Maybe Bernhard Hinault finally won’t react with such scorn when journalists ask him about a new generation of French riders making waves across Europe.
Every July, France’s last Tour de France winner inevitably denigrates the latest wave of riders as over-paid crybabies who Hinault insists are too soft to seriously contest the maillot jaune.
That criticism might have held true a decade ago, especially when the French teams decried a peloton of “two speeds” during the EPO-fueled Lance Armstrong era. But now, as the playing field is leveling out, France is once again producing some legitimate talent across the peloton.
Tuesday’s action in Europe confirmed yet again that France is no longer content to be the peloton’s doormat.
At the Eneco Tour, French sprinter Arnaud Démare (FDJ.fr) kicked to his eighth win on the season — a haul that includes three stages and the overall at the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque as well as a stage at the Tour de Suisse and Sunday’s RideLondon Surrey Classic, which retraced portions of the Olympic road race last summer.
On French roads, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) dropped overnight leader Tom-Jelte Slagter (Belkin) three kilometers from the summit of the hors categorie Col de Grand Colombier. Bardet and stage winner Wout Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) reached an agreement of mutual interests — the Dutchman for the stage win, and the Frenchman for the overall — and the pair widened their 30-second gap at the top to more than a minute at the finish line.
That was good enough for Bardet to take the leader’s jersey away from Slagter, and claim the first major win of his promising career.
“It’s my first win as a pro and I am very happy. I was starting to get impatient because I had not won in a year and a half,” he said. “I try not to pay attention to what everyone said after the Tour. There are a lot of riders in my shoes, and you can see it’s not easy to handle the pressure. I try to keep going one step at a time, just as I have since I started racing as a junior, in 2007.”
One man talking at the Tour was former French pro Cédric Vasseur.
“France is seeing some very promising riders coming to the front of the peloton,” Vasseur said during the Tour this year. “It’s been a long time since French riders could dream of winning the Tour, but things are changing. We have some real talent coming through.”
Just 22, Bardet was the top-ranked French rider at the Tour, finishing 15th overall, after his teammate Jean-Christophe Péraud crashed out of the top 10 in the final time trial.
Bardet looks to have the climbing chops to someday challenge for the best climber’s jersey as well as stage wins in the Alps and Pyrénées.
In just his second year as a pro, he’s already won the Tour de l’Ain, a difficult five-day race held in the Jura Mountains — won last year by Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp). Earlier this season, he was fourth at the Route de Sud, and 13th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Démare, meanwhile, looks to be France’s best sprinter in a decade.
On Tuesday at the Eneco Tour, he schooled world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) in an uphill drag finale that used to be just the kind of terrain where the Belgian was once untouchable.
“I didn’t feel great at the beginning of the stage, but I was able to respond at the end for the sprint,” Démare said. “I am very happy for the win. When I saw Gilbert and Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) move up, I knew I had to prepare my sprint.”
Démare certainly took the air out of Gilbert, denying the world champion his first win of the 2013 season.
“I thought this would be my moment. I had to do my sprint of 200 meters uphill, which I normally can, but Démare came pretty fast and I could not respond,” Gilbert said Tuesday. “I’m good, the condition is good. I’m certainly missing the win. I’m always pretty close. Being second or third is not so nice and doesn’t count.”
Just 21, Démare is poised to become one of the top sprinters of the peloton. He won the 2011 U23 world title and last year, in his rookie season, won the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Germany.
Somewhat surprisingly, FDJ is leaving Démare out of the Vuelta a España after sidelining him during both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France this year.
Although the Vuelta is laden with uphill finales, with no less than 11 summits scattered over the three weeks, there are at least four or five stages that will likely end in bunch sprints.
The Vuelta is an ideal grooming school for up-and-coming sprinters, where such riders as Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) made big impressions over the past two years.
Behind the pair of Démare and Bardet is an entire platoon of fleet-footed French riders keen to earn their place in the bunch.
Most of the French riders land on national teams, with FDJ holding more than a few gems, among them sprinter Nacer Bouhanni, Thibaut Pinot (10th in the 2012 Tour), and Kenny Elissonde.
Pierre Rolland, already established at Europcar, has been the most consistent French performer over the past few years. He was 10th in 2011 Tour, with a dramatic stage win at Alpe d’Huez, bettering that with eighth in 2012 and a stage victory at La Toussuire in the Alps.
Those performances quickly garnered Rolland status as France’s next big hope, but this year’s Tour was a rougher ride; he could only muster 24th and lost out on the climber’s jersey in the final stage to Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Romain Sicard, the talented U23 rider who barnstormed to the world title and the Tour de l’Avenir ahead of Tejay van Garderen in 2009, seems to have stalled out, unable to make much of an impression in four seasons with Euskaltel-Euskadi.
It was Sicard who impressed Hinault back in 2009, but sometimes even the Badger can be wrong.