also line up for his first stage race in a Movistar jersey here. In the previous year, while riding for INEOS, the Colombian attacked on the slopes of Chalet Reynard, winning both the stage and the general classification. His performance on Chalet Reynard was great for an early season attempt – 6,31 w/kg for 29:15, but he failed to show anything near that level for the remainder of the year.
In 2022 Sosa warmed up with three Mallorcan one-day races and now he has got the first big chance to prove himself this year. Movistar have sent Gorka Izagirre, Matteo Jorgenson, Antonio Pedrero and Oscar Rodriguez to accompany him, all of whom on their day are good enough climbers to top 10 this Montagne de Lure stage – they are by far the strongest climbing team.
Double World Champion Julian Alaphilippe’s preparation was influenced by a cold and he did not go to a team camp in Portugal before Provence. Clearly, he will not be in his best shape. Probably in this form he cannot reach the level of his Chalet Reynard 2021 performance (6.23 w/kg for 29:30), but taking into consideration the prologue and hilly sprint stage, where he actually might get some bonus seconds, Alaphilippe even not at his best, might still do something in GC if he tries.
Egan Bernal had planned to ride Provence before he severely crashed during training camp in Colombia. In 2021 the Colombian sat on Alaphilippe’s wheel on Chalet Reynard, while his then teammate Sosa was going after a victory. INEOS’ main GC hope this year is Richard Carapaz, who crashed hard in Etoile de Besseges last week but avoided serious injury and continued the race. It is hard to predict how well Ethan Hayter will do at this race. He should take time on all other GC contenders in the prologue, as well as possible bonus seconds on at least one of the sprint stages. The big question mark is on Montagne de Lure, which will be the longest climb he has done against such competition as a possible leader. Despite winning frequently (including GC) in 2021, he did not race on a climb that is anything as long and hard or with a team as strong as Movistar. This question mark similarly applies to new Quickstep signing Ilan van Wilder, who should be in a strong position after the TT and punchy stage 2, but suffered on longer climbs throughout 2021.
21-year-old Danish climber Mattias Skjelmose Jensen surprised everyone with a great result in the UAE Tour in 2021 where he finished 6th on GC in a high level World Tour stage race. The podium is possible for Skjelmose Jensen, and would be an expected progression, as he has a competent time trial paired with a history of high level performances on climbs in recent races.
Two time Vuelta a Espana stage winner Michael Storer will also debut for Groupama – FDJ in Provence. He is the only GC option for the French World Tour team who signed him for this express purpose, after his success in the similar race Tour de l’Ain last year. It will be interesting to see whether the Australian can replicate his dominant level from the Vuelta a Espana in this early season race.