Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli of the Bahrain-McLaren team won a bunch sprint on stage two of the four-day French Route d’Occitanie race on Sunday after a 174.5km run from Carcassonne to Cap Decouverte.
Britain’s Chris Froome and Colombian Tour de France champion Egan Bernal are warming up on the race for the upcoming Tour which embarks from nearby Nice on August 29.
After embarking from the fortified city of Carcassonne with its medieval citadel the pair finished with the main pack being cheered on by a scattering of masked locals at the finish line at an adventure park.
Saturday’s stage winner, French sprinter Bryan Coquard, came home second and keeps hold of the overall lead until Monday’s mountain stage.
The run out is Bernal’s first race in Europe since the Tour of Lombardy last October and he and the others face a real test on Monday’s third stage which culminates with a long, tough climb.
Ineos sports director Gabriel Rasch said the first two days had been about protecting Bernal.
“Tomorrow is a GC [general classification] day, so for us it is a big day and we’re going to ride the race how we want,” he said.
“We can dictate the pace and make it ‘our race’,” he told the Ineos website.
Bernal is 12th overall with fellow Tour de France winner Froome down in 85th spot.
Rasch has taken over the role of affable Frenchman Nicolas Portal, who died from heart failure in March.
Ineos team principal Dave Brailsford said that for the Tour, a new arrangement would be found.
“We’re going to take more of our directors than usual to the Tour. For now, Gabba [Rasch] has taken on the lead role,” said Brailsford, who added Portal was keenly missed by the team.
Some sections of Monday’s summit finish on the Col de Beyrede are at a staggeringly tough 17 per cent incline, with one 1km section with an average of 12.
An early fall Sunday saw French hope Romain Bardet nursing a badly grazed left elbow and shoulder.
A 24-hour traffic ban has already been imposed on the tough summit finish on Monday where spectators can climb on foot or by bike in an attempt to avoid the kind of pop up motorhome villages that straddle summit finishes on the Tour de France.