I don't know the origin of it, I don't know why it's happening, but I do know there's a race starting tomorrow and it has potential to be a spring fixture. Let's give a big Podium Cafe welcome to... the Tour de la Provence!
What Is It?
For its opening edition, it's a three-day romp around Marseille, which is cool in a way, Marseille being an interesting place in general and an Original Six Tour de France stage host. It's also far south enough to make people maybe want to be there. And close enough to the types of climbs you might want in February -- not too this, not too that.
The three stages are all mid-mountain stages, to use ASO terminology. [This is very much NOT an ASO race. It's a local organization, and the only part I recognize at all is advisor Raymond Poulidor.] Here are your three stage profiles.
Pretty much exactly what you want in a winter training race: a strenuous workout, at elevations where nobody will get snowed on, and at least a couple sprint stages so you can stay out of trouble if you're not among the fastmen.
Will It Be Fun?
Hells yeah. That first stage is by far the most interesting. The climbing exceeds 3000 meters cumulatively, highlighted by the Col de l'Espigoulier (which shows up on stage 3 as well, from the steeper direction) and includes a devilish finishing circuit with not one, but two 15% gradients -- the 350 meter Avenue Alphonse Daudet and the 900 meter Chemin de Saint-Joseph. It's grimpeur-puncheur time in Cassis. The other two stages should play out a bit more predictably, with sprints at the end and a battle to secure whatever GC shenanigans happen on the opening stage.
Will It Have Legs?
The question facing every new race. Is it something we should plan on seeing again? I can only speak from a sporting perspective, but the odds are good. In past years there has been a slight gap in the calendar leading up to Opening Weekend (Omloop-KBK time), so on that basis alone there should be people interested in showing up. Also, with Paris-Nice not starting until March 6, the gap goes on, particularly for climbers (though GP Lugano is Sunday). That's a bit long to go without a race, in today's version of cycling, where winter training emphasizes racing into fitness a bit more than it seems like it had in the past decade or two. With the weather looking mild enough, e.g. 55 F or 16 C, and possibly dry roads, three days in Provence sounds like a grand plan.
It's a 2.1 race so you get seven World Tour teams, but from them such names as Joe Dombrowski, Andrew Talanksy and Lawson Craddock jump out as Cannondale flood the field. They'll get pushback from Etixx (Alaphilippe), AG2R (Bakelands) and maybe Androni (Pellizotti). Sprints might be fun as Fernando Gaviria gets back just in time to excite or depress potential FSA DS owners. No TV expected so far...