Cycling / Tour de France: Leaderless French light years behind the likes of Indurain

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CYCLE racing is always seen as a French passion so when Greg LeMond, from the land of baseball lovers, won the Tour de France twice the French bore the agony. After all, he had a French-sounding name. Now Miguel Indurain, from the country of bull fighting, is heading for a hat-trick in the tour the French are soul-searching publicly.

'Don't blame us. It is hard enough racing without having to take on this extra pressure,' Laurent Jalabert, winner of the green jersey as the most consistent finisher last year, said. 'We are not responsible because French cycling is not at the level of the Spanish, Italians or Swiss. There is not a good leader in a French team. We knew that before the tour began and it will be the same next year.'

It is, however, the riders who have to bear the blame for the lack of results as the current three-week trek slogs its way through the Pyrenees en route for Sunday's finish on the Champs Elysees. Pascal Lino broke through in the 14th stage to win at Perpignan and he promptly hit out at the critics. 'I wanted to stop the complaints,' he said. 'People are saying that we are too well paid but do not attack enough. I decided to show them that France was not non-existent in cycling.'

His victory is the one French success so far and they are running out of opportunities for more, which means that they are heading for their worst year for stage wins. Only twice since 1947 have they failed to score more than two.

Bernard Hinault, who had his fifth victory in 1985, is the riders biggest critic. 'I don't know anymore,' he said. 'Have our riders the morale, the will to win, and are they happy racing on a bike? I am disappointed that we are not in the battle. I just wonder what state they will finish in if they are not capable of attacking.'

Roger Legeay, manager of LeMond's team, refuses to accept that tight budgets in business are partly to blame for the decline. 'It is the same for all our European neighbours,' he said. 'To attract sponsors we need another star. Without such a man business is not interested in cycling.'

Five years ago Laurent Fignon and France suffered the embarrassment of losing the tour on the Champs Elysees when LeMond snatched the yellow jersey from him by eight seconds. Fignon has won the tour twice but left this year with a knee injury and his own thoughts on the malaise.

'The key to the problem is that there are not enough riders turning professional,' he said. 'Often 15 or so would sign contracts each year but now it may be four or five.'

Fignon is in the Italian team of Gatorade, working for others, and much of the French talent is dispersed in teams of other nations.

'The French are at the same level as last year without the same results,' said another Frenchman, Philippe Louviot, who works for Spanish sponsors. 'The tour has been made for sprinters and climbers and France has none to match the best.'

Last year, Lino wore the yellow jersey of tour leader for 10 days - unhappily at the wrong end of the race. He finished fifth overall in Paris. Their current best in the overall standings as the race resumes today is Jean-Philippe Dojwa, a Frenchman of Polish extraction. He is 14th, nearly 24 minutes in arrears, and that is light years away from Indurain who, Fignon maintains, is on another planet compared with the French.

OVERALL STANDINGS (after 15 stages): 1 M Indurain (Sp, Banesto) 71hr 50min 8sec; 2 A Mejia (Col, Motorola) +3min 23sec; 3 Z Jaskula (Pol, GB MG) +4:45; 4 T Rominger (Swit, Clas) +5:44; 5 B Riis (Den, Ariostea) +10:26; 6 A Hampsten (US, Motorola) +13:30; 7 C Chiappucci (It, Carrera)+14:11; 8 J Bruyneel (Bel, ONCE) +14:54; 9 V Poulnikov (Ukr, Carrera) +15:08; 10 P Delgado (Sp, Banesto) +16:09.

(Map omitted)