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Whether in boardrooms or on bikes, French strive for a renaissance

The French no longer rule the sport ... but is there a comeback in the works?

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NEMOURS, France (VN) — It’s a big week for the French peloton as Paris-Nice offers a chance for cycling’s old-school guardians to put their accent back on the peloton.

As the sport has been rocked by the Lance Armstrong scandal, many in France see the aftermath as a chance to bring cycling back to its roots and lead it to a cleaner future.

Behind the scenes, some key players are pushing forward an agenda to nudge French cycling back into relevance in a sport that’s grown ever more international over the past decade.

First among them is Roger Legeay, the former sport director who is leading the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC). The group has gained new traction of late, expanding over the winter from its seven founding members in 2007 to 38.

Speaking to the media on the eve of Sunday’s start of Paris-Nice, Legeay insisted that the scourge of doping is coming to an end because managers are now committed to cleaner racing.

Despite the absence from the group of seven major ProTeam squads — including Team Sky, BMC, Saxo-Tinkoff, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, RadioShack-Leopard, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Cannondale and Movistar — Legeay said the message has gotten through to team management.

“It’s the team managers who say yes or no to doping,” Legeay said. “It’s them who engage the riders, the doctors and the collaborators. They are behind this idea.”

In the aftermath of the Festina Affaire in 1998, Legeay was an early campaigner for “new” cycling and helped the French peloton begin to clean up its act.

The French always complained of a peloton at “two speeds” during the Armstrong era, in large part because their national cycling federation and government had imposed tougher restrictions on French teams and riders after Festina.

Legeay said the rest of the peloton is catching on to the idea that the sport must operate on a cleaner, more transparent platform.

Another French profile on the rise is French cycling president David Lappartient, who was elected Sunday as president of the European Cycling Union (UEC), the most powerful federation in cycling behind the UCI.

Lappartient’s influence was confirmed when he knocked back a challenge from Andrei Tchmil, the Moldavian ex-pro who has been making noises about running for the presidency of the UCI. The Frenchman beat Tchmil in a vote of 34 to 12 representing Europe’s major cycling federations.

Lappartient is a strong ally of Tour de France owners ASO (Amaury Sports Organisation), by far the largest and most influential force in cycling.

ASO has kept its cards close to its chest during the past year as the Armstrong scandal churned headlines worldwide. While the Tour owner says it remains firmly committed to clean sport, it has taken a lower public profile over the past several years and has avoiding taking positions on many of the sport’s pressing issues.

And Tour president Christian Prudhomme refused to publicly comment on the Armstrong scandal until last fall.

Meanwhile, things are looking up for the French on the bike as well as in the boardroom.

French insiders like to point out that as the peloton has cleaned up its act over the past few years more French riders and teams are once again becoming more competitive.

Indeed, on Sunday, French riders grabbed the flowers in both Paris-Nice and the reborn Roma Maxima.

Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale) won the Italian race after first joining, then escaping a breakaway.

And back home, five French riders punched into the top 10 of Sunday’s short and technical P-N prologue, with Damien Gaudin (Europcar) using his track skills to snag a surprise win and his first pro victory on the road.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) all have legitimate chances for the podium when Paris-Nice ends up Col d’Eze next Sunday.

The emergence of new riders such as Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat), eighth and 10th in last year’s Tour, respectively, is pumping new life into French cycling.

“French cycling is advancing and we are becoming more competitive,” Rolland told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “French riders have nothing to hold us back. We are working to be as successful as possible.”

Whether this French renaissance of sorts will have any real impact on the inevitable slide toward internationalization remains to be seen.

Riders entering the peloton today can ride their entire careers without uttering a word of French on the job, a dramatic change from two decades ago when French dominated the language and culture of the peloton.

Most teams have adopted English as their official language as riders from all over the world fill out the rosters of the top-level squads. In fact, it is often the French riders who struggle when they go to a non-French-speaking team.

While French riders and teams seem to be on the rise, it’s been a long time since the French national anthem was played on the sport’s major podiums. The last Frenchman to win Paris-Nice was Laurent Jalabert in 1997 and the last Frenchman to win the Tour was, of course, Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Hinault, who attended this year’s Tour Down Under as an invited guest of the race, said French riders are too soft today to win the major races.

“French riders today are paid too much,” Hinault told VeloNews. “Teams pay them just to race, not to win. Maybe there are a few riders who are coming up, but we all seem to say that every year, and none of them seem to have the drive to work and succeed to win the Tour. We shall see. …”

It might still be a while before another French rider replaces the Badger.