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When French veteran Samuel Dumoulin won the opening stage of the Tour du Haut Var-Matin in a 22-rider uphill sprint on Saturday, he was helping to extend the life of the longest-surviving bike race on the Côte d’Azur. I first traveled to this scenic region of southeast France almost half a century ago to report on the dozen or so early-season events that most of the European peloton then contested to get in shape for the more challenging races of March and April. The major teams based their training camps in hotels along the Mediterranean coast, with all of the one-day races close by. “We could have an intense day of racing, followed by a quiet day of training. It was perfect to prepare for the season,” said Lucien Aimar, who won the 1966 Tour de France.
Words: John Wilcockson | Image: Yuzuru Sunada
The February program was also perfect for journalists, with warm temperatures, palm trees along the coast and mimosas blooming in their yellow glory. During that 1969 trip I reported on events all along the glamorous Côte d’Azur, from Aix-en-Provence in the west to Menton in the east, with St. Tropez, St. Raphaël, Fréjus, Cannes, Grasse, Antibes and Nice in between. Most of these Grand Prix races were held on circuits while others looped into the Alpes-Maritime backcountry. There were also some point-to-point semi-classics, including one from Genoa in Italy to Nice. A new race that year was called Nice–Seillans—which would evolve into today’s Tour du Haut Var.
The new event was the idea of Moïse Puginier, a flamboyant real estate developer who loved cycling and lived in Seillans, a hilltop medieval village not far from the much bigger town of Draguignan. The hilly race was an immediate success, with the victory going to the most popular French cyclist Raymond Poulidor, while 1970 Tour champion Joop Zoetemelk helped establish the race with a record three victories, making his attacks on the spectacular climbs that surround the town. Poulidor still attends the race as one of its patrons.
For four decades, Puginier and the local sports club continued organizing the race—which changed its name to Tour du Haut Var when the course became a series of loops focused on Draguignan. Among the benefactors were former French team directors Maurice De Muer and Raphaël Geminiani, who lived in the area. The reins were passed on in 2006 to the Draguignan Olympic cycling center under its president Serge Pascal. He converted the single-day race into a two-day stage race in 2009 and obtained title sponsorship from one of the local daily newspapers, Var-Matin, in 2011. Hence the name change to Tour du Haut Var-Matin.
While Puginier’s race has continued and prospered, all of those other events I saw in the late-1960s have departed one by one: The Fréjus GP disappeared in 1970 after a 35-year life; Menton was next to go, in 1973; two more ended in 1975, Nice (after 52 years) and Genoa–Nice, followed by St. Tropez in 1976; Grasse lasted until 1981 and St. Raphaël until 1984; the last to go were Antibes in 1987 (after 67 years) and Cannes in 1991 (after 66 years). The only one-day race that remains on the coast is the GP de l’Overture La Marseillaise, which was first held in 1980.
Traffic density and the increasing costs of organization killed all of these races, which normally had volunteer race committees, rather than specialist promoters putting them on. Stage races in the region have also had a hard time. The short-lived Tour du Var ended in 1962, the Tour du Sud-Est lasted from 1919 to 1965, the popular Tour of Corsica from 1935 to 1982, the Tour du Vaucluse from 1978 to 1998, and the Tour Méditerranéen, which was organized by Lueien Aimar, from 1974 to 2014—while its 2016 replacement, La Méditerranéenne, was cancelled this year. Also, the venerable Critérium International, which was held in Corsica for the past seven years, has ended it life after an 85-year run.
There is some good news, however. Besides the La Marseillaise newspaper sponsoring the French season-opener in Marseille and Var-Matin supporting the Haut Var, a new stage race Le Tour La Provence is being sponsored by another daily newspaper, La Provence—which is part of the corporate group owned by Bernard Tapie, whose 1980s La Vie Claire cycling team was led by Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. It was first held last year, organized by Serge Pascal and his Draguignan club.
None of the courses for these two events is over-demanding, but entirely appropriate for stage races that attract half a dozen WorldTour teams, a similar number of Pro Continental formations and a dozen Continental squads. Interestingly, this weekend’s Haut Var features two of its two-time winners: Italian Davide Rebellin (1999 and 2008) and Arthur Vichot (2013 and 2016). Both of them were in the group that sprinted for the win Saturday, with defending champ Vichot (FDJ) placing second to Dumoulin (AG2R la Mondiale), with Rebellin (Kuwait-Cartucho.es) in 15th. Also in that group was BMC Racing’s American rider, Brent Bookwalter, in 13th.
The second day of the race this Sunday is similar to the former one-day Haut Var event, starting and finishing in Draguignan, with three separate, hilly loops for its 206-kilometer distance. The course features five climbs for the KOM classification, but the pièce de résistance is the 2.2-kilometer Côte des Tuillières, which features some 15-percent pitches. It tops out 12.6 kilometer from the finish in Draguignan. As for La Provence, its three stages end in Istres on Tuesday, La Ciotat Wednesday and Marseille Thursday—with that final stage ending on the spectacular climb to Notre Dame de la Garde, just above the port city.