You gotta feel for the French. As we all know, they haven’t won the Tour de France in a long time.
Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet both suffered mightily during Friday’s 13th stage in what was a major disappointment for French fans. Perhaps it was not that big of a surprise to those from other nations.
Martin was an outlier who was bound to implode, especially with Jumbo-Visma turning the vice every day. And Bardet, looking better than expected, had the bad luck to get caught in the same crash that sent Bauke Mollema packing for home. Bardet has since abandoned with a possible concussion, and we wish him a speedy recovery.
Neither was going to win, but it was nice for the home crowd to at least have someone to cheer for.
Of course, the Badger is the last French rider to win. Bernard Hinault’s been more cantankerous than usual this year, slagging off the latest generation of French riders as lazy and unprofessional. Those criticisms are running thin among the French peloton, and Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot shot back his own barb to Hinault, basically saying we believed in you when you won, the least you can do is believe in us.
Despite their collective suffering, the French love their Tour. How hard must it be to watch “your” race and have no one with any realistic chances to win? French pretenders have come and gone over the years, and French riders will pop for a podium here and there. But for the win?
That’s why Julian Alaphilippe is a national hero. He defended yellow in such defiant fashion last summer that the French will forever hold a place in the hearts for him. No one gets bigger cheers each morning as Lou-Lou.
The other day, we drove ahead of the pack to find a nice spot to take a photograph. It was rather bleak, flat farm country rolling out of Poitiers, but we found a decent village with some perfunctory flowers and an old church for a backdrop. As we waited for the peloton to arrive, we chatted with the locals. Most were from the village. Nearly all made time in their day to watch the Tour.
This felt like France’s “fly-over” country. Far from the glittering beaches and bustling cities, the rural heart of France is facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the world. There are no jobs for young people. Local cafes and shops are closing down due to competition from big box stores.
We stopped to ask one of the national police along the route if there were any other pretty villages down the route. He harrumphed and said in this part of France, there are no pretty villages. A local madame proudly chimed in there was a wonderfully preserved Gothic bridge just around the corner.
The fans were polite and patiently waited for the pack of riders. I asked one couple how many years they’ve seen the Tour, and they replied every time it comes through the region, usually every few years. Another piped in that the publicity caravan was quite sad this year, another victim of the coronavirus.
How long until another Frenchman wins? One elderly man laughed, and said hopefully before he dies, which wouldn’t be long, he added jokingly.
A few riders in a breakaway sped past. One lady joked that by how fast they are racing they might trigger the speed camera on the entrance to the village. There was a tailwind, and the pack was hitting close to 50kph. The bunch finally roared past a few minutes later. Everyone looked for Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot in the mishmash of colors. They waved and cheered as the pack whipped past in a blur, moving so fast it even kicked up its own wind.
Watching it from this side of the barriers made me realize how much the French love their race. It doesn’t matter who wins. It’s the Tour they cheer for.
It’s going to be another year without a French hope. The Tour is eternal, even in this COVID-19 edition.
Everyone remembers where they were on the morning of September 11.
Perhaps appropriately, I was at a bike race. The Vuelta a España, to be exact. I remember it was late afternoon before a stage into Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. I was having a quick bite to eat when the TV cut to live images of the World Trade Center. When the second plane struck, I was asking if this was live. Like everyone in the world, we watched in horror at what would unfold.
The stage finished a few hours later and I dashed to the finish line. There were only three Americans in the race — Chann McRae, Tony Cruz and Levi Leipheimer — and I asked them once they crossed the line if they had heard what was happening. All three were riding on the U.S. Postal Service team, so they had heard over the race radio that something big was going down in New York City. As I filled them in, they headed off to discover just how bad things really were back home.
This was long before the days of Twitter and iPhones, so information wasn’t as instantaneous as it is now. Stunned, everyone went to the team hotel trying to call friends and family back home.
There was some debate about whether or not the race should go do. The next morning, the race organization held a minute of silence for the victims, and carried on with the race. Most of the U.S. sporting events were canceled that week, and cycling was one of the few sports that carried on. The mountain bike worlds was held as scheduled in Colorado, and the Americans in the Vuelta were probably among the few U.S. professional athletes who kept performing. They donned black arm bands and raced on.
Leipheimer would go on to finish third in Madrid, becoming the first American to stand on the Vuelta podium. It’s hard to believe it’s almost been 20 years.
Stage 14: Another chance for a break
The GC riders will be licking their wounds for Saturday’s 191km stage from Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon. It’s another long stage, and no walk in the park. There are five rated climbs, none of them too challenging, at least compared to Puy Mary, but there will be some tired legs in the bunch. With Grand Colombier looming Sunday, the GC riders will be glad to see a break have its chances.
Only eight teams have won stages so far in this Tour, so watch for those winless teams to be on the move tomorrow. Think NTT, Movistar and the French teams. Every team likes to take something out of the Tour. The pressure will be on them to move. My pick: a break sticks and Edvald Boasson Hagen wins out of a small group.