Analysis: Tour historian Christopher Thompson reflects on 110 years of French culture

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jan. 11, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:35 PM EDT
Bernard Hinault, whose final victory came in 1985, was the last French Tour champion. Photo: AFP

The French drought

Both in reading Thompson’s book and speaking to him, it becomes clear that the stars of the Tour de France forged a connection with French culture that is more profound than that North Americans develop with their athletes, who are seen more as freakish baubles than essential fibers to the national cloth. Taking this into consideration, what does Thompson make of the reality that no Frenchman has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 — a 28-year drought?

“I think that’s a major ingredient in perhaps declining interest,” he said. “I think the doping scandals and the failure of French cycling to produce a potential winner are major issues.”

While international interest in the Tour has never been stronger, the flagging native passion Thompson senses points back again at the Tour’s inability to get a handle on its doping problems.

“There is also a sense that one of the reasons the French have been unable to produce a potential winner — and I think this is a fair point — is that the French have been at the forefront of the anti-doping crusade, particularly since the Festina Affair in 1998,” he said.

For many French, their country’s inability to deliver a winner for nearly three decades can be pinned on their own attempts to race clean.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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