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Here we are, 15 stages down at the 2022 Tour de France, with six to go, and no rider from the home nation has crossed the finish line victorious yet.
Aside from Warren Barguil’s stage 11 solo which ended halfway up the Col du Granon, and Benjamin Thomas’s breakaway bid into Carcassonne, they haven’t really looked like winning a stage, either.
Can you even recall France’s stage podium finishes without cheating? They’re not very memorable, so I’ll tell you: Christophe Laporte, third on stage 4. David Gaudu, third on stage 6. Bardet, third on stage 12. Thibaut Pinot, third on stage 14.
However, this situation is nothing new. In 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016, it was the same scenario on the race’s final rest day.
There has been a Tour de France without a French stage win too, but you have to go back to the last century and the 1999 edition for that.
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While one barren Tour would not make for a French cycling crisis, the lack of glory was a hot topic in rest day press conferences among the race’s leading French riders.
“Unfortunately, I’m not really surprised,” Romain Bardet, who sits fourth overall, said. “It’s the very highest level of pro cycling here, and when you put all the top riders in a category together, it’s difficult to win a stage.
“Myself and David Gaudu are a bit in the same position; we are fifth or sixth best in the mountains, but not the very best.”
Here’s our look at why they’ve been winless so far. There are reasons to be both cheerful and fearful.
Lack of freedom for France’s best
Look, it’s not all doom and gloom. Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ, above) sit fourth and eighth overall, 3:01 and 4:24 down on race leader Jonas Vingegaard.
France has only had two riders so close to the yellow jersey on the race’s last rest day once this century – with race leader Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot in 2019.
But for this duo, which is better? Go for a stage win or potentially finish fifth overall? In succeeding through the Alps to pursue GC objectives, Bardet and Gaudu now have to play a conservative game. They are too close to the podium to be allowed any breakaway leeway from rivals.
There’s also national champion Florian Sénéchal, who is principally at the service of Fabio Jakobsen. And then with Christophe Laporte doing a manful job for Vingegaard and Van Aert, the best French riders here have minimal freedom.
No Julian Alaphilippe or Arnaud Démare
There hasn’t been a French stage win since Alaphilippe won the opener in Landerneau last year. The world champion is the country’s best rider and has shouldered responsibility for several years, winning at least one stage here since 2018.
His absence is a massive blow for France and Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, as he requires more recovery after suffering a punctured lung, broken scapula and broken ribs in a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Then there’s the missing Arnaud Démare. He was in fine form at the Giro d’Italia, picking up three stage wins, but it was decided back in January that he would not be racing the Tour.
Would he have won here? There have only been three bunch sprints in the first 15 stages, and picking him would have also meant changing the complexion of Groupama-FDJ, bringing a couple of lead-out men instead.
Knowing they can’t have it both ways, the management went with Gaudu and his helpers instead, and they have marshalled the young Frenchman well in the mountains so far.
No sprint prospects
On that note, in the aughts, somebody like Jimmy Casper or Jean-Patrick Nazon would occasionally pop up with a surprise sprint stage win for France. Well, with respect, Hugo Hofstetter (far right, above) and Jérémy Lecrocq aren’t going to do that.
The country’s best sprinter in the race is arguably Christophe Laporte, and he’s mainly on domestique duty for Jumbo-Visma.
Even in a 2022 edition with few bunch sprints for victory, their fastest men beneath Démare are also missing, and that’s damaging.
Eternally-fresh faced Cofidis sprinter-puncheur Bryan Coquard was positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the Tour and Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) is still in a neck brace after his Tour of Turkey crash.
While there are six stages remaining, there are only four true opportunities remaining for the French. It would be a massive shock if a Frenchman won a time trial or bunch sprint, which effectively takes stage 20 and 21 out of the equation.
Gaudu aside, where’s the new generation?
It feels like there is a gap between the mid-aughts Bardet-Pinot generation and the current one. Where are France’s new heroes?
Aside from 25-year-old David Gaudu, the next generation has not stepped up this year. AG2R-Citroën puncheur Benoît Cosnefroy promises much, but has been anonymous this July. Teammate Aurélien Paret-Peintre couldn’t fill a GC role when Ben O’Connor dropped out.
One bright spot: Benjamin Thomas shone in a breakaway to Megève and was close to victory in Carcassonne.
Meanwhile, Pierre Latour, who is somewhat between generations, gave it a good go in the Alps and is in King of the Mountains contention.
A lack of confidence
David Gaudu talked of “not having confidence in myself” after losing time to the leaders up Alpe d’Huez.
Arguably, there’s evidence of this in some of his peers’ racing too. Teammate Thibaut Pinot has made it into crucial breakaways, coming near victory on stage 8 and stage 14.
But he waited too long. Both times when he surged, it was too little, too late. The win was already up the road: Bob Jungels and Michael Matthews respectively had already laid the path with daring, long-distance moves.
The French favorite finished fourth and third, ultimately. Of course, this is not quite a vintage Pinot, still seeking his best legs after enduring COVID-19 last month.
When you’re on song, you don’t hesitate: you go on instinct, ruthlessly. They need to risk everything for that ultimate reward.
“You have to always believe, in any case,” David Gaudu said. “Yesterday, Benjamin Thomas was only 500 meters away.”
Bad luck and illness
Have the French riders been walking under ladders? Several of their best riders have been unfortunate.
Cofidis captain Guillaume Martin (above), France’s best finisher at the Tour for the last two years, was out before stage 8 with COVID-19. Fellow frontrunner Warren Barguil also went home, positive with the virus after stage 12.
Critérium du Dauphiné stage winner Alexis Vuillermoz called it quits with a skin infection. TotalEnergies teammate Anthony Turgis was lanterne rouge for a long time, fighting on after numerous crashes in the opening week.
Debutant Victor Lafay, a Giro stage winner last year, abandoned with a mystery illness.
The internationalization of cycling
Gaudu and his team manager Marc Madiot both pointed to the internationalization of cycling and the ultra-high level at the race, though this isn’t anything especially new.
To state the obvious, nationality is irrelevant at the Tour. You earn a stage win by scrapping tooth-and-nail.
Fellow cycling heartland nations Italy and Spain are winless at this Tour too. In fact, they haven’t won stages since 2019. But, perhaps inevitably, there is nowhere near the same level of interrogation or focus on that.
Interviews with Bernard Hinault don’t help either, with him saying they have to be bolder. Easier said than done. It’s not 1985 anymore: cycling is different, and “the Badger” was a different beast too.
The French have already won – kind of
Citroën-AG2R are a French squad and the victory of Bob Jungels in Châtel meant their Tour has been a success, regardless of the fact he is from Luxembourg. Throw sixth-placed Nairo Quintana into the mix for French squad Arkéa-Samsic and that’s another success story.
“On our team, it’s not an obsession to have a Frenchman who wins. If it’s Stefan Küng or [Kevin] Geniets, for example, I’d be just as happy too,” Marc Madiot said. “We don’t think solely in terms of nationality, we think about the team and what matters is the team finishing first.”
Pressure – and articles like this
Yes, it might be stating facts, but articles like this probably don’t help. L’Equipe published one yesterday too, exploring why the French aren’t winning.
When that question is continually posed to riders and team management, it can only add a little to the psychological burden.
The expectation will rise with every winless day from now on too. If the questions keep coming from the (predominantly French) media, it could be like that old saying: a watched pot never boils.