Tuesday’s breakthrough victory of Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) at the Giro d’Italia not only served as the first grand tour win of his budding career, but confirms the arrival of a new wave of French riders punching into the top of the peloton.
Bouhanni’s win came on the heels of Arnaud Démare’s overall victory last weekend at Four Days of Dunkirk, where he won two stages and fended off compatriot Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling).
Are the French back? Bouhanni’s Giro win was the first by a French rider at the Italian tour since John Gadret won a stage in 2011. There are some encouraging signs that might well be the case.
There is no shortage of promising French riders who seem intent on proving that France can be a factor in modern cycling.
Among other leading riders are Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), 23, 15th in last year’s Tour de France; Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), 10th in the 2012 Tour; and 22-year-old French climbing sensation Kenny Elissonde (FDJ.fr)Fr., who won the Angliru stage in a breakaway at last year’s Vuelta a España.
“France is seeing some very promising riders coming to the front of the peloton,” ex-pro Cédric Vasseur told VeloNews at last year’s Tour. “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.”
France, of course, has not produced a Tour winner since Bernhard Hinault’s last victory in 1985. Other riders have come and gone, with Jean-Francois Bernard third in 1987, Laurent Fignon second to Greg Lemond by eight seconds in 1989, and the scandal-tainted Richard Virenque, who was involved in the Festina Affaire in 1998, riding to third in 1996 and second in 1997.
Since then, French riders at the Tour are content to ride into the top-10. Hinault has consistently criticized modern-day French riders as overpaid and pampered.
Following the Festina Affaire, many within the French cycling community decried a “peloton at two speeds,” as stricter controls among French teams curbed PED abuse that largely continued unabated during the EPO-fueled Lance Armstrong era. The Cofidis scandal in 2004 proved that old habits die hard.
Some say it’s no coincidence, however, that French riders are becoming more competitive as the peloton cleans up its act. The same argument has been used to explain a similar rise among Colombians.
The French public and media are clamoring for one of their own to seriously challenge for the yellow jersey.
Riders such as Chavanel and ex-pro Sandy Casar had to carry that burden over the past decade or so. That pressure can sometimes be suffocating, and it has taken its toll on a generation of French riders. Any French rider with any glimmer of talent soon discovers that. Romain Sicard, who beat back Tejay van Garderen to win the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, has struggled to find his place in four seasons in the pro ranks.
Pierre Rolland (Europcar), 27, has emerged as the next “great French hope.” He won the Tour’s white jersey in 2011 en route to 10th overall, with a dramatic stage victory atop l’Alpe d’Huez that electrified the public and raised expectations.
“I never pretended to be the next Bernard Hinault,” Rolland said. “You journalists said that, not me.”
Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), 22, knows the weight of that pressure. After winning two stages in his grand tour debut in last year’s Vuelta a España, results that confirmed his overall 2012 Avenir victory, Barguil said he’s feeling the heat of living up to the legend of Hinault.
“My phone rings a lot more than it used to. Everyone is now asking me if I will win the Tour, and I have not yet raced the Tour!” Barguil told VeloNews. “It’s nice people pay attention to you, but they must also realize we are only beginning our careers. To win the Tour takes many years of experience to even begin to be realistic about that.”
The French peloton, however, seems oddly stuck in the past in many ways. Unlike most major teams, which typically boast a mix of nationalities up to a dozen different flags flying on their rosters, French teams largely remain French operations.
Ag2r is the most international among the four major French teams, with 11 of its 30 riders carrying non-French passports. Cofidis has eight foreign riders among its 25 members, with Europcar carrying five non-Frenchmen on its 27-rider roster. FDJ.fr proudly carries its French colors, with only three non-French riders among its 30 racers.
French teams also remain insular, and largely focus on French races. In addition to the Tour, there is the French Cup, a series of one-day races across the calendar. That seems to satiate the demands of most French sponsors.
French cycling has certainly felt the pinch of the internationalization of the peloton. In the days of Hinault, the French ruled the peloton, with Hinault acting as its unrivaled patron, and French was the dominant language of the peloton. Today, English has become the “lingua franca” in a sport that reaches well beyond Europe.
Despite its traditions, French cycling is slowly modernizing. The top teams are now adopting the modern training methods based on power meters and science parameters that have become the norm within the peloton.
The French cycling federation is also hoping to emulate Sky and create a new national program to invest in the track racing program, with one eye on the Olympic Games and another on producing a French winner of the Tour.
French cycling president David Lappartient said in February the organization wants to build a “Team Sky a la francaise,” and is searching for a major backer to help underwrite a new push for the elite. Improving time trialing will be essential if today’s young French riders can someday seriously challenge for the yellow jersey.
The latest generation of French riders seems different. Bouhanni, a former boxer, proved he’s afraid of no one.
“Many pundits talk about me, but all I care about is racing,” Bouhanni said Tuesday. “I let people talk, I don’t care what is said about me. What is important to me now is the Giro.”
Today’s French riders also seem unburdened by the Hinault legacy. Barguil wasn’t born until six years after Hinault won his last Tour.
“What people must realize is that there will never be another Hinault,” Barguil said. “We are a new generation, but the public must give us time and space to grow. I am sure will win big races in the coming years.”