A gruelling bike race in the final weekend of February and a middle-aged fan reverently laying out Topsport Vlaanderen rider cards, ready to be autographed? Tick.
Cold wind whipping through a parking lot? You betcha. A hardened regular in the local bar drinking a beer at nine-thirty in the morning? Hic. Well, it certainly looks and feels like Het Nieuwsblad.
Mais non, there are telling signs otherwise. The novelty oversized Ricard bottles and Olympique Marseille football flags in this drinking establishment, for one. Then there’s the 13th century cliff-top chateau standing out beyond the start line and gendarmes queuing by the stand for crêpes à la farine de châtaigne.
Welcome to south-east France, and the Classic Sud-Ardèche and Drôme Classic – “The hardest races nobody has heard of,” as one hurting WorldTour rider dubbed them afterwards. This is where cobble-fearing climbers like Romain Bardet, Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers head while attention is fixed on Het Nieuwsblad.
I discovered this double-header after happening upon the YouTube highlights from the Drôme Classic’s maiden edition in 2014. It showed little Samuel Dumoulin attacking from the chasing group on the final hill, going straight past a flagging breakaway and then flying down the other side to victory.
The helicopter camera followed him through a narrow corridor between the terracotta roofs and white walls of Haut-Livron old town.
His winning descent to the finish had four steep corners; he nearly locked up into the hay bales on one. It was reckless, unsanitised, reminiscent of a Milan-Sanremo finale, but in a medieval Gallic setting. I had to go and check it out.
These regions of south-eastern France are off the beaten track, encircled by bigger peaks and more popular calling points: Marseille and Lyon lie to the north and south, the Massif Central and the Alps to the west and east.
Bisected by the Rhône – so you can be sure the wine is up to scratch – the Ardèche might be more familiar as that place where you went white water rafting as a kid, whereas a mention of the Drôme inevitably conjures up track cycling.
It’s refreshing to see an attempt at reinvention in one of the sport’s traditional territories. Because, below the WorldTour level, something is rotten in the state of French cycling.
We are regularly waving au revoir to its venerable bike races – the Midi Libre, Tour de Picardie, Tour Méd and Critérium International in the last decade alone. This is a rare pair of new events with tough, technical courses and a surprisingly star-studded line-up. That means exciting racing, dramatic scenery and a few teething problems, as we discovered.
This is an edited extract of “No Place Like Drôme” from issue 17.1 of Rouleur, on sale now.