Cycling: Tour de France: A nation waits to end the detour: Simon O'Hagan watches as a fast climber carries the burden of French expectation

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HER NAME was Charlotte and there was something very unusual about her T-shirt. Not a logo, sponsor's name or advert in sight. At an event where almost everybody is a sandwich board, whether they realise it or not, Charlotte's T-shirt struck a blow for individuality. With perhaps a nod in the direction of Katharine Hamnett, it carried her own design, big letters spelling out the only message that would do for her: Allez Richard.

While Charlotte waited excitedly in the crowded reception area of the Hotel Christina in Alpe d'Huez last Tuesday evening, the object of her affections was a few feet away in the privacy of the bar, recuperating from his day's exertions. Richard Virenque, the 24-year-old Frenchman, needed to get some liquid inside him. He had just cycled the 224km from Valreas which had ended with one of the fiercest and most celebrated climbs of the Tour de France.

Virenque had not won the stage, but he had consolidated his second place in the overall classification by taking 35 seconds out of Miguel Indurain's 7min 56sec lead. In terms of catching the mighty Spaniard, this was fairly meaningless, but as a demonstration of gutsy climbing on another baking hot afternoon, it had gone down a storm with the thousands who had made the annual Alpe d'Huez pilgrimage.

For Charlotte, it was not enough just to see Virenque, the glamour boy of French cycling, battle his way up the mountain, his choirboy looks somehow remaining untainted by the strain of it all. She wanted to get backstage and meet the man who receives up to 100 fan letters every day during the Tour and, according to Bernard Romest of the Richard Virenque Supporters' Club, has brought 'fun, excitement, a new face' to the sport in France.

She did not have long to wait. As his Festina team-mates led the way into the dining room where there was laid out one of those French buffets in which beetroot and grated carrot seem to dominate, the slight figure of Virenque emerged. The focus of everyone's attention, he stopped and chatted briefly. And now Charlotte's T- shirt had an extra adornment - the autograph of Richard Virenque.

IT IS nine years since a Frenchman won the Tour de France - the longest period without domestic success since the race was first held in 1903. And the absence of French names from the winner's podium is in complete contrast to the years that went before.

In 1985, when Bernard Hinault was victorious for the fifth and, as it turned out, final time, France could look back on a decade of almost unbroken success. Of the 11 Tours between 1975 and 1985, nine were won by Frenchmen. As well as Hinault, there were two wins each for Bernard Thevenet and Laurent Fignon. Only Lucien Van Impe, the 1976 winner from Belgium, and Joop Zoetemelk, the 1980 winner from Holland, interrupted the procession. Those were the days when the Tour de France belonged to France in both senses. Now at last, with Virenque and others leading the best showing by the French in a Tour since 1985, there are signs that those days may come again. But, everyone agrees, not until Indurain decides he has had enough of crossing the border every year to show his neighbours how it is done.

What, then, has happened to cycling in France? This, after all, is the country that gave the world the greatest cycle race as well as two of the greatest cyclists in Hinault and Jacques Anquetil. And even now it has produced twice as many winners (36) as the next-best nation, Belgium with 18.

'These things always go in phases,' says Cyrille Guimard, director of Castorama, the only all-French team in this year's Tour. 'The history of the Tour is one of different eras. You had Anquetil, you had Merckx, you had Hinault. And now you have Indurain. It's only natural.'

Guimard, middle-aged, bespectacled, a cigarette never far from his lips, is in the mould of philosophical Frenchmen, impressed by little. Not even the presence in his team of two of the brightest young stars of French cycling, the mysterious Armand De Las Cuevas and the talented all-rounder Thomas Davy, can deflect him from his general theme - that French success, although nice, is no longer relevant to the Tour.

'The Tour de France is not French any more,' Guimard said as he sat over breakfast in Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday wondering whether his riders, none of whom had yet appeared, would be up in time to make the start of the stage to Val Thorens. 'It's an international event, like the World Cup or the Olympic Games. We don't judge it by whether a Frenchman wins it or not.'

It is paradoxical that the relative decline in French cycling has coincided with the period of the race's greatest expansion. Since the departure from the scene of Fignon, famously the runner-up to Greg LeMond in 1989 by eight seconds, the race from the point of view of the French has been less notable for what its own riders have achieved than for the way it has been used to promote France itself and help bind the nation to the cause of European unity.

