Can A Frenchman Make The Podium In Paris?

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.

Alliance française?
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.

Beyond Paris
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.

44 thoughts on “Can A Frenchman Make The Podium In Paris?”

  1. Yes, it seems that TJ as it stands looks the best bet for 2nd place but lets not forget that during the previous rest day there was talk of Porte…

    Despite the great race for places 2-7, the race has been an anticlimax with no Froome and Contador. Everybody is thinking how great it would be if someone could attack Nibali, even for a few minutes…

  2. I feel like complacency has hurt the french riders the past few years as well. As there was always some “worth” in being the top frenchman in the GC (Le Mevel got a nice Garmin contract based on this and nothing else), just holding that position at 9th in GC was well enough for them. With the heightened competition among the French, they seem to really be pushing each other. I feel like you would never have seen a french rider chase and hold Nibali’s wheel so doggedly, like Peraud did, in the past as the better bet would have been to stay in the group and preserve your top 10 position, not blow up. So the action this year is great to see.

    • The “first Frenchman” label in recent years has been a terrible tag, rewarding riders for good performances but with a lot of domestic importance and sections of the media seemed to celebrate this rather than asking whether the rider in question could improve their skills etc.

    • Take out the riders ahead of Le Mevel from 2009 who have had doping convictions and all of a sudden he’s 5th overall. Not bad.

      • One of the most suspicious things you can see in 2009’s Tour top ten is Le Mével. Compare with the rest of his career. Even when cycling supposedly “got cleaner”.

        I’m not denying you can have one miraculous season or couple of weeks, but, for sure, trying to infere how good a cyclist *really* is or was, considering that other cyclists who arrived above him where at some point in time (!) convicted for doping… is the most useless exercise.

        Just as silly as trying to understand if cycling is more or less clean depending on the performances of some supposedly clean athletes (riders in general from a specific *clean* team, a *clean* nation… or even specific riders).
        Any historical perspective grounded on this kind of ideas tends to lead to paradox (the famous clean rider/team performing spectacularly in what we later discover was a doping-plagued context etc.).
        This is mainly due to two factors: first, doping is not the main variable which has an influence on performance. Second, the supposedly clean riders/teams/nations may not be as clean as we like to think (even if they don’t ever get caught).

      • (That was not for me, obviously, but for cd, just in case it wasn’t clear 🙂 )
        And I would add that the fact that you’re invited to the Tour (and maybe Liege, Roubaix, Dauphiné, Pa-Ni, etc.) even if you / your team are underperforming, maybe with the added justification that “oh, yeah, you’re on pure water whereas the rest is doping”… Well, that doesn’t help to push yourself as hard as you should, not only during the race but – even more important – while building your winter base. All this, doping aside.

      • If Peraud can stay upright, I agree. Listening to the Cycling Podcast, Nico Roche seemed to think that Bardet was the most complete rider of the French “wave” – perhaps that is because he knows him better – and that he probably has more long-term potential. It is good to see. The race needs Nibali to have a minor mishap for it to have an amazing crescendo this weekend (nothing serious though please!).

  3. In the “Beyond Paris” section, I think (Cedric or Jerome) Pineau snuck in where you still meant Thibaut Pinot.

    I heard some tv commentators referring to this ‘renaissance’ as a byproduct of French cycling introducing a bio passport in the wake of Festina, and now that the rest of the world has been on the bio passport for enough time, that the playing field is now more level – that and a new generation coming into the pro peloton. Perhaps it’s just coincidence…like many things in cycling, you’d like to believe it to be true. Please, no Valverde on the podium – I actually like watching him, but for the sake of the future of the sport, new faces!

    • +1. Mr Ring mentions the French reputation for not “training” during the EPO era. As the French dry spell continued, the talk was that French riders were doping less than other nationalities, for various reasons including the criminal penalties in France. If there was any truth to that, the happy ending comes when clean French riders are able to contend for top places again.

      • I feel many people say “EPO era” meaning instead the “Pax Armstronghiana” in the 2000s, which was much more about transfusions, sexual hormones, corticosteroids, CERA and so on.
        The real “EPO era” was in the ’90s, and I doubt any person with just a pinch of memory and good sense would say the French weren’t deeply involved.

        Anyway, if you were meaning the 2000s… wasn’t Cofidis a French team in 2004? They spoke of “individual doping” but I think Millar thinks otherwise.
        And what about young sensation Lhotellerie?

