But for one Swiss warmup, the focal point of our glorious sport is France, now and for the next eight weeks or thereabouts. And even though we address this subject piecemeal on a regular basis, it's time to focus a bit on what the hell is going on with French Cycling.
on the flip...
There are a slew of metrics to gauge a team's overall performance, but the official one is the UCI Pro Tour rankings... which were not kind to French squads in 2005 and are even more cold-hearted in '06. Last year Credit Agricole scored ninth overall (two words: Thor Hushovd), followed by Cofidis at 11th, Bouygues Telecom 17th and Francais des Jeux last at #20. Now, without Hushovd's July points factored in, the five (adding AG2R) French teams all fall in the bottom seven spots.
I've yet to read any satisfactory explanation. The charitable point is that France has cracked down sooner and more severely on drugs, so their teams and riders are perhaps falling behind in that sordid arms race. Another view (proffered by Drew and others) is that the French teams have yet to fully embrace modern training methods expounded by Italian doctors and put into practice by teams from Denmark, the US, and Germany. My own explanation is to point out that no French rider has done squat since France's glorious World Cup win in 1998 and subsequent Euro 2000 championship... proving beyond doubt that all the great young French athletes are wasting their time chasing a ball around.
Without access to the innerworkings of the teams, the question will continue to hang in the air throughout the Tour like a fetid odor of aged bleu cheese. But that shouldn't stop us from at least looking over the rosters of the individual teams and trying to spot... well, hope.
Hushovd, at 28, is a peloton icon in his Norwegian Champions jersey (though at present he only holds the TT title), and with a green jersey on his resume, he should be enjoying his prime years. This year, he made a spring breakthrough with a fine win at Gent-Wevelgem, but his best bet in July will be not green but stage wins. With McEwen in form and Boonen making the maillot vert his top priority, don't look for the God of Thunder in green. The rest of the roster barely rates a mention: Saul Raisin is undergoing his ordeal, Anthony Charteau hasn't arrived yet, and Jan Kirsipuu is very, very old.
Ye gods! They've been dumping large sums of money into Cycling for ten years now, and what have they got to show? David Moncoutie's annual pre-arranged Bastille Day stage win? Occasional Rik Verbrugghe or Leonardo Bertagnolli sightings? Daydreams about Sylvain Chavanel's untapped potential? Two years without a drug scandal? I have to stop now...
Just an all-round second-rate outfit, and with horrifying kits to boot. All of France is pulling for Thomas Voeckler to succeed, precisely because he won't (or maybe that's why he won't). Pierrick Fedrigo sports the national champs' bleu-blanc-rouge. Laurent Brochard has made a decent living... but is pretty much done. Anthony Geslin is another young hopeful. But the budget and the ambitions are befitting of a team ranked 19th of 20, with no rider scoring even 15 points so far.
Francais des Jeux
Easily the cream of French Cycling... because they've uncovered some fine imports. Bernhard Eisel (Austria) can sprint; Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) can win classics; Sandy Casar can put up token resistence in the Grand Tours; Brad McGee can make trouble in the time trials. Eisel, Gilbert and 21-year-old Thomas Lovqvist are all card-carrying U-27 Project members. Of all the French teams, FdJ has something to live for.
Until Francisco Mancebo decided to strike out on his own with these newcomers to the Pro Tour, they were one depressing Christophe Moreau mediocre result after another. But Mancebo is a top-five Tour finisher in the past, and although this parcours doesn't suit him, he's 29 and could show the team's colors on a Tour stage (stage wins? podium?!?) in the next year or three, if he gets any support. JP Nazon can finish a race here and there too. Simon Garrans is another young upstart to watch. Definitely no worse than the third-bleakest team in France, current last-place standing aside.