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Dark decades are over as French sprint into spring

Controversy aside, Arnaud Démare’s dramatic victory at Milano-Sanremo confirms the renaissance of French cycling. Not only does it represent the first French success in one of cycling’s “monuments” since Laurent Jalabert won the Giro di Lombardia in 1997, it also confirms the rebirth of French cycling that began a decade ago.

“Winning Milano-Sanremo is already enormous,” said FDJ’s Démare. “It shows that work pays off, and it’s huge for French cycling.”

The significance of the victory cannot be understated in a proud cycling nation that’s still yearning for its next winner of the Tour de France. Bernard Hinault’s final yellow jersey in 1985 is a distant memory, but a string of encouraging results is reviving hope beyond the Alps. L’Equipe plastered Démare’s victory salute across its front page Sunday, with the headline, “Monumental.”

Beginning with the infamous Festina Affair in 1998, French cycling was stuck in a rut for the better part of a decade or more. A cleaner, more transparent peloton has allowed French cycling to bloom, and Démare’s victory at Sanremo — the first by a Frenchman in the Italian classic since Laurent Jalabert in 1995 — reveals that the French peloton is also catching up to the “marginal gains” mentality that’s overtaken the sport.

“If Arnaud was racing at the beginning of the 2000s, he could have never won,” FDJ sport director Martial Gayant told AFP. “Today, it’s possible to win. A lot of things have changed, but you have to keep your eyes open.”

In the wake of the Festina Affair in 1998, the French openly complained of a “peloton at two speeds” throughout the Lance Armstrong era. In some regards, they were right. Following a crippling police investigation and government action, French teams were forbidden from leaving French soil for training camps (they can now). French sponsors and lawmakers put pressure on teams to turn off the doping faucet. Of course, that didn’t mean all French riders or teams were clean. David Millar and Philippe Gaumont were busted at Cofidis in 2004.

For the most part, however, it is widely believed that French riders and teams cleaned up their collective acts, and tried in vain to perform against a peloton that was pumped full of blood transfusions and a big bag of performance-enhancing products. Hence the complaint of a “peloton à deux vitesses.”

The generation of French riders between the Festina Affair and today’s newest wave — Thomas Voeckler, Sandy Casar, David Moncoutié, and Sylvain Chavanel — didn’t win often, but when they did, it took on huge significance for the frustrated French fan base and media. That’s why Crédit Agricole’s victory in the team time trial at the 2001 Tour de France was cheered so much because it was so unlikely against U.S. Postal Service and ONCE.

The arrival of the biological passport in 2008, and a gradual transformation of the elite peloton saw French riders once again bubbling toward the top of the results sheet. In 2011, Voeckler almost held on to the podium in that year’s Tour de France, finishing fourth overall, and in 2014, two French riders reached the Tour podium, the first since Richard Virenque’s infamous second overall in 1997, and something that was considered all but impossible for more than a decade.

Today, French cycling is competitive across the peloton; in grand tours, one-week stage races, in the spring classics, and the sprints. Though still very traditional, French teams have adapted the training methods used by most of the sport, with trainers, nutritionists, and coaching staffs following riders throughout the season.

“Results aren’t just improvised,” FDJ trainer Frédéric Grappe told AFP. “It’s built with innovation over the short, medium, and long-term, in the climate of confidence.”

And there’s a bevvy of talent coming up. The tri-color is present in just about every major mass gallop, led by 2011 U23 world champion Démare, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie).

Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) are the brightest lights in the GC horizon, each with wins and podiums in major races, anchored by Pinot’s third overall in the 2014 Tour. Jean-Christophe Péraud, an Olympic silver medalist in mountain biking, reached second in the 2014 Tour, the best French performance in a generation. Pierre Rolland made the switch from Europcar to Cannondale, and has high hopes for the 2016 Tour.

The rise of Warren Barguil (Giant – Alpecin) and Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale) — a 22-year-old who followed Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana last year on the climbs at Route du Sud — gives hope that France will eventually deliver a Tour winner for the first time since Hinault won in 1985.

Riders such as Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Florian Sénéchel (Cofidis) have big potential on the cobblestone classics. Démare’s victory Saturday only bolsters his confidence going into the northern classics. The French are no longer the joke of the peloton.

Last French victories in cycling’s monuments

Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Bernard Hinault, 1980
Ronde van Vlaanderen: Jacky Durand, 1992
Milano-Sanremo: Laurent Jalabert, 1995
Paris-Roubaix: Frédéric Guesdon, 1997
Giro di Lombardia: Jalabert, 1997