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It has been 36 years since a French rider last won the Tour de France.
In fact, only about 10 of this year’s prospective starters were even born when Bernard Hinault bested Greg LeMond by 1:42 for his fifth and final title. Back then, with a string of nine wins over 11 years, it was unimaginable that the home nation would suffer such a drought.
Riders have had a good go at it in recent years with Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot getting onto the podium, but none has come close to stopping the rut.
Neither Pinot nor Bardet is set to ride the Tour de France this year, leaving the hopes of a nation resting elsewhere.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) look set to take up the mantle and shoulder the burden of an expectant home nation when the race rolls out from Brittany in a little over two weeks.
Can these two plucky heroes give France hope of finally returning to the auspices of the top step in Paris, or should the home nation adjust its expectations?
Alaphilippe caused something akin to Beatle-mania when he rode into yellow on two separate occasions during the 2019 Tour de France. He spent more time in yellow than any other rider during that edition, donning it 14 times across two stints, and won two stages along the way.
He would eventually have to relent his grip on the race lead to eventual winner Egan Bernal, and he had slipped down to fifth place – far and away his best grand tour result – by the time the race entered Paris.
The 2020 race also saw him enjoy a three-day spell in the maillot jaune before he offloaded it to Adam Yates. This year, the Frenchman has another chance to add a few days in yellow onto his palmarès with a classics-style opening to the Tour.
The punchy uphill finishes in Landerneau and on the Mûr-de-Bretagne are prime Alaphilippe stomping grounds. It won’t be easy, and he will face some stiff competition in the form of Mathieu van der Poel, Alejandro Valverde, Primož Roglič, and Michael Woods, to name but a few.
Alaphilippe has looked punchy at the Tour de Suisse this week, though he has been just missing that final finish he needs to claim victory. Should he turn that around and take the win, he could spend several days in yellow at the Tour de France.
Taking yellow and keeping it are two very different prospects, however.
Alaphilippe impressed hugely with his fifth place in 2019, but that was an exception to his usual grand tour performances and not the norm.
Of course, if he has done it once then it is entirely possible to pull another big ride like that out in 2021. But stepping up from fifth to take the overall title is a very tough ask.
With a team around him that is more geared towards the sprints, Alaphilippe will have less support than most of the GC contenders and he will have to freelance it in the mountains.
If he does grab yellow in the early part of the race, and he can maintain consistent performance throughout the opening week, then the overall win is not totally out of the question. However, stage hunting and short time in the maillot jaune seem a more likely prospect for Alaphilippe this summer.
A rising star
With Pinot still suffering from back problems and almost certainly set to miss this year’s Tour de France, after already pulling the plug on his Giro d’Italia ambitions, Gaudu looks likely to become Groupama-FDJ’s ringleader for the Grande Boucle.
Gaudu has been groomed as a GC star since joining FDJ as a sprightly 20-year-old in 2017. Pinot’s travails have pushed him more quickly into the limelight than he might have expected, but he has carried the strain well so far.
Since making his grand tour debut at the 2018 Tour de France, Gaudu’s GC performances have been steadily improving with a peak of eight overall at last year’s Vuelta a España. It was a result that came with two impressive stage wins on the Alto de la Farrapona and the Alto de la Covatilla.
He did ride at last year’s Tour de France but abandoned during stage 16 after struggling for two weeks with a sacrum injury he picked up during the crash-fest that was stage 1. After breaching the top 10 for the first time at the Vuelta, Gaudu will be expected to step up another level this year.
It does appear that the 24-year-old has made a leap forward in his performances in the early part of this season.
Despite a slight wobble at Paris-Nice when he crashed out on the final stage, Gaudu has racked up a string of strong results, with a win at the one-day Faun-Ardèche Classic, fifth overall and a stage win at the Itzulia Basque Country, third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and ninth overall at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné.
Given his recent run of form, Gaudu looks to be on course for a career-best ride at the Tour de France later this month. His previous best was 13th in 2019.
Like many a French GC contender in recent times, one of Gaudu’s major sticking points is the time trial. With two pretty flat courses this year, he will have to work hard to limit his losses against the clock.
A podium place and a run at the final yellow jersey seem like a much more likely prospect for Gaudu than it does for Alaphilippe, but even then, it feels as though it might be a step too far for the young Frenchman. A top-five performance would be a great result for Gaudu, and another big step towards finally taking away that big prize.
French riders may not be among the major favorites for the yellow jersey in Paris, but they have a great potential for success in their home grand tour. Along with Alaphilippe and Gaudu, there is a string of riders who could deliver them a stage win over the three weeks.