Among the dozen or so contenders bandied about as likely winners of the Giro d’Italia’s pink jersey, there’s one nation that’s plainly absent: France.
An Italian, a Spaniard, a Colombian, a Canadian, a Pole, or even a Russian could stop atop the podium when the Giro ends May 29 in Torino. A Frenchman? Almost no chance at all.
Twelve French riders toe the line Friday, but only one — 39-year-old Jean-Christophe Péraud — has a realistic chance to come within striking distance of the top-10. The top French riders are pedaling clear of the Giro this year.
Giro rookie Péraud promises to put up a good fight in his final season, and will share leadership duties with Ag2r La Mondiale’s perennial top-10 candidate Domenico Pozzovivo.
“I have not felt this good in a while,” said Péraud, who was ninth at the Giro del Trentino. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel after a year and a half, and I can start the Giro with serenity. I feel like a racer again.”
Milano-Sanremo winner Arnaud Démare (FDJ) will have a good shot a stage win, putting France back into the win column at the Giro for the first time since 2014, when Nacer Bouhanni won three stages. Other than that, French riders might feature in a few breakaways, but don’t expect them to challenge the Italians on their home turf.
Only three French Giro winners
Of course, the French have never fared well in the Giro. Part of it is cultural preference. French riders have long focused on the Tour de France (just as the Italians do with the Giro), and only occasionally crossed the Alps with the intention of winning the Italian grand tour.
It’s only natural that the French riders focus on the Tour. French sponsors and media insist that their stars race on home roads each July, and it’s difficult for French riders to resist that pull.
In fact, only three French riders have won six Giro crowns, with Jacques Anquetil venturing into Italy to win in 1960 as the first Frenchman to claim pink, and he won a second time in 1964. Bernard Hinault won three times (1980, 1982, 1985) while Laurent Fignon won in his comeback season in 1989. All three came to Italy only after cementing their reputations in France.
Charly Mottet was second in 1990, but since then, French luck dimmed in Italy. In the ensuing 25 years, only four riders punched into the top-10. Sandy Casar was sixth in 2006, Pierre Rolland was fourth in 2014, Alexandre Geniez was ninth last year, and John Gadret was awarded third following the disqualification of Alberto Contador in 2011.
That Italian disappearing act follows French fortunes across all three grand tours. No Frenchman has won the Tour since Hinault’s fifth in 1985, with Laurent Jalabert holding the dubious honor as the last Frenchman to win a grand tour with the 1995 Vuelta.
French revival ignores Giro
Today, thanks for a French revival in the peloton, they have renewed hope in their home grand tour. Péraud was second and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) third in 2014, the first Frenchmen to reach the Tour podium since Richard Virenque was second in 1997.
The 25-year-old Pinot seems to have the most promise, especially after his surprise victory in the Tour de Romandie time trial win last week, yet he’s steering clear of the Giro to put a full focus on the Tour. Alberto Contador has noticed that Pinot is a rival to consider come July.
“Thibaut is stronger in the time trial, something of a weak point for him before,” Contador said. “And he’s also much better in the descent. He will be a serious rival in July.”
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), 25, is another rising French star, but he too has never raced the Giro. Sixth in the 2014 Tour and a stage-winner last year, Bardet will also focus on the Tour in 2016.
Cannondale boss Jonathan Vaughters ruffled some feathers over the winter when he told VeloNews contributor Gregor Brown that Rolland was “training like someone was training in 1975,” and is expecting big things from his new French arrival this July. Vaughters has caught flack on Twitter every time Rolland has finished in the pack, but the Cannondale boss said the Tour is the big goal. For the Giro, Cannondale brings Colombian Rigoberto Urán.
If tradition is any indicator, the French will keep the Tour as the main course, and leave the Giro as an aperitivo when it feels right.
Rather than obsess on the Tour, however, French riders could do themselves a favor and make a full press to win the Giro. Rolland and Casar notched their best results in the Giro. A rider like Bardet should take a page from the likes of Ryder Hesjedal or Nairo Quintana, who skipped the Tour and came up big in the Giro.