France hopes for more glory in this year's Tour de France
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After a decade in the doldrums, last year’s Tour de France brought renewed hope to French cycling after two of the country’s riders finished on the podium. But in a field packed with talent, is it a feat they can repeat at this year’s edition?
It had been a dark time for French cycling, with just the occasional inspired but limited Thomas Voeckler performance offering a flicker of light. But then, all at once, France had not one but two cyclists in the top three places of the sport’s biggest race -- Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot, finishing 2nd and 3rd respectively in the 2014 Tour de France.
Not since the days of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon 30 years earlier had such a feat been achieved.
Péraud and Pinot were not the only French riders to have shone in last year’s Tour. Romain Bardet finished a respectable 6th while Blel Kadri and Tony Gallopin claimed stage victories to confirm the arrival of an exciting new generation of homegrown talent.
It all means that expectation levels have risen to their highest point in decades.
Youth and experience
Pinot will undoubtedly bear the heaviest load of that expectation. The 25-year-old FDJ rider has been in fine form, showing his potential with strong performances in this year’s Tour de Romandie and especially the Tour de Suisse, where he finally convinced detractors he could compete with the best climbers in the world.
He should be able to more than hold his own in this year’s Tour de France, especially as Saturday’s prologue was the only time he will be confronted with an individual time trial -- his Achilles heel.
That should also suit Bardet. The 24-year-old AG2R rider, a strong climber, performed well playing second fiddle to Jean-Christophe Péraud and Domenico Pozzovivo last year, then went on to claim an impressive stage victory high in the mountains at Pra-Loup in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré.
He has been rewarded with the status of AG2R’s co-leader for this year’s Tour, along with Péraud.
Equally as explosive, although a little less comfortable on the steepest slopes, Warren Barguil (Giant- Alpecin) could also spring a few surprises. The young rider, just 23, may be making his Tour de France debut, but he has already proven he has quality, finishing a strong 8th in last year’s Vuelta a España.
And finally, there is the veteran Péraud, who will be dreaming of repeating his astonishing 2nd placed finish in last year’s Tour. But the 38-year-old former mountain biker will need to capitalise on all his climbing ability if he is going to do so, since time trials, at which he excels, barely feature in this year’s race.
Along with those looking to make their mark amongst the general classification contenders, France’s two bright young sprinters, Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare, will both be competing at a Tour de France for the first time. They will be looking for points and stage wins ... as well as at gaining the upper hand in a personal rivalry.
Bouhanni, 24 and Démare, 23, rose through the ranks together at French team FDJ. But Bouhanni fell out with the team’s management when he was overlooked in favour of Démare for FDJ’s Tour de France roster for 2014. Angry comments in the press followed, shortly before Bouhanni left for his current team Cofidis.
Bouhanni went on to claim first place in the points classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné and establish himself as a world-class sprinter. Arnaud Démare’s progress, in contrast, has plateaued somewhat, with two Tour of Belgium stage wins his only victories in 2015. The FDJ rider still possesses considerable speed and talent, however, and the grand stage that is the Tour de France may provide the spark he needs to reignite his progress.
Bouhanni, though, still looks the better bet. With the formidable German Marcel Kittel absent from this year’s Tour, he will be targeting stage victories and may even be in a position to challenge for the green jersey, proving, conclusively, that FDJ backed the wrong horse.
This article was translated from the original French.
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