No slow start for Eddie Dunbar with spin up Mont Ventoux to come on Saturday

Cork cyclist looking to put frustrating period on sidelines behind him at Tour de la Provence

Eddie Dunbar training near his home in Banteer, Co Cork last May. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Eddie Dunbar training near his home in Banteer, Co Cork last May. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

New season, some new rules, some same old issues and probably few riders happier to be back racing their bike than Eddie Dunbar, even if that means racing up Mont Ventoux.

Dunbar is among the 140 riders and 20 teams to break their winter hibernation at the Tour de la Provence, the four-stage race starting on Thursday as the pro season sets off in search of some old normality even in the enduring face of Covid-19. It includes an early teaser too, Saturday’s likely decisive stage taking in the southern face of Mont Ventoux, better known in cycling circles as the Beast of Provence.

For Dunbar it also marks his first race start, almost exactly five months after his 2020 season was cut short after he crashed on stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy last September 9th, fracturing his collarbone in the process. Despite some initial hope of returning in time for the Giro d’Italia in October, another minor crash on a gentle training ride in Monaco a week later took care of that.

It was another hurtful blow for the Banteer rider, who missed most of the 2017 season after a severe concussion sustained in that year’s Baby Giro forced him off the bike for almost five months. The 2020 Giro, postponed to October, was the chief goal of the season, having provided one of his major highlights of 2019, when he took third on the 158km stage 12 into Pinerolo, ending up 22nd overall in his first Grand Tour, still only 22.

Now 24, and in his fourth season with Ineos Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky), Dunbar is also well familiar with the Tour de la Provence. He finished sixth overall last year, placing fifth and sixth on two stages, and was also seventh in 2019. The Ineos team also includes their 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal.

Dunbar was also riding with Team Ineos in the UAE Tour in the last week in February, inside the top 10 at one point, before that race was cancelled outright with two stages remaining – one the first sporting casualties of coronavirus.

Saturday’s 153km Stage 3 from Istres doesn’t ride all the way to the summit of Mont Ventoux, at 1,909m, only to the ski resort at Chalet Reynard, at 1,431m. It will be a teaser, however, given the full Mont Ventoux will feature not once but twice in the Tour de France this July. Already infamous in the race history going back to 1967, when British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died (not before asking to be out back on his bike) due to a combination of heat exhaustion and amphetamine consumption; more recently it’s where Chris Froome ran up a small section after being knocked off his bike in the 2016 Tour.

Nicolas Roche is also starting his season in south-east Provence, his German team Sunweb renamed this year as Team DSM, for what will be his 18th season as a professional. It started back in 2004 when he rode part of that season as a stagiaire (amateur with pro-training status) with Cofidis. For Roche, who turns 37 later this year, it’s also the start of what is likely to be another Grand Tour season.

Defending champion Nairo Quintana isn’t returning, while world champion Julian Alaphilippe of Sam Bennett’s team, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, will also have his first race since a crash also ended his 2020 season.

This week cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, also announced several new rules aimed at improving race safety, including a ban on the supertuck position favoured by some riders on the descents, plus the placing of forearms on handlebars, considered by most to offer an aerodynamic advantage.

Reaction has been mixed, fellow Irish rider Dan Martin of Israel Start-Up Nation among those to support the UCI’s decision: “I think the UCI should be applauded for being proactive for once. Too often rules are implemented reacting to serious injuries or worse.

“Riding helmetless is perfectly safe, until you crash and hit your head. The barriers in Poland were ‘safe’ for 12 years. Just two examples.” (Poland being the site of a particularly bad bunch sprint crash in 2020.) However, the new rules don’t come into force on April 1st .

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