Tour de France 2014: Podium places for Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot declare grand French revival
The Tour’s proprietors and guardians have not placed a rider on the podium since Richard Virenque in 1997
In the moments after sealing his position as runner-up to Vincenzo Nibali in this year’s Tour de France, Jean-Christophe Péraud slumped against the roadside barriers, hands covering eyes from which tears had already begun to pour.
It was tempting to wonder whether the French public might collectively be adopting a similar gesture of disbelief.
The Tour’s proprietors and guardians have not placed a rider on the podium since Richard Virenque in 1997. Now, gloriously, they have two – exactly 30 years on from Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault’s occupation of the top-two steps in Paris.
“It’s an enormous satisfaction,” said Péraud, who was still competing as an amateur rider four years ago. “The withdrawals of [Chris] Froome and [Alberto] Contador opened a range of possibilities, and I started to dream about second place. I’m happy to have achieved that goal. I have a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ and a lot of joy today.”
Just behind Péraud was Thibaut Pinot, who lost second place to his compatriot in Saturday’s time-trial. But at 24, finishing third in the Tour de France as the best young rider is a gigantic achievement. His assault on the climb to the summit of Port de Bales on stage 16 that left both Nibali and Alejandro Valverde wobbling will live long in the memory.
A generation of potentially great French riders have simultaneously begun to bloom, adding vibrancy and colour to a race shorn early on of its two heavyweight contenders.
Romain Bardet lost his national battle with Pinot but will come again. Tony Gallopin’s two stage wins will surely be supplanted by more in the future given that he is just 26. And let us not forget the baby-faced figure of Blel Kadri, whose breakaway victory in the eighth stage began this Gallic renaissance.
This year’s race will be remembered first and foremost for the crushingly effective Italian job by Nibali. To reclaim their Tour completely, the French will have to actually win one – but their partial repossession of their home race has been the most pleasing sub-plot to what could have easily turned into a somewhat linear narrative.
Amid the French riches, there is a troubling paucity of British success. Only three weeks have passed since this was “Britain’s Tour” – three weeks since Leeds, Harrogate, York, Sheffield and Cambridge greeted the race with a fervent enthusiasm.
Of the group of Britons who began in Yorkshire only Geraint Thomas made it to Paris. Mark Cavendish was gone with the race still in short trousers. Froome came in with lingering injuries and departed with worst bruises. Simon Yates of Orica-GreenEdge fought bravely for a fortnight, but at 21, his time is at least three years in the future.
As Sky’s Richie Porte began to struggle in the Alps, fellow Briton Peter Kennaugh was in the process of capturing the Tour of Austria. Josh Edmondson has enormous potential, as does Luke Rowe. But unlike their French counterparts, they are not being blooded.
The reversal of Anglo-French Tour fortunes found its voice in the words of the man charged with advancing British cycling prospects.
“There’s a new generation of French riders that have faith in themselves,” Sir Dave Brailsford said three weeks ago. Not even a man of Brailsford’s talents could have expected to be proven so right so quickly. In the space of three weeks, the young French men have confirmed his faith countless times over.
The Sky team principal held a meeting in Carcassonne last Monday to try to work out why their season has gone so wrong. For the first time in a generation, it is the British who are scrabbling in the dark for cycling success.
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