Saint-Affrique (France) (AFP)

The stars of the peloton Egan Bernal, Chris Froome, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet reconnect with the interrupted thread of their season on the Route d'Occitanie on Saturday, the first post-containment race in the country of the Tour de France, four weeks before the start of the Grande Boucle (August 29-September 20).

Almost five months after the last race of the "world before", a Paris-Nice which ended two days before the announcement of general confinement in France, the Route d'Occitanie heralds the return of cycling to French territory and back to school for some of the Tour favorites including Thibaut Pinot who wants to "build up the pressure" between now and the Tour.

As a result of the pandemic, the four-stage race, under high health surveillance, welcomes a field of runners never seen before for a third level event in the international calendar.

For them, it is a question of accumulating the days of races as the big deadline of the season approaches, turned upside down by the Covid-19. Last winner of the Tour de France, Egan Bernal has not pinned a bib since his Tour of Colombia at home on February 16 ... Thibaut Pinot since March 14 and the last stage of a Paris-Nice cut short due to the crisis sanitary and finished in 5th place.

"There is still a month left (before the Tour, editor's note), it's huge," said the leader of Groupama-FDJ who is in Occitanie on Friday in order to "work for the rest of the season and build up the pressure".

"The important thing is not to be 100% this week, especially not", estimates the French climber.

For him as for most of the leaders, the stake at the start of Saint-Affrique (Aveyron) on Saturday will be less the result than to find the rhythm of the race and to gain momentum until August 29.

- The Froome question -

With the exception of Chris Froome, 35 years old since May, whose performances in Occitania will be scrutinized: a cloud of questions envelopes the man in the four Tours de France won since the serious fall which left him crippled with fractures (vertebra cervical, femur, hip, elbow, ribs ...) more than a year ago on the Dauphiné.

His return to competition in February on the Tour of the Emirates ended in an anonymous 71st place, nearly twenty minutes behind winner Adam Yates. And since then, the announcement of his departure from the Ineos winning machine - the ex-Team Sky and his 7 successes stacked over the last 8 Tours de France - for the Israel Start-Up Nation team next season have further darkened the prospects of seeing him win "more Tours de France than anyone", "Froomey's" repeated dream.

So much so that his very presence on the Grande Boucle is uncertain within the Ineos armada which can count on two other Tour winners: Geraint Thomas and therefore the title holder Egan Bernal.

The third very mountainous stage on Monday, which will determine the probable winner of the Route d'Occitanie, should therefore also give indications on the choices of Dave Brailsford.

A foretaste of the Tour: especially since before arriving at the top of the little traveled Col de Beyrède, the peloton must climb the bends of the Port of Balès and the Col de Peyresourde, theaters of its eighth stage on September 5.

© 2020 AFP