Tour de France 2012: Vive le France!

Clearly the best thing about French cycling

Just as writers everywhere were beginning to dig out their pieces on the death of French cycling, the plucky home riders real off three road stages in a row. Indeed, after an eight day drought, the arrest of once hotly tipped Remy Di Gregorio on alleged doping charges and the return of the knee injury of Thomas Voeckler, it would have been easy to consign this tour to being yet another washout for the French, who have been desperate to stop the rot and return to the glory days of Bernard Hinault, all those 27 years ago. Not as bad as ol’ Britain waiting for it’s football team to win the World Cup, but thats an internationally staged event – the Tour is France in more then a literal sense, and the public would love a home perfomance in the same manner that Britain is hoping for a British Wimbledon champion, or simply a strong showing at the London Olympics.

Everyone loves Europcar, especially when they’re as classy as Rolland. Lets hope he doesnt become Virenque Mark 2 (in more ways then one)

It was thus nice to see Thibaut Pinot, the indestructable Voeckler and teammate Pierre Rolland take three breakaway wins in four days, and restore glory to the bastille of cycle sport. Are these the shoots of recovery for a nation that has struggled the last few years, dropping perilously close to being unable to field 9 riders at the Worlds due to lack of qualifying points?

Despite sullying their glorious kit with BigMatt, FDJ are still the best looking team in the peloton. But winning would be better then looks, at Sky demonstrate…

It is arguable that the trend to bash the French is flawed – the French have been much better at picking up stage wins then the other traditional cycling nations, Spain, Italy and Belgium in recent times. In the ‘Post-Lance’ era of 2006 onward (yes, yes, we know he came back in 2009), France have managed, before 2012, 16 stage wins in 6 years through 11 different riders, whilst Italy have managed just 5, with their last win being Alessandro Pettachi’s 2010 sprint victory (also their last jersey win) and Belgium only 6, with last years wins by Gilbert and Vanendert stopping a 2 year drought. France then, have been extremely consitentOf course, we could skew this by pointing out that Britain has managed 20 stage wins in the same time, and that Norway have managed to pull out 11 stage wins win just three riders since 2006, but is it really fair to be cruel to the French over this?

French stage wins, jersey wins and best placed finisher 2006-11

2011: One (Pierre Roland), White Jersey (Rolland), Voeckler, 4th.

2010: Five (Chavanel x2, Riblon, Voeckler, Fedrigo), King of the Mountains (Anthony Charteau), John Gadret, 18th

2009: Three (Voeckler, Feillu, Fedrigo), Christophe Le Mevel, 10th

2008: Three (Dumoulin, Dessel, Chavanel), Sandy Casar, 14th

2007: One (Vasseur),Stephane Goubert, 26th

2006: Three, (Casper, Calzatti, Fedrigo) Cyril Dessel, 6th

Well, no. But the real problem is that when the French say they want to return to the days of Hinault, they mean they want a new Hinault. Stage wins, whilst nice, are not really much compared to a French rider triumphing at the Tour. Thus, a great stream of riders have been given the title/curse of being ‘the next Bernard Hinault’, whether they want it or not, then fallen under the way side under the pressure of the weighty burden of attention this brings. Witness the ‘failure’ of Cyril Dessel, Christophe Moreau, and of course Remy di Gregorio, to step up to the mark.

The General Classification has long been troublesome for France. As you can see from the table above, they have managed the top 10 just three times in the past six years, and if we’re honest, Dessel’s 6th greatly benefitted from a large chunk of breakway time. The jury is out on whether or not Voeckler could maybe have won last years Tour had he not taken a diversion into a carpark of tried to follow Contador’s blistering pace up the Telegraphe and Galibier, but the reality is that, despite how much our hearts desired it, our heads tell us it probably wouldnt have happenned. The other problem has been the youth: before Pierre Rolland, France had last managed a white jersey in 1999: Benoit Salmon, who never repeated anything near the feat again, though that could be said of many white jersey winners. French riders seem to have been content with being breakway specialists – Frenchman hasn’t won a sprint in the Tour since Jimmy Caspar in 2006, and that may well be the last sprint they won in any Grand Tour. The progression to true contenders for their own malliot jaune is slow.

But a few young riders have been more impressive of late. Rolland and Pinot are the obvious pair, given their Tour stage winning credentials, and with one 25 and the other 22, it it not ridiculous to talk of one being at least a contender in years to come, especially given how both are in the 2012 Tour’s top ten after a mountain stage and long time trial. Even Tony Gallopin is a stong rider – a seeming sprinter who suddenly turned up in the mountains at the Tour. There are even sprinters coming through – Arnold Demaure won the U23 Worlds, and Nacer Bouhanni has been winning sprints for fun this year. Surely enough to see a bright future?

Voeckler survives the Galibier and rescues Europcar

It suggests so, but there is still one problem – the French teams. It has oft been joked that a French riders career manages to take in a stay at each of the French teams – Cofidis, Europcar, AG2R and Francais de Jeux. The problem these days is that in an era of ‘Superteams’ with big international sponsors and obscene budgets, the French teams are woefully underfunded and diluted. Witness the fiasco with Europcar last year, who were saved by Voeckler when Bouges Telecom pulled out, and Europcar claimed they would only sponsor the team if Voeckler stayed after Pierre Fedrigo jumped ship to FDJ (getting injured all season unfortunately). Voeckler took a pay cut to save the livelyhoods of his team – a classy act he would repay handsomely at the Tour. But surely this scenario will be repeated by the other French teams before long – unfortunately, in the current climate, their romantic ideals look unlikely to survive, and it would be nicer to see them consolidate into one or two stronger teams to push forward, and accept outside influence. After all, French riders have done best when in foreign teams – Chavanel has probably been the best rider recently, on the Belgian Quick Step outfit.

Will it happen? Probably not. But it would be lovely to see – the kit would be so Euro it would be mindboggling.

A sight for the future?

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