GRENOBLE, France (VN) — Every morning on French radio, cycling experts break down the day’s action. For years — no, decades — the French media and fans had little to get excited about. Stage wins, a run in the yellow jersey, or a few heroic rides, but the podium in Paris remained like a mirage in the desert.
Over the past few days, there’s a new excitement crackling over the French airwaves unheard of since the glory days of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon in the 1980s. The French are in with a legitimate shot at the final podium in Paris.
At the start of Saturday’s stage, three French riders were within the top six. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) started sixth at 6:06 behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) was fourth at 4:40, and white jersey Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) climbed onto the virtual podium with third at 4:24 back.
With a string of climbing stages still looming between here and Paris, there is real hope that one of them could secure a podium place, in what would be the first for a French rider since confessed doper Richard Virenque was second in 1997.
“Nibali is very strong, but maybe the podium is accessible,” Pinot told French TV before the start of Saturday’s stage. “If I can keep having good legs in the mountains, perhaps the podium is within reach. That is what we are aiming for.”
Pinot, 24, and Bardet, 23, are part of a new generation of French riders invigorating the sport in the Tour’s host nation. A French rider has not won the Tour since Hinault won the last of his five in 1985, a legacy that has haunted the national peloton every since.
Today’s generation seems unburdened by the past, and is poised to make legitimate progress in the quest for the podium.
“Right now, I am focusing more on winning the white jersey,” Bardet said. “I am only 23, and it’s clear that Nibali is the strongest, with three stage wins, so I am going to stay calm, take it stage by stage, but fight all the way to the end.”
With pre-race favorites Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) both crashing out during the first week, there is a growing sense of an historic opportunity.
The French sports daily ran a full-page banner headline ahead of the Alps: “This year or never.”
That the French are even speaking about the podium reveals many things about how far cycling has come.
Throughout the Lance Armstrong era, French riders bitterly complained of a “peloton at two speeds.” In the wake of the Festina Affaire that rocked the 1998 Tour, French teams were pressured by police and government to step back from the rampant doping of the peloton, though the Cofidis scandal involving David Millar and other Cofidis riders in 2004 proved that not all French riders were racing on bread and water.
Riders such as Sandy Casar and David Moncoutie both raced clean during the EPO era, at least according to many within the peloton, but could never reach their full potential against the gassed bunch.
With the introduction of the biological passport in 2008, some observers say it’s no coincidence that French riders are once again becoming competitive as the peloton pedals into a cleaner, more transparent reality.
Veteran L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel, who has covered the Tour since the days of Eddy Merckx, said the new French generation has nothing to fear and everything to gain.
“We are seeing the first post-Festina generation come to age during this Tour. French cycling was traumatized in the wake of the scandal,” Brunel said. “It was like a nightmare for French cycling.”
Brunel also pointed out that the French no longer dominate the peloton as it did during the days of the Hinault and Fignon. Since then, the peloton has been overrun by Americans, Australians, British, and other European nations.
“Before, the sport was dominated by riders from four nations — Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain,” he said. “Now the peloton is completely international. It’s taken a while for the French to adjust and find their place.”
The fact that the French are bubbling to the top of the peloton hasn’t been lost on Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, who said in an interview with L’Equipe he would like to sign a French rider and try to help him win the yellow jersey.
As much as the French are hoping for a podium ride this year, it might not happen.
Peraud, 37, is the best against the clock of the three, but he doesn’t seem to have the spark in his legs as his younger compatriots. Pinot and Bardet are both climbers who will likely bleed time in the penultimate-stage time trial in Bergerac, something Bardet admitted after climbing into the virtual third podium spot Friday.
“(Tejay) van Garderen is very good against the clock,” Bardet said. “If we hope to have real podium chances, we’ll have to carry a good gap into the final time trial. Anyway, it’s too far to think that far ahead. Every day is hard in the Tour, and we’ve seen that anything can happen.”
Pinot and Bardet are both still a work in progress. Pinot has been working to overcome his fear of descending, driving race cars over the winter and undergoing counseling, while Bardet is only making his second Tour start, already looking on track to top his 15th place debut last year.
They might not reach the podium this year, but the fact that they’re even close is giving the French something to cheer about.
“Patience,” Brunel cautioned when asked about they pressure they are already facing. “In the future, they will be even better as they gain experience, and improve in time trialing. This is only the beginning.”