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Anticipation is building that France could see its first homegrown winner of the Tour de France in more than three decades.
With four-time winner Chris Froome (Ineos) out of the race this year, Tom Dumoulin also sidelined, and a host of other pre-race favorites hobbled or otherwise on uncertain form, French fans and media are daring to dream again.
Carrying French hopes this year will be Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Both have hit the Tour podium and each are reaching the right mix of experience and maturity — Pinot is 29 and Bardet is 28 — that they are considered a podium favorite no matter who is at the start line.
Add the element of this year’s climb-heavy route, packed with seven climbs over 2,000m, and France could see its best chance of victory since Bernard Hinault last won the Tour in 1985.
Of the two, Pinot has shown the most promising form so far this season. He’s won two short French stage races — the Tour du Haut Var and Tour de l’Ain — as well as hit fifth at both Tirreno-Adriatico and the recently completed Critérium du Dauphiné.
“It was a bit of a frustrating Dauphiné because the course was not good for me and I lost too much in the time trial,” Pinot said Sunday. “Now it’s all about hitting the Tour in perfect condition. It’s obvious that Ineos will be strong as well as [Jakob] Fuglsang and Astana. To think of winning, you have to be with these riders.”
After dabbling with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, Pinot has put the Tour back at the center of his ambitions after seeing what he thinks is an ideal course for his climbing and attacking style. A team time trial in stage 2 and a 27.2km individual time trial in stage 13 will be hurdles for Pinot, but he relishes the chance to hit out on the longer, steeper climbs waiting in the Pyrénées, and especially the Alps, in the closing days of the race.
This will be Pinot’s seventh Tour, including third in 2014. The Frenchman is hoping to put some of the bad luck that’s following him the past few seasons, with crashes and illnesses, in the rearview mirror going into the 2019 Tour.
Bardet, in contrast, has proven steady but without any wins or otherwise sparkling performances so far in 2019. He was second at the Mont Ventoux Dénevilé Challenge on Monday and was fifth at Paris-Nice. Bardet announced he is skipping the French national championships in order to recon some of the key Tour climbs as well as to enter the Tour as fresh as possible.
“It wasn’t a great Dauphiné for me, but the course wasn’t so good for me, either,” Bardet said after finishing 10th overall. “Now I want to recover as well as I can and be ready for the Tour.”
Both riders expressed frustration with the Dauphiné course that included a lot of mixed terrain but only one truly difficult mountain stage and a relatively long time trial that marked the overall.
On Thursday, in what’s no surprise, Ag2r-La Mondiale confirmed seven of its eight Tour starters, with Bardet at the center of the team’s ambitions. The team’s eighth rider will be named following the French national championships later this month.
Team manager Vincent Lavenu realizes the pressure is on from fans and media for Bardet and the team to deliver a top performance next month.
“We must live up to the expectations of the public, the media and partners who like to see the French teams shine,” Lavenu said Thursday. “We have built a strong, motivated and dynamic team around our leader, Romain Bardet.”
This year will be Bardet’s seventh consecutive Tour appearance. After finishing 15th in his promising rookie ride in 2013, he’s never once finished outside the top-10. He was second in 2016 and third the following edition, winning a stage in each of those races. Last year, Bardet struggled to sixth and did not win a stage.
Earlier this season, Bardet said his Tour ambitions remain intact, especially with this year’s course that he thinks will favor him.
“There is a lot of climbing in this Tour, with a lot of altitude, so it favors a rider who races aggressively,” Bardet said. “Of course, everyone says that it’s been a long time since a French rider has won. That is normal, but it’s not something I am putting at the center of my thoughts.”
On paper, Bardet has a better track record than Pinot at the Tour. Both riders, however, believe this year’s course is about as good as it can get for their style of racing.
Key to each of their ambitions will be to avoid crashes and setbacks, as well as limit the losses in the two time trial stages in the first weeks of the race. If both can arrive into the final string of climbing stages in the Alps within range of the yellow jersey, France will be going crazy.
“We will approach the Tour de France with humility in view of the scope of the event, but also with ambition, and the seriousness to be able to influence the race at all times,” Lavenu said. “We hope to have more success than in 2018. Last year, after only a few days, we lost 3 riders who were forced to abandon due to injuries.”
Groupama-FDJ is expected to confirm their Tour roster in the coming days.
>> Ag2r-La Mondiale for 2019 Tour de France
Romain Bardet (29, FRA)
Mikaël Cherel (33, FRA)
Benoit Cosnefroy (23, FRA)
Mathias Frank (32, SUI)
Tony Gallopin (31, FRA)
Pierre Latour (25, FRA)
Oliver Naesen (28, BEL)
* Final rider to be named after French national championship