While the those touted for Grand Tour glory seek refuge beneath the Middle Eastern sun during Europe’s dingy opening to 2015; Haut Var comes as a welcome blast of grit and guts for the Classics hopefuls. Two days of back to back old school style racing await those wanting to cement their names in history come the cobbled/muddy/dusty/hilly (delete as appropriate) spring racing. Haut Var’s terrain is not extreme enough for mountain men, nor concluding with finishes which favour sprinters either; it only lends itself to a very specific breed of rider. Legs flood with lactic acid as riders are expected to plunge deep into the red zone to just stick the pace; to create a race winning move requires honed guile for this environment.
Though the second day of Haut Var has not changed, basing itself once again around the city of Draguignan; the opening day’s race will see a new finish in Seillans however. The peloton will have to conquer 164.6km’s worth of racing from Le Cannet des Maures before they can contest the sprint of 2015’s first day. Five moderate climbs are stitched together in order to form the majority of the day’s racing, but it is the final 15.5km which are set to decide the winner. The 300m run up Mur de Montauroux is guaranteed to shatter the spirit as the bunch are tasked with cresting its mind numbing 21% gradient. Once climbed, a resulting descent is short, leading them into the final 10km of road which edged upwards in gradient to the line.
On the second day, life will seem more familiar to any who have raced here before; an out and back route around Draguignan. Asking the peloton to climb hills throughout its entire 194.7km, the stage profile would look at home in the gums of a shark. The accumulative efforts of hauling themselves over consecutive climbs will ensure the victor endures a war of attrition to earn the win come the finish. Two circuits around Draguignan conclude the race, the first of which is relatively forgiving, while the second features gradients of 15% on the Cote de Tuilieres. Their route remains lumpy until the actual finishing straight, offering the remaining men a chance to sprint on the flat for the win; perhaps teasingly so.
With this terrain on offer, Philippe Gilbert is the clear favourite to blossom both days ahead of opening his Classics campaign. He appeared to have sound form in Dubai and finished comfortably every day in Qatar; he certainly has the tactical nous to tame this unpredictable race too. AG2R are still without a win this season, but will dream of remedying that soon with the participation of defending champion Carlos Betancur and Samuel Dumoulin. As the Colombian Bentancur has left a lot to be desired as of late, it might be wise for the French outfit to back Dumoulin instead; especially as both finishes suit him if he remains in contention.
Another French team with zero wins currently is FDJ, possibly supporting climber Kevin Reza in hope of breaking their duck at last. The man climbs well when on form and would benefit if sprinting from a reduced sprint on either stage. Thomas Voeckler has a great history at the race and could well win the first day on the uphill sprint; winning it twice previously overall should have equipped him with the skills to defend the lead if he finds himself with a good margin after day one.
The unpredictable nature of the race means outsiders still have something worth fighting despite the presence of Philippe Gilbert. Franco Pellizotti, Davide Rebellin, Rinaldo Noncentini, John Darwin Atapuma, Simon Spilak and Julien Simon could all be part of the rag-tag squad which hopes to throw a spanner in the works of Gilbert; should the moment take them.