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Tears of joy poured out at the finish line Saturday in Périgueux as two French riders achieved the unthinkable, reaching the Tour de France podium for the first time since 1997.
It wasn’t just the riders who couldn’t control their emotions. Sport directors, managers, mechanics, and soigneurs all rejoiced at the historic French double podium — the first since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault were first and second in 1984 — something that was unthinkable when the Tour started in Leeds three weeks ago.
Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) leaned against the race barriers, burying his face in his hands as the enormity of his accomplishment overwhelmed him.
At 37, Péraud overcame a feisty Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), erasing a 13-second deficit to his young compatriot and refusing to panic with a late-stage puncture, to equal France’s best Tour result in nearly two decades, when Richard Virenque was second to Jan Ullrich in 1997.
Cycling’s changed a lot since those days, and the emotional outpouring was more than a celebration of this year’s achievement. It also served as a salve for nearly two decades of frustration, self-doubt, and even humiliation as the once-proud French were outgunned in their national tour.
“It’s an enormous satisfaction,” Péraud said. “The withdrawals of (Chris) Froome and (Alberto) Contador opened a range of possibilities, and I started to dream about second place. I’m happy to have achieved that goal. I have a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’ and a lot of joy today.”
As Péraud mentioned, the unexpected exits of pre-race favorites Froome (Sky) and Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) reshuffled the GC deck, opening the door for riders who would normally be challenging for a top-10 to have a shot at the podium.
In fact, Péraud’s previous Tour best was ninth in 2011, while Pinot finished 10th in 2012 — solid results, but no one was counting on them to fill the void when Froome and Contador flamed out in the first week.
Pinot, however, continued to impress throughout the Tour, pushing the more experienced and veteran Péraud right to the end. Already certain of a spot in Paris with the white jersey of the best young rider, Pinot, 24, is seen as a legitimate French hope to win the Tour some day.
While Péraud took full advantage of an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Pinot confirmed his status as a rider with a future.
“I still don’t realize what I have accomplished,” a tearful Pinot said at the line in a rush of TV cameras. “If three weeks ago, someone had told me I would achieve this, I wouldn’t have believed them. It’s something extraordinary.”
The final time trial was also about pride, and the French weren’t the only ones who went down swinging.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) posted an excellent ride, finishing sixth at 2:08 behind winner Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), but just six seconds slower than Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who was fastest among the GC contenders.
The ride, coupled with a late-stage puncture by Bardet, allowed van Garderen to bounce up to fifth overall by just two seconds, matching his career-best in 2012. Bardet’s puncture might have helped van Garderen to move up, but the American’s bad day in the Pyrénées on Tuesday, when he lost four minutes to the Frenchmen, certainly cost him a chance at the podium.
“I gave everything I could. It feels good to move up one place,” van Garderen said. “I definitely showed that I deserved to be up there in a top position. I learned never to give up. I really had to fight through a lot. I am really proud of my guys and what I did. It shows you can take your lumps, and get back up, and fight to the end.”
Bardet, at just 23, was also impressive, topping last year’s 15th-place finish in his debut Tour with panache. Though he slipped down to sixth, his performance Saturday proved that he can defend gains earned in the mountains, signaling better things to come as he continues to mature and gain experience.
“To miss [fifth] by two seconds is very frustrating,” Bardet said. “Three weeks of nonstop work, and now this. I’ve never ridden a time trial that long before, and without my puncture, I think I would have secured fifth. I am learning from Jean-Christophe, for whom I have tremendous respect.”
While France celebrated its good tidings, the day’s big loser was Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who started the day just 15 seconds behind Pinot’s second place. A strong time trial could have secured him a career-first podium. Instead, Valverde struggled, as he has throughout this Tour, stopping the clock at 4:28 slower in 28th position, settling into fourth, 1:31 off Pinot’s third place.
“I started as fast as I could, but the legs didn’t respond as I had hoped,” Valverde said. “Fourth is not bad, but I came here thinking podium, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Like Péraud, Valverde was looking at perhaps his last chance to reach the podium of his career. But while Péraud wept tears of joy, Valverde will leave the Tour in frustration, haunted by an opportunity missed. At 34, the Spaniard won’t have many more chances, especially with the rise of teammate Nairo Quintana, who won the Giro d’Italia in May, and will return to the Tour next year with eyes on the yellow jersey.
“I don’t know if this is an end of a cycle,” Valverde said. “If I return to the Tour, I am not sure what my objectives will be. … The last week of the Tour was very hard, but the entire Tour was difficult, with bad weather. I fought until the end, but when you give everything, you cannot ask for more.”
The 2014 Tour concludes Sunday with two Frenchmen on the final podium, something unimaginable at the beginning of the season.
As cycling continues to evolve, the French seem to have finally caught up to the advances made throughout the peloton. The excuse of a “peloton at two speeds” no longer holds water in the era of the biological passport and a cleaner, more transparent peloton.
And what’s notable about this year’s breakout French performances is that they came out of the GC group. Unlike France’s other recent top ride, with Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) finishing fourth in 2011, Pinot, Bardet and Péraud didn’t take time in early race breakaways and then hold on for dear life, as Voeckler did. Instead, they paced themselves with the favorites, and with the GC field decimated by crashes and poor health, even went on the attack.
France’s Achilles heel has always been the inability to effectively time trial against the GC favorites. Saturday’s breakthrough performances by Péraud, Pinot and Bardet revealed that podium dreams are no longer fantasy for the French.
Next year, Froome, Contador and Quintana will be back. Their return may once again push the French back to also-ran status, but the 2014 Tour will surely fuel hope and ambition moving forward.