Cycling: Tour de France - Flat show for home supporters

The French have already started the post-mortems after another year of failure on the Tour. By Robin Nicholl

THE TOUR de France is no longer a French possession. Where heroes were once born and cherished by a fervent public, there is now a shortfall. Failure in fact.

National pride is at stake, and that hurts, especially when nations without the same depth of history in the sport are producing winners.

The more cynical answer is that since the purge in the wake of the 1998 Tour, French cyclists have been monitored to the extreme, and France has brought in stiffer penalties for sports drug trafficking. That could be too simple an explanation, however, on a day when an American, a Swiss, a Spaniard and a German mounted the final podium in Paris.

Lance Armstrong, a Texan in the yellow jersey of victory, the bespectacled Alex Zulle second again, country boy Fernando Escartin third and proud, and the Berliner Erik Zabel in his fourth consecutive victory in the green jersey of top points scorer. Then there was Richard Virenque.

Patriotism has always been fierce among the French, and Tricky Dicky, despite on-going judicial interest in his doings, is still No 1 in home hearts. Grinning broadly, he climbed on the Champs-Elysees podium bedecked for a fifth year in the red polka-dotted jersey symbolising the best rider in the mountains.

It was a subtle two-fingered salute to the organisation. Before the Tour started, its director-general, Jean-Marie Leblanc, was foiled in his attempt to bar Virenque from the race as "an undesirable". He riposted a Union Cycliste Internationale order to allow Virenque to start with an unpatriotic hope that the Frenchman did not make it to the ceremonial podium in Paris.

"It would be the worst thing that could happen to cycling, and it would be a setback for other riders," Leblanc decided. The rest of France did not agree judging from the banners at the roadside during the three weeks of racing.

The Tour boss had bitter memories of a tearful Virenque pleading for himself and his Festina team-mates to be allowed to continue in last year's race after their team manager, Bruno Roussel, confessed following the arrest of masseur Willi Voet with a car-load of doping products.

Long before this, however, French cycling was wavering. Where was the new Bernard Hinault? Bretons like Hinault are quarried not born, and the intellectual winner, such as Laurent Fignon, comes up once a decade.

Between 1977 and 1985 only the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk poked his way into a French run with Hinault notably reeling off five victories.

Virenque was full of promise with his spotted jerseys and also as the only Frenchman in 10 years to stand on the pod-ium next to the winner with a second, in 1997, and a third, in 1996.

In 1989, Fignon was second to the American Greg LeMond, and that was a painful defeat. Traditionally the final stage in the capital is a laid- back affair, but Leblanc, then the director of competition, decided to turn it into a time trial. A big mistake!

Fignon was the overnight race leader, but LeMond deposed him in the tightest Tour finish by eight seconds. Had Leblanc been Prime Minister the government would have fallen on such a decision.

Since, it has all been downhill. Laurent Jalabert had the character and the strength to change it all, but in 1994 a gendarme with a camera caused a crash at Armentieres that left Jalabert with a broken jaw. Too many omens - especially that year when the Englishmen Chris Boardman and Sean Yates each had a turn in the yellow jersey. Now that really stung Gallic pride.

This year is bad. For the first time in 73 years, France has not won any of the 20 stages, and they are building an unenviable run of lanternes rouges. Jacky Durand is the fifth Frenchman to finish last in consecutive Tours. Yet he also took the combativity prize, awarded to the rider who is always on the attack. Last year he won a stage, and in 1995 he had a spell in the yellow jersey.

Cycling is cyclical. France will have to be patient for their next turn. Constant checks on their riders to ensure they are healthy, that is free of drugs, may not have brought about the decline.

Italy is getting tougher with their riders. On the Giro d'Italia everyone got in on the testing act, and the Italians were under severe scrutiny. All Italians were liable to testing by the Italian Olympic Committee, the Italian Cycling Federation, and the Union Cycliste Internationale. They did not like it, but, 48 hours from overall triumph, Marco Pantani was kicked out because of an over-the-limit blood sample. The next day, in Milan, the homeboy Ivan Gotti was proclaimed the winner, and Italy provided 11 of the 22 stage winners.

France may have to look a lot deeper than being a "cleaner" nation in this age of drugs reliance.

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