It was a scathing and prescient headline in its day. “Un peloton à deux vitesse.” A peloton at two speeds. In 1999, the midst of the darkest days of the EPO era, that catchphrase encapsulated everything that France faced in its battle for relevance.
The first mention of cycling’s drug-induced dichotomy was published in the French newspaper L’Humanite. It stemmed from whispers among French riders in the spring of 1999, in the wake of the Festina Affair, which took place the previous summer and brought the Tour de France, and French cycling, to its knees. The implication was clear: The peloton was still doped, and only the French had cleaned up.
To understand the demise and modern renaissance of French cycling, you must understand this notion. For the French, it explains everything.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t have quality riders before,” says the outspoken Marc Madiot, manager of FDJ. “It was that the playing field was not even. Why are French riders winning again? It’s not hard to figure out.”
The French have been wringing their hands since the 1980s, when the first wave of international riders swarmed the peloton. With the arrival of Greg LeMond, Sean Kelly, and Phil Anderson, among others, the French hegemony in the peloton was quickly overturned. A decade later, EPO ravaged cycling.
The 1998 Festina scandal peeled back the depravity of doping within cycling. But while much of the rest of the peloton never abandoned their nefarious deeds, French cyclists were forced to change ways. By the 1999 Tour, the French government imposed a battery of new anti-doping laws, unleashed surprise, out-of-competition doping controls, and introduced groundbreaking quarterly health checks that laid the foundation for the biological passport, eventually adopted by the UCI in 2009.
While not all French teams or riders immediately embraced the changes — Team Cofidis was engulfed in a doping scandal in 2004 that took down David Millar — Madiot’s observation rings true. French cycling was, for the most part, racing clean, while the peloton was still on premium jet fuel. A few riders, such as Sandy Casar and David Montcoutié, managed to win a Tour stage, but only the occasional French rider could ride into the top-five overall. Christophe Moreau was fourth in 2000, and Thomas Voeckler fourth again in 2011. But no French rider would finish on the Tour podium from Richard Virenque’s tainted second place in 1997 until Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot finished second and third in 2014.
“Those were not easy years,” admits Ag2r La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu. “We put ethics ahead of results, and we had sponsors who supported that vision. The sport has changed a lot, and that is one reason why we are seeing these new young French riders do so well.”
Ag2r’s Romain Bardet raised the hopes of an entire nation last summer after winning a dramatic mountain stage to take second place overall in the Tour de France. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) is a threat in any sprint, and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) won France’s first monument since 1997, at Milano-Sanremo. Pinot (FDJ), Warren Barguil (Sunweb), Kenny Elissonde (Sky’s first French rider since 2010), and budding superstar Julian Alaphilippe (Quick – Step) are all in their early to mid-20s, ready to make France proud again.
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“My generation is lucky,” Bardet says. “We have the chance to compete now and win. I trust in my competitors and you can see that many younger riders are successful in the peloton today.” So how did France go from laughing stock to rising power? First, as the professional peloton stumbled from one doping scandal to another in the 2000s, the well-funded French Cycling Federation (with an annual budget topping $19 million) invested heavily in developing younger riders and rebuilding the sport from its roots. Most of today’s successful French stars came through the French development system.
Second, the French caught up with today’s training techniques and coaching methods. Coaches such as Jean-Baptiste Quiclet at Ag2r La Mondiale and Fred Grappe at FDJ assure that the top French teams are no longer a step behind their rivals.
Just as important, French sponsors have stuck with the sport. While Spain is left with just one WorldTour team and Italy is without any, there are still four major French teams in the peloton — Ag2r La Mondiale, FDJ, Cofidis, and Direct Energie — providing a solid French presence.
The cumulative effects of devastating scandals, improved doping controls, and a broader cultural change have led to a dramatic shift inside the peloton.
The French are back. And they’re hungry to reclaim their rightful place. “It’s an exciting time for French cycling,” Lavenu says. “We have lived through many dramas, but now there is a feeling of optimism and possibility. We can dream again.”