Barguile, Clarke, and Nibali at the 2020 Drome Classic. Photo: James Startt

For the past five years or so I have skipped the week-end opener in Belgium and taken the train from Paris down to Valence for a couple of small French races that just seem to get better and better. I love the small early-season races in Southern France and the Boucles Drôme Ardèche are a great example of them.

Held every year on the same weekend as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the Faun Ardèche Classic and the Royal Bernard Drôme Classic are, simply put, two spectacular races that still are organized very much in a family spirit.

Founded by Guillaume Delpech who first launched the Drôme Classic in memory of his father, who was a great cycling fan, he then coupled it with the Ardeche Classic, as many teams were looking for a full weekend of racing before stage races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

The races, held on opposing sides of the Rhone River Valley south of Valence, are held over picturesque but hilly terrain, often rendered even more difficult by the strong winds that channel their way through the valley. These are not easy races, and they rarely finish in a sprint, but for riders looking for a serious test in the early season, far from the cobbles of the north, they have become increasingly attractive. Photo: James Startt
And that was never more the case than this year, 2020, where an increasingly international field showed up. And they showed up ready to race. On hand were major international stars like Vincenzo Nibali, along with his Trek-Segafredo teammate Bauke Mollema, a strong EF Pro Cycling squad led by Simon Clarke and Tanel Kangert, not to mention the crème de la crème of French cycling featuring Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet and French national champion Warren Barguil. And all came ready to race. Photo: James Startt
While southern France may be known for its abundance of sun, Mother Nature proved less cooperative this year, as the skies were crying for much of the weekend. After all, we are still in February. Photo: James Startt
Direct Energie’s Lilian Calmejan. Photo: James Startt
The racing hadn’t changed. Saturday’s race, the Faun Ardèche Classic was simply blanketed with a chilling late-winter rain, and with a constantly rolling terrain, the race on this day offered break riders a real opportunity. Frenchman Remi Cavagna, along with American Ben King, were just two of the riders willing to seize their chance. King of course has earned a reputation as a long break rider with a stiff finishing sprint. And while Cavagna may not be the biggest name in the peloton, he has earned a reputation as having one of the biggest motors. Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
No combination of chasers, however, could challenge Cavagna, who soloed to one of his most memorable victories. “I love breaks like this in the cold,” the Deceuninck–Quickstep rider said afterwards. “The faces are marked, but I love it. Perhaps I don’t get as cold as the others, but I always manage to ride above myself in such conditions.” Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
Together the two powered a five-man break throughout much of the day, until Cavagna simply rode everybody, including King, off his wheel. But while, Cavagna still possessed nearly a five-minute lead with 30 kilometers remaining, top riders like Nibali (pictured) and Barguil refused give in so easily, and set off in a feverish chase over the final climbs that skirted up and down the hills of the Ardeche laced with their distinctive vineyards. Nibali initially appeared strongest, as he dropped Barguil, but then the French champion chased back with countryman Guillaume Martin and EF Education First’s Kangert, dropping the Italian. Photo: James Startt
Photo: James Startt
Sunday’s Royal Bernard Drôme Classic witnessed a similar final with Nibali and Barguil driving away at the front. And while the torrential rains were once again present, there was no longer an early break to contend with. Attacks were numerous in the final 30 kilometers. Nibali was once again the most persistent, and he finally, he managed to break free. Joining him was once again Barguil, along with EF Education First’s Simon Clarke. Photo: James Startt
With Bardet, Martin and a host of others chasing hard behind, the trio had no room to pull any punches in the final kilometers. Barguil drove hard over the Livron Wall, trying to forge a gap in the final three kilometers, but Clarke and Nibali stubbornly remained on his wheel and as the trio exited the final turn, Clarke launched his sprint. Noted as a fast finisher, the Australian left little room for discussion and easily came across the line ahead of the Frenchman and Italian. Photo: James Startt
“Today was an amazing day,” Clarke said afterwards. “Yesterday [Saturday] was a little bittersweet for us because we couldn’t catch Cavagna, and Kangert finished second. “But as you could see in the final today, we had more riders at the front and we could really play that to our advantage. I just tried to wait a little bit and pick the right moment. Vincenzo was extremely strong, but I went and rode the final descent after sign-in this morning and I knew you had to be the first one out of the final turn.” Photo: James Startt

While Nibali and Barguil may have come up short on the victory column, they can go away from this year’s Boucles Drôme Ardèche knowing that the condition is right on schedule as they enter the springtime races. “I’m still in the ‘work in progress’ phase,” Nibali said afterwards. “But I’m happy to get my first podium with Trek-Segafredo. Now, a few days at home with my family to recharge my batteries. Then, focus on the Italian debut with Larciano, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-Sanremo.”