SAINT-LARY PLA d’ADET, France (VN) — The long drought for Italian and French riders at the Tour de France seems poised to come to a close.
Barring disaster, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will become the first Italian winner of the Tour de France since Marco Pantani in 1998. On the most explosive of a trio of stages across the Pyrénées, the stoic Italian was like a cat playing with mice Wednesday, tightening his grip on the yellow jersey to 5:26.
With such calm dominance, the only real battle remaining in this Tour is the fight for the podium, and it’s looking very likely that a French rider could reach the top-three for the first time since Richard Virenque was second in 1997.
Three French riders hog the top-five behind second-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), something unprecedented in modern cycling. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) defends third place, now 6:00 back. A surging Jean-Christophe Peraud is fourth, at 6:08, and Ag2r-La Mondiale teammate Romain Bardet is fifth, 7:34 in arrears.
Following a tough day Tuesday for time trial threat Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), who bled time and fell more than four minutes behind third place, a French podium finish is looking all but assured.
Peraud, a former mountain biker who didn’t even preview the Pyrénéen stages because he never expected to be in the GC hunt, is showing the best form. He’s been able to follow Nibali’s accelerations the past two days, distancing his rivals, and positioning himself for a podium run.
“I am content with my level. To hang in there with Nibali in the third week, ufff, that’s something,” Peraud said at the finish. “I was lucky to have him with me, and we worked together, and I thank him.”
Of the three French riders, Peraud is by far the best time trialist. The 37-year-old won the 2009 French time trial championship, and has been on solid form all season, winning the Critérium International in March, and taking third at the even-harder Vuelta al País Vasco in April.
Whippet-thin Bardet is expected to lose minutes on the hilly but long 54km time trial at Bergerac, and looks to have all but given up on the podium, especially with the rise of teammate Peraud. Pinot, just eight seconds ahead of Peraud, admits he will have a hard time holding that position.
“I know I will have to attack tomorrow if I want to have hopes of the podium,” Pinot said. “Peraud is a much better time trialist than me, and he could even pass Valverde for second place. I would need one good minute on Peraud and Valverde in the time trial, so if I hope to finish on the podium, I must attack tomorrow and take a lot of time.”
Thursday’s final mountain stage comes first, with the HC Tourmalet summit, and the long, grinding finale up Hautacam.
Peraud has been in the game long enough not to count his chickens before they’re hatched.
“We’ll see on the Champs-Élysées. We’re not going to make plans too soon,” Peraud said when asked about the podium. “I can have a bad day tomorrow, and lose what I have gained. But I’m going to fight for the podium now.”
Speaking before the stage, Ag2r-La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu also warned it’s too early to talk about the podium.
“We hope to make it through Thursday’s hard stage to Hautacam, and then we can see how things stack up,” Lavenu said. “Bardet is not finished yet. Gaining time on van Garderen was important, because he was such a threat in the time trial. Now I think the French will be fighting for the podium, but tomorrow is still another hard day, and we’ve seen big riders lose time almost every day.”
One big question mark is how second-place Valverde will roll out of the Pyrénées. A day after all but eliminating van Garderen’s podium hopes, the Spaniard struggled on the final climb, but countered to link up with Bardet and Pinot, and even gapped them in the final surge to the line, taking five seconds to the two young Frenchmen.
“I was struggling there a bit when it accelerated, and I decided to go at my own pace to not risk blowing up,” Valverde said. “I was able to come back and limit the losses. Tomorrow is another hard stage. I think more differences will be made there.”
Valverde cannot let Peraud gain any more time, or his second-place podium could be threatened. Peraud is only 42 seconds behind him, and the Frenchman could erase that time difference with a strong ride at Bergerac.
And then there’s van Garderen, who bounced back from his bad day with a solid climb Wednesday to finish with Bardet and Pinot. Though a long shot, van Garderen could revive his podium hopes with a big ride Thursday, coupled with bad days from Pinot and Peraud.
“Anything is possible. If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said it’s very possible. Yes, it’s possible, but it will be hard,” van Garderen said of his podium chances. “Yesterday was a pity. It was an off day. If someone has a bad day, I have to take advantage of it.”
Strong performances by French riders in this Tour have created a buzz in France not seen in nearly two decades. The last Frenchman to win the Tour was Bernard Hinault, in 1985, and after Virenque’s scandal-plagued career, no French rider has seriously challenged for the podium since the late 1990s.
The last Frenchman to come close to the podium was Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), who took big gains in a breakaway, and surprisingly held on until the Galibier stage, eventually settling on fourth.
What’s significant about the French performances in this Tour is that they’ve battled through the GC. The absences of Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) have altered the dynamics for the podium fight, but the French riders have consistently been at the sharp end of the action throughout all the key stages.
Nicolas Portal, the French director at Team Sky, said it would be a boon for French cycling if one of the Frenchman could reach the final podium in Paris when the Tour ends Sunday.
“It has been so long since French riders have challenged in the Tour, so it is very exciting for the French public,” Portal told VeloNews. “The race means a lot to the public, not just for the competition, but what it means culturally. It would be wonderful if a French rider can be on the podium.”
Even Nibali has been impressed with the French riders so far in this Tour.
“We are seeing a new generation of French riders, with Bardet and Pinot. It’s not a complete surprise,” Nibali said in a press conference. “We saw Pinot win a stage and finish in the top-10 already, and he continues to progress. The French riders are showing their strength in this Tour.”
The French might be back, but a podium spot is all they can hope for in this Tour. Nibali isn’t about to let go of the yellow jersey out of kindness.