After years of little to cheer about, a crop of talented young riders are raising hopes in France that one of their countrymen may be about to claim a place on the Tour de France podium for the first time in 17 years.
France has endured decades of disappointment when it comes to cycling’s biggest prize. The last Frenchman to win the Tour de France was the great Bernard Hinault in 1985, while you have to go back 17 years to find the last rider to France to finish in the top three.
That rider was Richard Virenque, who came second in the 1997 edition of the Tour behind the German Jan Ulrich. But even that relative success is marred by clouds of suspicion after Virenque was caught up in the infamous Festina doping scandal the year after.
However, at the start of the 11th stage of this year’s Tour on Wednesday, there were a total of four French riders in the top eight of the general classification – Romain Bardet (4th), Tony Gallopin (5th), Thibaut Pinot (6th) and Jean-Christophe Péraud (8e).
Add to that the unusually high number of big-name riders to drop out of this year race – including 2013 winner Chris Froome and two-time champion Alberto Contador – and the prospect of a Frenchman occupying a place on the podium on the Champs-Élysées hasn’t looked so good in years.
Youth and experience
There are significant challenges to come, however, particularly as the tour heads into the fearsome Alpine stages, where the likes of Australia’s Richie Porte (currently 2nd), Spain’s Alejandro Valverde (3rd) and the American Tejay van Garderen (7th) will be among those looking to make up time on current yellow jersey wearer, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali.
Holding off such distinguished opponents could prove tough for the inexperienced Pinot, Gallopin and Bardet. Aged 24, 26 and 23 respectively, they are still very young by Tour standards.
Bardet at least may be able to benefit from the experience of his teammate at AG2R – the 37-year-old Péraud.
Speaking to French sport daily L’Equipe Tuesday, Péraud didn’t rule out putting himself at the service of his younger teammate, even if his personal ambitions remain the main priority.
“For the moment, with Romain, we each have our own objectives – he a place in the top ten and to win the white jersey (for best young rider) and me a top ten finish as well,” he said.
However, the chance of a bigger prize “could change our minds”, said Péraud.
“Why not sacrifice yourself?” he added.
Pinot relishing mountain challenge, Gallopin less so
But while AG2R may have two riders in contention for the podium, it may be that FDJ.fr rider Pinot has the best chance of claiming a podium place.
Pinot, who finished second on stage 10 in the Vosges mountains, is a pure climber and with four major mountain stages remaining, this year’s route is perfectly suited to his abilities.
The rider himself though is refusing to get carried away, particularly with another time-trial stage to come – a discipline he enjoys far less.
“There are some great riders above me and there's a 55km time-trial which could be a banana skin," he said.
“I'm thinking first and foremost about winning a stage rather than the overall standings."
One French rider, Gallopin, has already enjoyed the glory of wearing the yellow jersey on this Tour, on Bastille Day no less. But of the four the Lotto Belisol man is likely to find it hardest going on the tougher mountain stages. His style is more suited to the springtime classics than the steep slopes of the Alps and his chances of finishing high up in the general classification standings look slim.
But even if France must wait a little longer to a see one of its own on the Tour de France podium, with three young riders full of promise, the future for French cycling looks brighter than it has for some time.
Date created : 2014-07-16