        Moreover, what is officially confirmed is often the tip of the iceberg. Especially when the claim of your national brand has become “cleanliness”, you just won’t spoil it after years working on your image as such. Sweeping everything under the carpet is way more effective. Maybe sending a more or less direct advice to “calm down” to the interested parties (Europcar and Ag2R have had their share of *little problems* in the last two or three years).

        • “EPO era” is shorthand and yes I meant to included the period after the test for EPO was developed. No need to blame Lance, and I don’t consider those times particularly peaceful. I was just trying to restate what I think was fairly widespread conventional wisdom that there may have been distinctly less doping (or more pressure not to dope) among French teams than there was elsewhere. Showing me proven dopers who are French does not disprove this, but anyway I was not saying it was necessarily true, just a relevant story for those who are not familiar.

          • They were two very different periods, so I can’t see how could the one include the other in any sort of unity.
            I deliberately referred to the concept of “Pax Augusta” (and the similar ones which it inspired, like “Pax Britannica” and so) because it implies a kind of very controversial *peace*.
            Maybe that “conventional wisdom” is way too conventional, and the “relevant story” is much more of *a story* than really relevant.

            For what concerns the ’90s, it’s not just a matter of “proven French dopers” but of TEAMS. Systematic and organised team doping, in addition to the the number of big figures involved. In France, just like everywhere else.
            If this doesn’t disprove “that there may have been distinctly less doping (or more pressure not to dope) among French teams”, well, I guess that neither the good old Emmett Brown (‘Doc’) could help you to disprove it, not even sending you right back in a Festina car trunk.

            In the 2000s the situation may have been slightly different, but the Cofidis case shows that it wasn’t a matter of national culture or sport system.

            Besides, do you really think that Virenque, Moreau, Roux , Gaumont, Brochard, Magnien… and so on… abandoned their practices with the previous millennium? In the 2000s they often found their place in French teams (apart from Virenque, maybe. I’m quoting from memory). I don’t think this is compatible with any “pressure not to dope”, please!

            Generalization can be dangerous, and fairy tales too.

    • Pineau’s changed, thanks. As for the passport the French did introduce one but it was pretty weak, presumably easy to get around. Still in the wake of Festina this and police actions saw several riders move out of France. Lance Armstrong quit Nice for Girona while Richard Virenque, Laurent Jalabert and Christophe Moreau all moved to Switzerland. Tax? Maybe but they lived in the high(er) tax cantons.

      • What is being discussed here in respect to the French situation through the EPO era should be a warning that change is going to take time. The view that the French were unable to complete because they rode clean, is one that has been shown to be incorrect. The worry and concern is that an environment where drugs use, not just riders, was seen as the norm was always going to be difficult to break. Many of the people involved in this era are still active in the sport today. The Armstrong case may have lulled many into the mistaken impression that everything changed, almost overnight. Much has, but never forget the hope of many following the Festina affair, a predominately French team. Like everyone I have to hope that what we are witnessing is sport and not chemical competition. Recent events, like the JTL case and and others indicate that the rotten underbelly of the sport, and the people connected with this are still very much with us.

        • Kreuziger hits closer to home than JTL I think. With these passports cases (Menchov too) we are learning that by its nature the Bio Passport process is going to focus on data from past years past. So its seems to be a great (not perfect) tool for catching cheats, but may tend to make us (and naughty riders) feel a bit haunted by the past…

  4. I’m actually not so sure that they will be able to claim one of the spots. Yes, Valverde hasn’t impressed me in the mountains, but he is just a more solid rider, with a lot of experience and I think he will be able to fend them off.

    Tejay van Garderen I feel is an even bigger threat for those than the Spaniard as his time trial races is far superior to the others.

    The good thing the French have going for them is that they have 3 riders chasing the top 3 favorites, so if any of those were to have a bad day there is likely for someone to step up and take it. I am having much fun watching the bouts for the white jersey between Bardet and Pinot, and maybe this implicitly will allow them to catch up to the others in the GC contention?

  5. Sorry to say it but I’m expecting Bardet to lose 4 or 5 minutes in the TT so 5th or 6th would be more likely. Pinot I see in 4th. At the same time I hope i’m wrong, a frenchman in the top 3 would be fantastic, and the future looks bright.

