With Vincenzo Nibali in command the race is on for the other riders to seize their chance. Can a Frenchman can finish on the podium in Paris? Yes because Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot are duelling for the white jersey, just 16 seconds separate them while Michał Kwiatkowski is 14 minutes behind. Barring a double disaster a Frenchman will stand on the podium on the Champs Elysées.
Enough smart answers, the real question is whether a Frenchman can finish in the top three overall? Bardet is third overall and Pinot fourth but there are three mountain stages and a long time trial to come.
It’s a result many in France want to see but there’s also wider support for this outcome. But could it be a big dream and a rude awakening awaits? On the rest day here’s a look at the GC contenders.
The last Frenchman on the podium was Richard Virenque in 1997. A long time ago but not long ago enough ago to be forgotten. His performances were subsequently explained by the Festina scandal and remain suspicious, tragic or pathetic depending on your stance.
Obviously a podium result matters to the French, a visible result after so many lean years. L’Equipe has been banging the drum loud enough to please Henri Desgrange and the only time Pinot and Bardet didn’t make the front page in the last week… was because Tony Gallopin was there instead. It resonates beyond France too. First home support means more crowds, a more lively race. The Tour is in rude health but this only adds to the success. “It’s good for cycling in general” says Richie Porte in L’Equipe with Dave Brailsford saying “the Tour’s got a history that’s over a century old, it’s part of the country’s culture, so it’s very important it’s supported by the French public and the best way for that to happen is for the French to get results“.
Nibali, the certainty
The French say you shouldn’t sell a bearskin before catching a bear, appropriate since a wild bears roam the Pyrenees. Yes Nibali has yet to win the race but his advantage is such that he can have a bad day and stay in yellow. He only need monitor events in the Pyrenees, letting others will sap their strength with attacks. Interviewed in L’Equipe coach Paolo Slongo says he’s worried about the aircon in a hotel; he doesn’t mention the other riders.
Valverde, the uncertainty + 04’37”
The Pyrenees should be perfect terrain for Alejandro Valverde – the race briefly crosses into Spain – but there are several questions waiting for answers. On the climb to Risoul he said he had a bike problem but watch again and he doesn’t seem to stare much at his bike nor ask for his replacement bike. Maybe it was his legs instead? If so it could be an off day but what if he’s off the pace? Talking of which the final time trial awaits. He’s improved a lot against the clock but impressing in a test of 20-40km is one thing, doing it over 54km is another.
Bardet, quietly confident + 04’50”
Romain Bardet said he wanted a top-15 finish in the race. Given he was 15th last year this was a modest goal designed to keep the media off his back. Behind the cherubic face is a steely competitor, a rider who’s in charge of his career and knows where he’s going and has a steely intelligence. Of course he wants to finish well but he’ll be making notes for next time too. He likes the Pyrenees with their ambush-friendly roads and is backed by a team motivated à bloc. But coping with the pressure can’t be easy and he’s been racing hard every day in the mountains, the fatigue is accumulating. The time trial is the biggest concern, he’s never raced over this length and in short events he’s lost plenty of time. Motivation matters, in other races he might have paced himself just to complete the course but even if he wants to ride well next Saturday, can he?
Pinot, vintage form + 05’06”
If Bardet has struggled to crack the top-20 in a time trial, Thibaut Pinot’s finished no lower than 24th in a time trial this year. He’s done a lot of work to refine his position and work on his pacing and it’s been paying off. A 54km time trial is still a voyage into the unknown, the risk is it all goes poire-shaped in the final 15kms. Like Bardet he’s been trying hard and the act of trying to overhaul Bardet means energy is being spent. Another risk factor is his knee, it’s been sore and he says it’s ok but he’s had problems before. The same with descending, tomorrow’s finish in Luchon looks awkward but he proved on the Izoard’s descent that he’s more comfortable.
Tejay van Garderen, the patient American? + 05’49”
BMC Racing’s leader has been looking good in the mountains despite being on antibiotics. But surely wants to get the Pyrenees over and done with because as things stand today he can expect to put a minute or more into all the names above and reach the podium. In recent years he’s won time trials and placed in the top-10 often too. So it’s all about how he copes with the Pyrenees. His skill seems suited to linear efforts and so the climbs to Chamrousse and Risoul suited him a lot but will he survive the more irregular roads coming up in the next few days? I think yes because if there are differences between the Alps and Pyrenees there’s no need to exaggerate them. As long as he can track the others he’s surely the greatest certainty for the podium after Nibali?
Péraud, The Third Man + 06’08”
Jean-Christophe Péraud is sixth overall at 6.08. The time is a handicap but he’s been in the shadows too because he’s not attacked as much. Also at the age of 36 he’s not bringing hope and promise to sell newspapers. His age is an advantage, he’s got experience, consistency and time trial expertise. Like van Garderen if he can hang on then he’ll make up time in the time trial.
Stage 20: a note on the time trial, it’s 54km and if the profile looks lumpy it’s got long flat roads and drags and suits those who can push a big gear. 54km on the final Saturday is a huge effort for tired riders and the time gaps will be big.
TV audiences are up and you can catch people in the French street discussing the Tour in a way that’s not happened in recent years, largely because of the national interest. Radio phone-ins buzz with talk of an “alliance” to achieve a patriotic podium. Only all talk of alliances never turns into reality. In simple terms Pinot and Bardet might share a nationality but they’re not pals, they’re rivals on competing teams. Circumstances might dictate they ride together, for example were they to attack on a climb then sharing the work might help them put time into rivals. But it’ll only happen on the spot and if there’s a mutual gain. Neither seems fixated by the other.
Whatever happens there’s still room for improvement. Some used to mock the French for not training but it was code for not blood doping. But there is a gap in sports science in France, whether the little things like putting sirop into a water bottle, having to buy your own power meter (Romain Bardet bought three with his own money) or bigger things like structured training camps. Bardet tried a short, private altitude training camp in the Sierra Nevada with his father while Pinot has never been. Pinot’s made big gains in the time trials, the hard work has paid off but Bardet seems further behind.
There are other names too. Pierre Rolland’s got a chance of a top-10 finish, a great result after his fourth place in the Giro and achieved despite his tactical antics. Warren Barguil can do well too and we’ll Kenny Elissonde in the Vuelta. If there’s no podium for a Frenchman this year, there will be soon.
In a race where Vincenzo Nibali has everything under control and the two pre-race favourites are nursing broken bones the race for the podium is an entertaining sub-plot and one that’s starting to grip the nation. Can a Frenchman make the top-3 in Paris? Yes but Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet both need to take on their rivals because the Stage 20 time trial and its 54km will ruin the hopes of millions in France.
We saw L’Equipe go nuts with “Allez les Bleus” coverage for the football team… until they were eliminated. It could be a similar story, only without the Germans. As things stand today the podium’s most likely to have an Italian, an American and a Spaniard. It’s this suspense that’s the best part. Just like the dictum that “travelling is better than arriving” the race this week will be more entertaining than the final result.