Editors’ Note: Samuel Abt was a long-time sports journalist and columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. He covered the Tour de France and other professional cycling events in an inimitable, signature style for more than 30 years. He has also written numerous books about the sport, including detailed biographies of Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. A long-time resident of the Paris area, Abt retired several years ago and rarely writes now, but he is still widely recognized as the “dean” of American cycling journalism. We were pleased that he recently sent over this piece on the state of French professional racing.
Sigh. Another Tour de France is behind us, another page torn from the calendar, and another failure by French riders to win their home race. How long has it been? Not since Bernard Hinault finished first in 1985 has the military band on the Champs-Élysées been able to break into “La Marseillaise” to honor the victor’s country.
It’s not for lack of trying; a few French riders showed flashes of the will, if not often the ability, to win. But the Frenchmen who gave their all for victory were really the Tour’s organizers. The worst kept secret this year was that the route was tailored for a specific French rider, Romain Bardet, who had finished on the final podium in the previous two years.
Because Bardet is a good climber, in came fierce stretches in the mountains. Because he is a lame time trialer, out went all but one relatively short individual race against the clock. (He finished 22nd.)
All to no avail. The highest French finisher was indeed Bardet, sixth overall in his fifth top 10 in five Tours, including second place in 2016 and third in 2017. See why the course was built for him? More than that was needed, however, as bad luck dogged him: a costly mechanical breakdown in Brittany, three flats in the Roubaix stage, the early loss of Ag2r teammates. It became painful to watch his daily interview on television as he tried to sound chipper about his dwindling chances, smiling — sort of — through the tears.
Who else did well and may yet do so again? Nestled in 33rd place overall in Paris was Julian Alaphilippe, winner of two mountain stages and the polka-dot climber’s jersey, enough of a haul to stir the sluggish national pulse. It doesn’t take much.
Nearly two generations have come of age without the chance to wear anything like the blue T-shirt proclaiming “We Are The Champions” that sprouted after the soccer World Cup. It’s been 33 years, folks. Hinault is such a distant memory that he is now known mainly as a television pitchman for a plumbing company that transforms bathtubs into showers.
Bardet pledges to do better next year and so, no doubt, do the race organizers. They have long been hunkered down to design the stages from the start in Brussels, which will honor both Eddy Merckx on the 50th anniversary of the first of his five Tour victories and the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the leader’s yellow jersey.
When the 2019 route is announced in October, which French rider will it be tailored for? There seem to be few choices other than Bardet and Alaphilippe.
Much will depend on which way the race heads out of Belgium. If it follows the tradition of Alps-first this time, Pyrenees-first next time, the 2019 edition should head left across the north of France before plunging toward Spain. That trajectory would favor neither Frenchman. What would is a route south out of Belgium toward the Alps and, first, the Vosges Mountains, which are not strenuous enough — the Grand Ballon is its top peak at 1,424 meters — to demand a strong support team for a climber. That fits Alaphilippe, whose Quick Step roster is built for stage victories on the flat or nearly flat. (The Vosges terrain should benefit Alaphilippe, as he showed by winning the up and down Clásica San Sebástian in August.)
Quick-Step, or whoever is the main sponsor next year, should also excel in the second stage, a team time trial, giving Alaphilippe an early psychological edge. If he needs a booster shot in the Alps, perhaps the organizers, the Amaury Sport Organization, could eliminate a massive climb or two. Despite his polka-dot jersey, he showed signs of strain late in this year’s mountains.
Moreover, he is a mediocre time trialer, so don’t expect an abundance of races against the clock. There will be no prologue. Forget the cobblestones next year. Forget the inane Formula One starting grid. Climbs, climbs, climbs, well spaced and less than dominating, that’s the ticket to building a French contender.
Alaphilippe? Bardet? (Him again?) Thibaut Pinot, third in 2014 and a no-show in 2018? Somebody? Anybody?
As Geraint Thomas reminded the crowd in his victory speech, he finished 140th and next to last in his first Tour in 2007. Perhaps there was an obscure French rider sunk deep in the overall classification this year who will bloom like Thomas. Be patient. Give him a dozen years to break the hex. Sigh.