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SAINT-MALO, France (AFP) — Tuesday’s 10th stage of the Tour de France passed a part of the country with a rich history for producing great riders, but the day in Brittany served mainly to remind French fans that they are no longer a dominant force in the sport.
The stage route from Saint-Gildas-des-Bois to the Channel port of Saint-Malo went through Saint-Meen-le-Grand, the birthplace of Louison Bobet, a French cycling great who won the Tour three years in a row during the 1950s, before passing by Calorguen, the home of Bernard Hinault.
Hinault won the Tour five times but his 1985 triumph remains the last by a home rider and his long shadow continues to hang over French cycling.
French riders have won at least one stage on the Tour in every year since the turn of this century and it is surely unthinkable that the 100th edition of the sport’s greatest race could end without at least one home stage win.
But with the halfway point almost upon us, there is no sign of one yet, as Tuesday saw two home hopes in the shape of Europcar’s Jerome Cousin and Julien Simon of Sojasun featured in a five-man breakaway that was eventually swallowed up by the peloton before Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) of Germany won in a sprint finish.
There are five French teams involved in this year’s Tour, and a total of 42 home-reared riders were there for the Grand Depart in Corsica, including stalwarts Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), the latter a winner of two stages in 2012.
Young prospect Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), the national champion in 2012, succumbed to injury during the sixth stage last week, while FDJ team leader Thibaut Pinot’s chances of making an impact would appear to be seriously undermined by his fear of the speedy descents on the mountain stages.
“To be honest, all I want to do is pack my bags and go home,” said Pinot in the wake of Sunday’s ninth stage in the Pyrenees, perhaps summing up France’s Tour so far, at least in terms of the general classification, in which Jean-Christophe Peraud is the best-performing home rider in 14th place, 3:29 behind overall leader Chris Froome (Sky).
Peraud’s aim is to finish in the top 10 in the GC, but France’s best chance of any tangible success this year would appear to lie with Pierre Rolland.
The 26-year-old Rolland, of the Europcar team, was the only home rider to win a stage in the 2011 Tour, when he triumphed atop L’Alpe d’Huez.
And he is out in front in this year’s battle to become King of the Mountains with a lead of 16 points from Kenyan-born Briton Froome.
“My chances of doing anything in the general classification are finished so I am going to focus on the polka dot jersey, a jersey which I dream of winning,” says Rolland, who was the best performing Frenchman on last year’s Tour, coming in eighth in the GC.
If he can do that, he would follow in the footsteps of his teammate Voeckler, who was King of the Mountains in 2012, and would add the polka dot jersey to the white jersey he won for the best young rider in 2011.