In 1992 there was the eight- nation Tour - a move which did not go down well at home because it meant fewer French towns than usual having the chance to host a stage. And this year came the first full-scale visit to Britain. As one French cycling journalist said last week: 'It's as if we are saying, 'You've had our perfume, and our food and wine, now here's our Tour de France.' ' None of this has diminished local interest. Television viewing figures continue to increase, and every year it is estimated that between 15 and 18 million people line the route.

The success of French riders in this year's Tour has been an unexpected bonus, regarded here not dissimilarly to the way the British might regard their compatriots doing well at Wimbledon. Indeed, one French journalist described Virenque to me as 'the Jeremy Bates of French cycling', which with all due respect to our own dear Jeremy is perhaps a bit hard on Virenque.

But the Wimbledon comparison works in other ways. First, the Tour is now so big it is in danger of overwhelming other cycling in France. Even a race as steeped in tradition as Paris-Roubaix - L'Enfer du Nord - has had difficulty attracting sponsors in recent years. And, second, it has in Miguel Indurain a champion so dominant that, like Pete Sampras, he reduces the event to a battle for second place.

That is a battle which has kept the race alive through the closing stages in the Alps. The French have played a big part in it, having until Wednesday occupied second, third and fourth place with Virenque, his Festina team-mate Luc Leblanc, and De Las Cuevas. Then De Las Cuevas fell ill, and the Col du Glandon, the first of three big climbs going from Bourg d'Oisans to Val Thorens, all but finished him off.

Now the threat to Virenque and the polka-dot jersey he wore for best climber was coming from the brilliant Italian, Marco Pantani. But Virenque's team-mate, Pascal Lino, kept up sufficient pace at the front of the Pantani-Virenque group to restrict Pantani's breakaway to the last seven kilometres and limit the damage. When Virenque appeared out of the mist at the finish, he had kept his second place but the gap to Pantani, now in third, was down to 50 seconds. 'I owe it all to Pascal,' Virenque said.

On Thursday the hot weather returned for the fourth mountain stage running, from Moutiers to Cluses. Unlike the previous two, this one had a downhill finish which provided some of the most exciting cycling of the Tour when Indurain, emerging from his shell, took on Virenque in a thrilling game of speed and tactical bluffing as the road twisted its vertiginous way past the cattle dozing in the meadows.

Virenque had once said it was his dream to take on Indurain head-on, and this was his chance. It seemed to be going either way until well into the last kilometre when Indurain, accelerating away almost disdainfully, left the young pretender in no doubt who was in charge. Virenque had put more time between himself and third, but after Friday's time-trial he had slipped back to fifth.

There was a reminder in this hugely entertaining skirmish of something the Australian Stephen Hodge, a team- mate of Virenque, had said earlier in the week. 'We've been teasing Richard and some of the other French boys, saying they're just mosquitos flitting about Indurain. They're irritating, but he just has to brush them aside.'

But Hodge admires Virenque's climbing skills which have been shown off to good effect by the most mountainous Tour for many years. Virenque is no time-triallist, and tactically he has a lot to learn, often chasing down breakaways unnecessarily, doing a lot of work for no reward.

But that is in Virenque's nature. 'He's a real man of the South,' says Bernard Romest, referring to Virenque's upbringing in the Var, an area that produced the 1966 Tour winner, Lucien Aimar, but otherwise has no cycling tradition. 'He's very impulsive. He wants to make things happen.' Or as his room-mate, Pascal Herve, puts it: 'If people aren't ringing him up, he has to ring them.'

Stephen Roche, the 1987 Tour winner, is critical of Virenque's riding. The Frenchman he likes is Davy, 'an intelligent, very talented rider'. Whether Virenque, Davy or any other of the present generation will become the next Frenchman to win the Tour de France is another matter. But they have certainly enlivened this one.

Perhaps it is true, as Cyrille Guimard says, that as a worldwide sporting spectacular, the Tour de France does not need French winners. It may also be true, as another Frenchman put it last week, that 'we prefer to have someone challenging the leader rather than leading. We like losers'. But if Richard Virenque does one day win the Tour de France, nobody in France would be complaining. Certainly not Charlotte with her autographed T-shirt.

(Photograph omitted)