Tour de France 2014: After 29 years of hurt, might a Frenchman finally win?

With no home winner of the Tour de France since 1985, there are now four in contention for this unpredictable 2014 edition

29 years of hurt have never stopped the French from dreaming.

It doesn’t quite have the hollow ring of Baddiel and Skinner’s 1996 classic dirge, but the sentiment is a similar one.

For almost three decades, since Bernard Hinault took the last of his five yellow jerseys in 1985, the proprietors of the Tour de France have been starved of the oxygen of glory in their own race.

There have been flashes of hope amid the gloom. Laurent Jalabert’s transformation from sprinter into multi-talented overall threat was followed in 1997 by a second place for Richard Virenque, the housewives’ darling who was disgraced a year later in the wake of the Festina scandal.

Hope, of course, implies within its four letters the possibility, nay probability of failure. And in the last ten years, failure has been the overriding word to describe French performances at the Tour.

Never was that better exemplified than in 2007, when Christophe Moreau came into the race with tangible ambitions after winning the prestigious Dauphiné Libéré- only to see those aims dissolve into his tears as he struggled to a nondescript 37 place.

Virenque’s 1997 result remains the last time a French rider stood on the Tour podium in Paris.

 

Now change is blowing with the sudden ferocity of a Mistral through the French cycling ranks. There are four French riders in the top eight on General Classification as the Tour exits the Vosges and moves towards the Alps- for the first time in 17 years, expectation has replaced the damnable hope that a home rider can challenge at the cutthroat end of the race.

Thibaut Pinot’s second place on the witheringly difficult Stage 10 finish to La Planche des Belles Filles stoked the embers of those expectations into a furnace. ‘Pinot, comfortable in his own home’ roared L’Equipe, referring to the fact that the young Française des Jeux rider’s result had been achieved in the same hills on which he trains.

Pinot is a barometer for the upswing in French fortunes. A year ago, he abandoned the Tour having fought a losing battle with his own courage on the descents. Now he lies sixth, just a minute behind Alejandro Valverde who currently occupies the lowest rung on the podium and confident enough to describe the climb to Belles Filles as ‘a bit too short for me.’

He’s only one member of a suddenly formidable class of home riders. The diminutive, explosive Romain Bardet finds himself currently in fourth and clad in the best young rider’s white jersey. Fourteen years his senior, his teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud has been similarly impressive- as has Tony Gallopin, hanging grimly onto fifth despite a lack of climbing renown.

“I was a little bored just following the other riders,” said Bardet after the conclusion of yesterday’s stage. It’s hard to imagine such confidence bordering on hubris coming from the mouth of a French rider from the past decade.

Vincenzo Nibali would appear to have an iron-clad grip on the yellow jersey- though given the disasters that have befallen his rivals so far, a first Italian Tour win in sixteen years is hardly a foregone conclusion.

Behind him, however, the French are lining up with zeal. The Tour’s citadel has been the home of countless foreign occupiers over the past 29 years- now, finally, there may be a home-bred generation brave and talented enough to storm its walls. And that can only be good for the race.

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