MÛR-DE-BRETAGNE, France (VN) — After a quiet first week without any major French successes, Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r-La Mondiale) effectively picked up the tri-color flag and waved it wildly for the home crowd on Saturday. With his stage 8 win in Brittany, home of five-time race winner Bernard Hinault, the 27-year-old turned the Tour de France around for the host nation.
Before Saturday’s eighth stage up the Mûr-de-Bretagne climb, the French had little to cheer about. It was mostly Germany, who is broadcasting the race live again on public television this year, who was doing the celebrating, thanks to Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
“It was going badly until today,” French freelance journalist François Thomazeau, who is covering his 27th Tour, told VeloNews.
Vuillermoz followed in the footsteps of Cadel Evans, the stage winner when the Tour last visited the “wall” in northwestern France. Both cyclists have a strong mountain biking background.
Vuillermoz is part of a generation of mountain bikers that includes Jean-Christophe Peraud, now with Ag2r-La Mondiale, and Julien Absalon. He had to be convinced to switch to the road, first with Sojasun and now with Ag2r. Once he did, he was sold. To switch to team Ag2r in 2014, he had to find his own sponsor, which he did.
His win was a glimmer of hope after the 2014 Tour finished on a high note, with Peraud in second overall, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) in third, and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) in sixth behind Italian winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Some even suggested that France might soon have its first Tour winner since Hinault won in 1985. However, last year’s hope was inflated by the fact that both Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) abandoned due to crashes.
“For the French, we could have two in the top 10, but not three with two on the podium as in 2014. That happened because Froome and Contador went home,” Thomazeau said.
“The depth is actually better than last year in the French peloton. It’s just that the podium is out of reach and a top five is tricky. It should not be a surprise that they are in the same fitness the same as last year, no one put them up there with the big four or big five with Tejay van Garderen.”
Pinot was France’s big hope for 2015. He placed better than the stars in the opening time trial, but lost time with Italian Vincenzo Nibali and Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the stage to Zélande and came unglued with a mechanical in the cobbled stage to Cambrai. Sitting 6:33 overall behind Froome now, he said that he will race for stage wins like compatriot Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal).
Ag2r’s overall hopes with Bardet and Peraud will depend on Saturday’s team time trial. The team said that it could only afford to lose one minute if it still wants to fight for the classification with the two Frenchmen.
The red Bordeaux wines are prized worldwide, but frequently in French bistrots it is an unexpected rosé that clinches the palate. That sort of surprise could come in the form of 23-year-old Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin). After winning two stages in the Vuelta a España in 2013, he is riding his first Tour de France to learn, even if he may secretly harbor classification ambitions.
“He’s our Simon or Adam Yates, he’s a big talent in the making,” added Thomazeau.
Looking at the overall, though, one should not forget the importance of Vuillermoz’s win today in Hinault’s land. The way he won it, riding away from the “big five,” will surely lift the country’s spirits as the Tour de France enters the high mountain stages of the second and third week.