With a week left in this Tour de France there are three Frenchmen in the top six; it is something we haven’t seen for years and it raises serious prospects of at least one of them, if not more, making the final podium in Paris. Unfortunately for them there is also Vincenzo Nibali, who at this moment is in complete control of the yellow jersey and baring a disaster of Froome, Contador, or on the road, of Porte proportions, it looks as though only two of the three spots are up for grabs.
It’s three Frenchmen against one American against one Spaniard and ignoring Nibali, here is the top five on GC fighting for second and third.
2. Valverde (Spain)
3. Bardet (France) +13″
4. Pinot (France) +29″
5. Van Garderen (USA) +1’12”
6. Péraud (France) +1’31”
And for what it is worth, another Frenchman, Pierre Rolland is in tenth, 6’11” behind Valverde. It was Rolland whom a few years ago might have been seen as the future hope of French cycling to break what has become a long podium drought, but who has since been overtaken by these three Frenchman in the pecking order…at this tour, at least.
The last time a Frenchman finished in the top three of the Tour de France was Richard Virenque in 1997. Before that was Virenque again in 1996, Laurent Fignon in 1989, Jean-François Bernard in 1987, Bernard Hinault in 1986 and Hinault once more in 1985 when he won it for a fifth time.
Seventeen years. And all of them in the pre-Festina affair era.
It’s widely accepted that post that 1998 scandal, French cycling clamped down on rampant doping within its teams’ structures. The law tightened and the idea became a big no-no among young riders. Of course, there could always have been some taking the risk, but the French moved to the forefront of anti-doping in a way the Spaniards, Italians, Americans and others did not and in doing so they moved to the rear of cycling’s big hitters on the result sheets.
French cycling fans changed from hoping to see a French winner of their Grand Tour to hoping to simply see a stage winner. The hero’s of the likes of Hinault and Fignon were gone and it was plucky stage riders who showed enormous heart and fighting spirit that became the new hero’s of their nation. The likes of Thomas Voeckler.
But the nation has still longed for the day someone would come along and compete again to win the Tour. Note the reaction in France when Voeckler stole all those minutes from a breakaway on stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France and almost clung on for the victory, losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck and then Cadel Evans with just three stages to go. His fighting spirit as he rode in the mountains like he ought not to have, won over the hearts of many, but many knew that it was a fleeting attempt, that Voeckler would never get such a chance again.
Rolland finished 11th that year (later upgraded to 10th when Contador had his result stripped) and won on Alpe d’Huez — the same day Voeckler lost the jersey — and with it came the weight of a nation to push on. He was 24 years of age at the time but since then has only bettered his final overall placing once in 2012 when he finished 8th.
A year later while all eyes were on Rolland, a young 22 year old Thibaut Pinot won a mountain stage to Porrentruy and finished 10th in the GC; second to Tejay Van Garderen in the white jersey competition. Pinot v Van Garderen looked like a prelude to a new rivalry one day for yellow…a flashback to LeMond v Fignon, and which today makes up two of the five going for second and third.
Seeing French cycling on the up again with names like Pinot coming through followed by Bardet, expected to be followed by Warren Barguil — who some think is the most talented of the lot and who won a stage in last years Vuelta aged 21 — is a good sign for cycling. That staunch anti-doping approach by French law and French cycling seen a nation left behind as other nationalities continued to win in a post-Festina affair cycling world.
Now however with the tide in attitudes in the pro-peloton changing, with those cycling clean overtaking the numbers of those cycling dirty and a young wave of talent coming in, French cycling is once again able to compete where maybe it always should have had things been fair. The likes of Bardet and Pinot born a generation later than someone like Christophe Bassons should count themselves fortunate.
And there’s one other in that trio going for the podium that highlights this culture change that has allowed French cycling to thrive again, best: Jean-Christophe Péraud. Unlike Pinot and Bardet, Péraud is an old man of the peloton…37 years of age. A mountain biker who only turned to the road full-time in the 2010 season aged 33, the Frenchman should be slowing down with age but is only getting better.
He was 9th in his first Tour in 2011, fell back to 44th in 2012, but was again sitting 9th in 2013 when a crash on the final time-trial forced him to abandon. He was 3rd in Paris-Nice last year and this year placed 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico, 3rd in the Tour of the Basque Country, 2nd in the Tour Méditerranéen, and 1st in the Critérium International.
Péraud would never have arrived into road cycling in any previous era at that age and been competitive at the front end of races. He certainly would not have landed into a tour ten year ago, even aged 27 and found himself competing for a podium place — as he is in this years Tour — against the likes of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich as we now know how they where. The question though isn’t therefore whether he’s getting better, but rather whether everyone else is that little bit more normal? Has a race that would have been impossible for him to win in his prime riding clean — which as a staunch anti-doper, he is — suddenly within reach into his mid-30s?
It may be the best sign of the lot that cycling is improving itself for the good. Some will always cheat but in tackling the issue properly, cycling has opened the door to the French once again and Péraud exemplifies that opportunity, and we’re all the better for it. There are some who believe he could have won the Tour in his pomp had he been racing against a clean field but perhaps for that reason he never made the switch until much later.
That said, it isn’t the swing towards a cleaner sport that has exclusively opened the door to the French again; talent plays a large roll too. French cycling appears to have hit a golden generation and lets hope it works out for them. Péraud may be showing what is possible now, even at his age, but the likes of Pinot, Bardet, Barguil, even Rolland, have the best opportunity to seize it.
This Sunday, all being well, one of Pinot, Bardet or Péraud, or perhaps two of them, will stand on the podium in Paris and the shadow of Virenque will be wiped away at last. A line drawn and a real opportunity for the French and all of us to look forward with serious optimism.