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By John Wilcockson
With 11 stages down and 10 to go, the French have yet to win a stage of this 92nd Tour de France. The home fans have had to be satisfied by some aggressive-riding awards by the likes of Laurent Brochard, Christophe Mengin and Thomas Voeckler, and the overall challenge of Christophe Moreau (who moved up to third overall on Wednesday). But what they really want is a stage win.
With almost 100 riders now more than an hour behind race leader Lance Armstrong, there is a good chance for riders out of the overall picture to make successful bids for a stage victory. And the French will be trying particularly hard on Thursday, the Fourteenth of July, which is Bastille Day.
Since World War II, 16 French riders have celebrated their national day by winning a stage of the Tour. The most recent were Richard Virenque at St. Flour last year, Laurent Jalabert at Colmar (2001) and Mende (1995) and Brochard at Val Louron (1997).
This third alpine stage bypasses the area’s big climbs — Izoard, Vars and Allos — and instead sticks to the valleys and foothills. The (mild) sting in the tail comes when the race reaches Digne-les-Bains, where the riders do a 40km loop, the first half up and over the narrow Cat. 2 Col du Corobin, the last half on rolling main roads.
Digne was a regular stage town in the 1930s and ’40s, but the Tour hasn’t returned here since 1969 when Eddy Merckx outsprinted his break companion Felice Gimondi over a course that included Vars and Allos.
With no major climbs Thursday and the two big Pyrenean stages coming up this weekend, the main GC riders will be looking for an easy day. So watch out for those Frenchmen who are out of contention but have the talent to win a stage.
The ones most likely to succeed are Sylvain Chavanel of Cofidis, Jérôme Pineau of Bouygues Télécom, Patrice Halgand of Crédit Agricole and Stéphane Goubert of AG2R. Those who could spoil the French dreams are riders like Michael Boogerd of Rabobank, Maxim Iglinskiy of Domina Vacanze, Patrik Sinkewitz of Quick Step-Innergetic and Axel Merckx of Davitamon-Lotto.
For Axel to follow father Eddy with a stage win in Digne-les-Bains would be just as good a story as victory for a Frenchman.
FRENCH JULY 14 WINNERS (since WWII)
2004 Richard Virenque (St. Flour)
2001 Laurent Jalabert (Colmar)
1997 Brochard (Val Louron)
1995 Laurent Jalabert (Mende)
1989 Vincent Barteau (Marseille)
1980 Mariano Martinez (Morzine)
1975 Bernard Thévenet (Serre Chevalier)
1971 Barnard Labourdette (Gourrette)
1970 Bernard Thévenet (La Mongie)
1969 Raymond Delisle (Luchon)
1968 Roger Pingeon (Albi)
1964 Jacques Anquetil (Paris)
1961 Jacques Anquetil (Perigueux)
1957 Jean Bourlés (Ax-les-Thermes)
1953 Jean Robic (Luchon)
1949 Emile Idée (Nîmes)