  6. What’s really impressive compared with last year is not only Tejay himself, but BMC as a team. In 2013 they seemed to be riding with no real strategy, scattered through the peloton like lost goats, yet this year they’re working cohesively and supporting their leader. Looks like Alan Peiper has once again used his no-nonsense Aussie tough love approach to whip a team into shape.

    • It wasn’t just 2013, the previous years have looked like it… and early 2014 too? As I think I’ve said before, good to see Peiper in command but at the same time this has to be one of the easiest turn around stories going given their talented roster and resources?

      • Seeing BMC drive in the wind yesterday, even though short-lived and ultimately ineffective, was a potential example of that transformation in the image of Peiper. Also not easy leaving stars Gilbert, Evans and Thor home (and bidding au revoir to at least the latter), but wise and will almost certainly result in a podium. I just wish BMC would use some of their vast resources to inject some charm into their leader; his interviews are not very engaging, to say the least.

  7. The way things are going this Tour I expect Nibali to be take a bad fall in tomorrow’s descent, Valverde to crack and TJ to catch another virus, leaving a podium with only French. 🙂

  8. Sirop – not just in France. I used it a lot for long rides as you can take multiple bottles with you with the weight of just 2. Fill one with your regular concentration and the other one 2, 3, 4, even 5-fold concentrated. Once the regular is empty, refill with the 1x equivalent from the concentrated one and top up at the next fountain. I went 200k plus on hot summer days with this, never thirsty. Until I moved to Vienna last year, where fountains aren’t popular in the surrounding villages. Boy, did get dehydrated …

    • As you say, on condition you find fountains regularly. Ok in parts of the Alps and Pyrenees but not others. One tip for readers is every village has a cemetery and these are often equipped with a tap, presumably to help keep the flowers from wilting. I wouldn’t say everyone should exploit this but if you’re seeing stars in the midday sun in France or Italy and the shops are all closed… think about it.

      • Only be careful, since these might often be wells and contain water good enough to water flowers but not suitable for drinking! When I find myself in these situations, I prefer to just politely ask somebody in their garden/on their porch/etc. for some water. I was never refused (who would deny water to a thirsty person on a hot day?) and sometimes you will hear an interesting story or two. 🙂

  9. After a hard day on the farm reading Poire- shaped had me in fits of laughter. It is getting harder to get water in my part of France many watering holes have disappeared. Thanks for that nugget, hadn’t thought of looking in the place where the dead men go! Really would like to see Bardet on the podium, but fear he will get spanked in the TT.

  10. For the sake of the French, the Tour and French cycling on general I sincerely hope there are 2 Frenchmen on the podium. How galling must it be year after year hosting the finest of races only to be still harking back to the housewives fave RV.

    • I took that as a typo but now you have me thinking that Mr. Ring is simply operating on a whole different level- a nimble Nibbles among those of us with mystery mechanicals.
      Put me down for socks AND cap!

  11. Well, I’m glad the French are back, and would like to see them get bigger, at least those not called Kevin and things like that. But to watch a race through national lenses is so naff…

  12. Valverde, is a declining shadow of his former charged up self. He’s underwhelming in following wheels. “Nibbles” has not encountered, the “bad day” as yet, if at all. TJVG? sorry if this offends, but he just leaves me thinking “meh” is that it?!
    BMC (Bring More Cash) no character, no Soul (other than clinically, corporate)….
    Pinot, is an interesting prospect, hopefully, develop into the French GT option, that delivers, rather than the “showboat & grimace” which Voeckler, perfected in seasons past…..
    Three week bike race, just about every rider, encounters, a bad day. That 3rd week, usually reveals any flaw, so far well hidden.
    It’d be good to see a combative finale, where a team that’s close to the podium, puts their nuts on the table, and their team on the front, to avoid the formulaic final TDF week, and go for it….

    Only one Sunday to go…..

    • Valverde doesn’t look so different from his *former* self, considering age, too. Well, before he was… overwhelming in following wheels 🙂
      Today he lost some ground to Pinot in the last km of the climb, but the young French had just landed the all-time pro climbing record on Port de Balès (impressive, even if it’s a relatively new climb).

  13. Well, just seeing today’s stage 16, the youth of R. Bardet seems to be quietly sacrificed for the experience of J.C.Peraud. Today AG2R lost both the podium and the white jersey – can Peraud bring back any of those two items ? 🙂

    • Bardet switched to white shorts today for the occasion of surrendering the white jersey 😉 Pinot climbing probably 2nd best after Nibali and with a better TT, it will be difficult for Bardet now alas.

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