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Au Revoir Julian and Thibaut, Bonjour Guillaume and Romain

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

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If you’d asked a hard-core French cycling fan or specialist media person what they would be happy with from the home riders after the first eight days of the Tour de France, they’d probably have taken most of what they had when the Tour arrived at Loudenvielle in the Pyrenees on Saturday evening. A stage win for Nans Peters, and the mountains jersey for Benoit Cosnefroy – so a big day out for AG2R. A stage win and a cheeky spell in the yellow jersey for Julian Alaphilippe earlier in the week. Two French riders in the first four, both within 11 seconds of a somewhat fragile looking yellow jersey, Adam Yates.

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

One of the two French GC contenders had even, briefly, put Yates under real pressure on the final climb of the stage, the Col de Peyresourde, and for a few magic seconds, had been yellow jersey on the road. The other had staged a daring little attack on a climb just before the finish to grapple back a couple of seconds on Yates. Either could dare to dream of the yellow jersey, with neither Team Ineos nor Jumbo-Visma looking utterly dominant.

But before breaking into the Marseillaise, our putative French cycling fan would have scratched their head. The two French riders in the first four were not the two anyone would have expected eight days earlier. Guillaume Martin, 9 seconds down on Yates, and Romain Bardet just 11 seconds back? But where were Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot?

The Port de Balès, first super-category climb of the Tour, settled Pinot’s fate. Ironically, just 24 hours earlier he had been lauded to the skies after he had managed to avoid losing any time in the  windy stage to Lavaur. Moreover, when Richard Carapaz struggled, it was Pinot’s FdJ riders who had massed at the front to put the boot into Ineos’s Giro d’Italia winner. 24 hours later, they were massed around their leader again, but this time, it was all sympathetic slaps on the back and comforting words as Pinot suffered yet another dire day in yet another dire Tour for him.

Thibaut Pinot (third rider) suffered another bad day at the Tour. Image: Chris Auld

Lavaur, it seemed, had been an illusion. Pinot’s back had never recovered from a massive bruise sustained in a nasty high-speed pile-up just inside the 3 kilometers to go mark in Nice on the rainy opening Saturday. And you couldn’t help wondering whether Pinot’s hopes of finally winning a Tour de France had gone west as well. Since 2012, when he won his first stage, the fallow years when he has been the victim of bad luck, bad form or bad morale have vastly outnumbered the fruitful good ones.

French rider Nans Peters won stage 8. Image: Chris Auld

Pinot himself seemed to recognize this when he said after the finish that he would be having a rethink about his future. He has now finished just half of the Grand Tours he has started in his career. Apart from a podium in the 2014 Tour, and a stage win at l’Alpe d’Huez in 2015 – which came after a disastrous time loss in the Pyrenees – each year has given him just more Grand Tour pain what with his illness in the 2018 Giro, and his freak injury in the 2019 Tour.

Thibaut Pinot saw his GC hopes evaporate on stage 8. Image: Chris Auld

On his day, Pinot is a fantastic climber and a gloriously gritty racer. But he has always been mentally fragile, seemingly unable to deal with the blows that fate deals the stage racer. When he threw away a bottle in disgust after being unable to hold an attack as victory in this year’s Criterium du Dauphiné beckoned, it was impossible not to recall the tantrum which he threw when hit by bad luck on a cobbled stage in 2015. And with FdJ’s other leader, Arnaud Démare, on the form of his life, it was worth questioning the wisdom of the team boss Marc Madiot in pinning all the team’s hopes on Pinot.

The final climb of the day, the Col de Peyresourde, effectively ended Alaphilippe’s quest to regain the yellow jersey, lost on the previous Wednesday due to a bizarre incident in which his cousin and coach Franck handed him a bottle within the final 20 kilometers, when it is not permitted, costing him a time penalty and giving the yellow jersey to Yates. On the Peyresourde, Alaphilippe put in an immense attack which split the group of race favorites to smithereens and put Tom Dumoulin out of the race for the overall win.

This was not, however, the move that would dislodge Yates and put Alaphilippe back in yellow. It was what the French call un baroud d’honneur, the final flourish from a dying duelist before he falls flat on his back. Within a short while the perky little Frenchman had blown up and was slipping back. He sat up and rode steadily into the finish, losing 11 minutes. It had been impossible to tell whether or not his assertion before the start that he was targeting only stage wins was a bluff and he had his eyes on the overall title. It wasn’t a bluff.

Julian Alaphilippe wasn’t being coy when he said he wasn’t seeking an overall victory. He’s now over 10 minutes down. Image: Chris Auld

France needs its stars to do well in the Tour, for the health of the race and the entire sporting ecosystem that depends on it. France needs a Tour winner 35 years after Bernard Hinault. Time to pin Gallic hopes on Martin and Bardet – one a new hopeful, the other a rider who has shone year after year without ever truly looking like a potential winner. To coin a phrase from the sign on every French railroad crossing, un français peut en cacher un autre. “Behind one Frenchman, another may well be about to appear.”

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