When Bernard Hinault overcame a power struggle within his La Vie Claire team to record his fifth Tour de France victory, it was just another overall success for a home rider: the eighth win for a French rider in nine years. I'm sure that for all that LeMond's emergence represented a new Anglophone incursion, there could have been no warning for the remarkable drought that was about to occur. To this day, the wait for another French Tour de France winner continues.
I've produced a couple of graphs (fingers crossed I've got all the data right) to show the patterns of French success in the Tour in recent times. The first shows the positions of France's highest placed finisher in each Tour since Hinault's final win, alongside the comparative Italian top finishers at the Giro. Though the Tour has typically been a more international race, the difference is striking.
Click graph to enlarge
For all his Polka-Dot jerseys, Virenque only crested the podium twice in the overall stakes, while Jalabert, Leblanc, Rinero and Moreau all came close to cracking the top three. It's no coincidence French cycling took a dip further in the twenty-first century when it seemed to take an ethical highground on the back of the Festina and Cofidis scandals. It has come at a cost. A 38 year old Stéphane Goubert was the best Frenchman in 2008 in a lowly 26th place, but that was an exceptional low of which the like may never be seen again. No-one could have forseen a repeat of Voeckler's 2004 heroics on a grander scale in 2011, but we all know the Europcar rider, well supported by teammate Pierre Rolland, wasn't far off winning the whole thing. Five French riders made the top 15 in total, and the last time that happened was 20 years earlier, in 1991.
The following graph shows French stage wins in the Tour de France in the twenty-first century, again compared with relative Italian success in the Giro (team time trials not included).
Click graph to enlarge
Funnily enough, while those six stage victories of 2010 made it a strong Tour for France, the next year topped it comfortably despite only a sole stage victory that came as late as stage 19, albeit on perhaps the most iconic climb of them all. Rolland's success on Alpe d'Huez was also a breakthrough: his win did not come courtesy of a stage-long breakaway. The next few years should reveal whether the peak or the trough becomes an anomaly, but there's no longer a stark contrast between the Giro and the Tour in terms of home stage wins. Unlike Italy, France has not been blessed with sprinters or punchy climbers who can reap stage victories, so the riders have to go about it the hard way.
And I've thrown in a pie chart just for fun. This shows which teams (shown in their current incarnations, if still in existence) have had their share of the stage victories since 2000, not including team time trials.
Looking ahead to this year's race, French prospects are fairly strong given that many stages have breakaway written all over them. Voeckler will not have the freedom to try his audacious attacks unless he loses time early on; indeed, he may not have the form anyway to compete for GC. There will be expectation, however, on him and his Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland in the overall stakes after their performances last year. Both have proved themselves well capable and Rolland in particular can reasonably hope for a solid top ten placing at the least. Two other riders who showed well in the mountains last year were Arnold Jeannesson and Jérôme Coppel, thirteenth and fourteenth overall. Health problems are keeping Jeannesson away from the Tour this year, but Coppel could crack the top ten. Jean-Cristophe Peraud may have crept into the top ten in his debut, but that was on the back of seventh in the Dauphiné. This year the veteran ex-mountain biker was only capable of 68th, so not a promising sign.
In terms of potential stage winners, there are a whole host of riders who will be hoping to get lucky in breakaways. Casar, Chavanel and Fédrigo are all experienced stage hunters, while maybe Jérémy Roy will continue his good form and get that stage win he craves. There's the evergreen Moncoutie, but he usually only comes alive in the Vuelta.
Finally, Thibaut Pinot will ride his first Tour de France this year. We shouldn't expect too much from him, but I'll be watching his progress with interest as he is one of the best young climbers in the sport. FDJ are careful to nurture their talents and not push them in at the deep end when they're still in armbands. OK, Demare started the Giro (missing the torturous final week), but his four top-ten finishes suggests he was ready for it.
France is still awaiting another Fignon, another Hinault. Maybe one day there will be another Professor, another Badger. Or better still, a Professor Badger.