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Vive La Différence?

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Sylvain Chavanel's extraordinary performance of the last few days, along with some concerted riding in support by his Cofidis teammates, has quickly revived a simmering topic: will the end of the latest era of doping coincide with the return of French Cycling?

It's a well-established fact that French Cycling has suffered a pretty dramatic falloff since its last heyday in the mid- to late-1980s. Whether it was Fignon collapsing in defeat on the Champs-Elysees, or Hinault's retirement, somewhere in there the walls came tumbling down. And that is about the last thing one can say with certainty on this matter.

Conventional wisdom is that France collectively missed the EPO boat, or maybe they made the boat initially but got kicked off in 1998, following the Festina Affair. Were that the case, then the grounding of the good ship EPO should pull down the sole barrier to renewed French success. Is any of this true? I am inclined to believe it is. But it's waaaaay too soon to tell.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité...in that order

The history of France's national motto is that liberté and égalité (freedom and equality) had been hanging around for quite some time, while fraternité (brotherhood) got tacked on somewhere around the French Revolution. More on this in a moment.

France's doping upheaval was either the most profound, or just the first. Either way, there is every reason to believe that the French Cycling Federation clamped down on drugs long before and more seriously than their fellow pillars of the sport (Belgium, Italy, Spain). Italy has gotten tough since the Pantani mess(es), but Spain was still considered a doping haven when Manolo Saiz got pulled over in 2005, and Belgium -- lacking a dominant event to coalesce its interdiction program around -- has yet to answer all the questions. France, by contrast, responded to the 1998 Tour scandals by instituting the suivi médical longitudinal, quarterly longitudinal testing of all riders in addition to the surprise and post-race tests.

Whatever the effect, France has done more to combat doping than its neighbors. In the battle between equality -- the fight to level the playing field -- and brotherhood -- the conspiracy of silence among riders, teams and authorities which has perpetuated the EPO era as long as it has -- France has chosen equality. You could probably stretch out this metaphor to geopolitics, where France tends to arrive at positions independently, rather than playing along nicely. I'm probably not qualified to write that chapter, but if the French like to stand on principle, Cycling has benefited.

So What Has Changed?

Sylvain Chavanel has had an incredible week, and Cofidis has raced powerfully as a whole. So is it time to jump to conclusions that a) the doping era is over; and b) the French teams are bouncing back?

On (a), there's no way to tell, besides my usual requirement that we get to look within the souls of all the riders. Things look markedly better, but it's early, and it's complicated. This season features nearly all of the most beastly climbs the sport has to offer, and how much the field suffers on those ascents will lend some insight. Check back in four months.

On (b), the answer is about the same: check back in four months. France has leaped from the 8th-ranked nation to 4th since 2008 kicked off, an impressive rise. But thus far, we've run one monument, a few middlin' stage races, and some preliminary Belgian semi-classics. Not much to judge on. Still, if you could gain some insight from that minuscule sample, you might get excited:

  • In  Het Volk, three French riders placed among the top 11, compared to nobody in the top 20 last year.
  • In Paris-Nice, France saw six of its sons in the top 21, compared to four last year.
  • Milano-Sanremo and Tirreno-Adriatico were their traditional disasters, though Anthony Geslin's 6th at MSR was a high point. No such luck last year.
  • In Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl, Chavanel's wins were the first for French riders. Minor placings weren't much different than usual.
  • Most remarkably, four French teams are ranked in the top 10... compared to none for the full 2007 season. But this is deceptive: the point gains are attributable largely to Sylvain Chavanel and Philippe Gilbert (a Belgian). These guys are not trends, they're two riders on great form early in the season. In Gilbert's case, you could see this coming. Chavanel has been more of an enigma: his career has slowly drifted away from the greatness people predicted for him back when. Now, suddenly, he's tearing it up. Is this evidence of the end of doping? Hey, maybe it is, but it could also have to do with Chavanel training better, or enjoying better health, or his team racing more effectively, or Chavanel simply using his brain.

To be clear, this end-of-doping/French revival story is worth following, starting now. But it's going to take a while before we really know anything. And there isn't a single Frenchman or person on a French team who looks like he could challenge for a grand tour. If the doping era is truly over, I think you can expect French teams to start climbing back into contention. But it's a long way back.