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Editor’s note: This story also appeared on ESPN.com.
BERGERAC, France — A French rider with a chance to win the Tour de France? Surely, you jest.
It’s no joke. No Frenchman has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985, but there is a real chance a Frenchman could win the yellow jersey this year.
How big of a chance? Not huge. Three-time champion Chris Froome looks firmly in control halfway through the 2017 Tour, but the French have their first legitimate shot at turning the yellow jersey dream into reality in decades.
Leading the charge is 26-year-old Romain Bardet. Tall, lean, and erudite, the French climber is hovering so close to Froome, ending Tuesday’s 10th stage third at 51 seconds back, that it fills the French with optimism and hope unseen in decades.
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“The yellow jersey is still far, but not too far, either,” said Bardet, who races for the French Ag2r-La Mondiale squad. “Everything is still to play for.”
Could Bardet finally lead French fans out of their Tour purgatory? It just might happen. Bardet is a natural-born climber, and proved last year he has the legs to drop Froome in the long climbs, finishing second overall in 2016.
After two mountain stages and one time trial, a Frenchman is in the conversation. That’s enough to rally a nation.
“Bardet — stronger than ever,” beamed the French sports daily L’Equipe in Tuesday’s edition.
This year, Bardet’s ambitions are nothing short of all-out victory. He bet his entire season on the Tour, and has the ambition to end the Team Sky stranglehold on the yellow jersey. It’s panache unseen since the days of Hinault.
“Never say never,” Ag2r manager Vincent Lavenu said cautiously. “Froome and his Team Sky are very strong, but Romain is motivated and brings superb form. We can dream.”
A French victory in the Tour would be a dream come true for an entire nation.
After years of being cycling’s punching bag — first by the Americans with the beloved Greg LeMond in the 1980s and then by the controversial Lance Armstrong, and now by the Brits — the French are on the rise.
Bardet is the leading light of a new wave of young, modern, and ambitious French talent. It’s a generational surge that is coming to fruition in this year’s Tour.
French riders are winning sprints. French national champion Arnaud Démare, who abandoned Sunday, won France’s first bunch sprint finish since 2006 in stage 4. French riders are attacking. Tour rookie Lillian Calmejane won stage 8 in a daring, all-day breakaway, and people are already calling him “the next Thomas Voeckler,” the beloved veteran who is a favorite of housewives across France.
French talent runs deep across today’s peloton. Warren Barguil (Sunweb) started Tuesday’s stage 10 in the King of the Mountain best climber’s jersey, and is another budding GC star.
There are other riders who are not in the Tour, but who also have a bright future. Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) nearly won the one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege two years ago. The 20-year-old David Gaudu (FDJ), whom many consider the best raw talent in decades, won the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir.
All are in their 20s, all unburdened by the scandals of the past. What’s going on? Call it the French Revolution on wheels.
For observers of French cycling, the recent wave of French success is long overdue.
“Undoubtedly, it is a French renaissance, and maybe more than that,” said journalist Francois Thomazeau, a veteran of 28 Tours. “We don’t have a French winner yet, like a Fignon or Hinault, but in my memory, I cannot remember such depth in the French peloton.”
In a nation where cycling is as part of the cultural landscape as baseball is to the United States, there have been some lean years for French fans. France invented the Tour de France more than a century ago, but the French haven’t been a factor in the Tour in decades.
The French have always had a large presence across the peloton. There are currently two French-registered teams in the UCI WorldTour (Ag2r-La Mondiale and FDJ) and four at the second-tier Pro Continental level (Cofidis, Delko Marseille Provence, Direct Energie, and Fortuneo-Oscaro). Five French teams are riding in the Tour as they try to seriously threaten for the yellow jersey for the first time since the 1980s.
Hinault claimed his fifth and final Tour in 1985, the last by a Frenchman. Laurent Fignon won two Tours in the early 1980s, and barely lost what would have been his third in 1989, when he lost the Tour in a final-day time trial to LeMond by just eight seconds — still the smallest margin of victory in Tour history.
Since then, the French have wandered in the cycling wilderness. Miguel Indurain won five straight from 1991-95. After a few transition years, Armstrong won seven Tours, from 1999-2005, that have since been erased from the record books. And now Team Sky is dominating the Tour, winning four of five yellow jerseys from 2012-2016.
The French weren’t even close. From Richard Virenque’s scandal-tainted third-place podium in 1997 all the way to 2014, when Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot finished second and third, respectively, no Frenchman was a serious threat for the yellow jersey.
This year’s Tour is different. French riders are riding shoulder-to-shoulder with the elite of the peloton.
“It is an exciting time for French cycling,” Lavenu said. “We have lived through many dramas, but now there is a feeling of optimism and possibility.”
Bardet is no fluke. He’s been on a steady upward trajectory since his Tour debut in 2013, when he finished a promising 15th. In 2014, he raised eyebrows and expectations with sixth. Two years ago, he faltered a bit on GC, but won his first Tour stage. Last year, he kept plugging away and rode to second overall, 4:05 behind Froome.
Bardet isn’t cowering to the challenge. He attacked aggressively in Sunday’s stage 9 that was fraught with danger and risk, pulling away from the pack on the harrowing descent off the Mont du Chat. Only a concerted chase by his GC rivals denied him the stage victory and possibly the yellow jersey.
“I faced some headwind, but I admit I was dreaming of capturing the yellow jersey,” Bardet said Sunday. “I am hopeful for the remainder of the race. I hope to keep the pressure high until we arrive to more favorable terrain, especially in the Alps.”
As hopeful as everyone in France is right now, Bardet would need a major coup to fulfill their collective dreams.
A big difference to last year, Bardet is firmly on Froome’s radar. In 2016, Froome gave Bardet some rope when he attacked in the Alps. This year, Bardet is so close to Froome that he won’t be given any space.
“At this point, we’re not going to allow anyone to come back on GC,” Froome said Tuesday. “Anyone close at this stage of the race I’d have to consider a threat, Bardet included. I would be straight after him.”
And then there’s the penultimate-stage time trial in Marseille, where Froome can take back at least one minute or more on Bardet.
Even if Bardet doesn’t win this year, just being in the frame for the fight for the yellow jersey is energizing a nation.