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Tour de France: Calzati's double-edged omen for French

A few hours before the World Cup final yesterday evening, Sylvain Calzati appeared to have struck the ideal patriotic note for Les Bleus by taking a strong solo victory into Lorient.

However, national pride was deflated slightly when the Frenchman then revealed, rather shamefacedly, that he would be supporting Italy, not France, "because I have Italian ancestors".

Other sports notwithstanding, Calzati's victory represented a small but significant triumph for France. So far the stage wins in the Tour have almost all been snapped up by foreign sprinters, and following the first long time trial on Saturday the best French rider overall is Christophe Moreau in a lowly 12th place.

However, Calzati made it into a six-strong attack that took off in the hills of central Brittany yesterday. With two major overall contenders present, German Matthias Kessler and American David Zabriskie, the break was closely marked, so Calzati opted for a lone strike in the final hour.

The strategy paid off in spades; the peloton eased up once Kessler and Zabriskie had been reeled in, leaving Calzati to wave at the crowds, exchange high-fives with his team manager and even extract a photo of his wife and daughter to point at before he crossed the line. "I could feel them pushing me on as they watched me on television," Calzati said. "And I'm sorry, but I want Italy to win the World Cup."

Personal loyalties apart, victories such as Calzati's have long been France's consolation prize in the Tour. It is, in fact, over 20 years since a French rider stood in yellow on the Champs-Elysées.

Since 1998, the first of many drugs scandals in the sport, murmurings about "two-speed cycling" - with the French being the victims of the foreigners' nefarious doings - have grown stronger and stronger. Yet the exclusion of four of the top favourites from this year's race - none of them French - has hugely increased local morale and ambitions.

But if anybody expected Saturday's time trial to act as a potion to conjure up, Harry Potter-style, new faces in the Tour's front line, then clearly somebody had bunged a wrong ingredient into the cauldron.

For the man grinning as he donned the yellow jersey after seizing both the stage win and the lead was the 36-year-old Sergei Gonchar, a regular top 10 finisher in the Tour of Italy who had never, until Saturday, produced similar results in July.

The veteran Ukrainian spearheaded an impressive collective performance by T-Mobile, who managed to place four of their riders in the top six of the overall classification prior to the Pyrenean stages, which start tomorrow. For now it seems, in the Tour at least, the French will still have to be content with stage wins.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'