A Tour for France?

Doug Pensinger

French riders and teams have struggled to make a strong impression on their national tour for the past two decades. No French rider has won le Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and none have made the podium since Richard Virenque placed second back in 1997. But this year, the French seem to be poised for an upwards swing.

After twelve stages of le Tour, there have been a number of surprises. A number of the peloton's biggest names have withdrawn after crashes, including defending champion Chris Froome and former winner Alberto Contador. Peter Sagan has yet to win a stage after eight top five finishes. But just below the obvious surprises here, there is another one - three French riders are sitting in the top ten of the general classification. Of the twelve stages that have transpired, two have been won by French riders with Blel Kadri surving out of the breakaway to win Stage 8 and Tony Gallopin taking a very strong and canny win on Stage 11. At least this far, it is by far the best Tour for French riders in recent history.

Like the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, the history of the Tour de France is dominated by riders from the race's home country. France has twice the amount of victories in le Tour as any other country - 36 to Belgium's 18. Even with the internationalization of the Tour de France as it rose to prominence as the biggest race in the world, French riders still continued to win and win often. Of the four riders who have won five editions of the race, two - Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault - are French. From 1978 to 1985, every Tour was won by either Bernard Hinault or Laurent Fignon. But despite France's position as one of the spiritual homes of cycling, French riders have failed to make an impression on the race since the 1980s.

Yes, Richard Virenque finished on the podium twice and won a record seven malloit a pois along with seven stages. But even without Virenque's checkered past, including being thrown out of the 1998 Tour in the Festina Affair and later admitting to doping in prior years, his exploits were seen far more as a side show than the center of attention. Similarly, Christophe Moreau - one of the best French cyclists in the post Hinault era - only finished in the top five of le Tour once despite being the best placed French rider on four occasions.

That is not to say the French had no success in their home grand tour. For years one could count on a stage win by Sylvain Chavanel, Pierrick Fedrigo, Sandy Casar, or Thomas Voeckler as reliably as we now do victories by Marcel Kittel. But now that generation of stage hunters have reached the twilights of their careers and no French riders consistently made an impression on the general classification in their era. This year's Tour, then, has been quite a surprise.

Jean Christophe Peraud, now 37, has consistently improved in stage races since switching over from the mountain bike, finishing third in Paris-Nice last year, fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico this year. He now sits seventh overall, less than four minutes behind Vincenzo Nibali and a mere 1'34" behind second placed Richie Porte. Look beyond Peraud, though, and the French resurgence in this year's Tour is led by a much younger generation. Biel Kadri is the oldest of the remainder of French standouts this year and is 27. Tony Gallopin is 26, Thibault PInot is 24, and Romain Bardet - sitting all the way up in 4th overall - is a mere 23 years of age.

With much of the sorting out of the Tour's general classification still to come, whether this year's Tour is truly one for France remains to be seen. But prior performances by these riders suggests we are seeing more than flashes in the pan. Pinot finished 10th in his debut Tour in 2012 at the young age of 22. Though he withdrew last year after having very public problems with the fastest descents in the mountains, he recovered to take 7th at last year's Vuelta and has improved markedly. In fact, Pinot was among the best placed riders on Stage 5's trip through the hell of the north, finishing in the same group as Jurgen Van den Broeck and in front of all other overall contenders save an en fuego Vincenzo Nibali. Pinot clearly has the staying power necessary for a high finish, and after seeing him once again distance everyone but Nibali on the first true summit finish atop La Planche des Belles Filles, one wonders how far he will climb. His time trial is suspect, but there should be enough climbs on the penultimate stage to help him limit his losses.

Romain Bardet is more of an unknown quality over such a long duration, but the leader of the young riders' classification has a string of results that demonstrate his class. The winner of last year's Tour de l'Ain finished fourth in the Volta a Catalunya and fifth in the Dauphiné this year. More importantly, perhaps, he finished 15th in last year's Tour - his first grand tour.

Though it is hard to see any of these riders winning outright this year, they could give France the honor of having three riders in the top ten by the time the race hits Paris - a feat that has happened only once in the past twenty years. And unlike 2011 when Voeckler and Peraud led the French charge, this year is one of youth, which begs the question that has been asked over and over in France this year - will one of these young riders win the Tour in the next five years?

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