(AP) – ”Now or Never.” That was the headline running across the front page of France’s biggest-selling sports newspaper L’Equipe three weeks ago, amid nationwide hopes that a homegrown rider could finally win the Tour de France.
In the absence of many big names – including four-time champion Chris Froome – France’s top contenders Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet were expected to make the most of this year’s climb-heavy route, and even finally end the 34-year drought.
Three weeks later, neither Pinot nor Bardet stood on the Tour podium and the wait for a French winner continues.
The future of French cycling looks bright, though, and a successor to Bernard Hinault – the last Frenchman to win cycling’s marquee race back in 1985 – is likely to emerge sooner than later.
Although Bardet, twice a podium finisher, was never an overall threat and had to be content with the polka dot jersey for best climber, Pinot was magnificent until a left leg injury reduced him to tears on the side of an Alpine climb, and forced him out of the race within touching distance of the Champs Elysees.
With Bardet nowhere to be seen, another Frenchman, Julian Alaphilippe, surged to the fore, gaining pop-idol status in the space of just three weeks. And five French riders finished in the top 15 for the first time since 2011.
A classics specialist, Alaphilippe exceeded all expectations, wearing the yellow jersey for 14 days after playing havoc with traditional race strategies. Despite his pedigree in one-day races, Alaphilippe was not among the pre-Tour favorites, and many spectators had hardly heard of him when the race started.
But he took the Tour lead by storm during the first week of racing with a bold attack. After losing the yellow jersey, he reclaimed it and fought to stay in yellow with a living-the-moment humble attitude that excited fans and impressed his rivals.
”It’s incredible how he stepped up and improved,” said 2018 Tour champion Geraint Thomas, who finished runner-up this year behind his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal. ”A big, big well done to him. He fought until the very end. He deserved to be on that podium.”
In scenes sometimes reminiscent of the ”Wiggomania” in Britain when Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour, Alaphilippe was feted in every village crossed by the peloton. Each morning, fans chanted his name near his team bus, asked him for selfies and stopped him for autographs. The excitement was such that at some point Alaphilippe had to be escorted by police officers to the start of the stage.
With his team not strong enough to protect him in the mountains, Alaphilippe worked alone in the Alps and ultimately paid for his exhausting efforts, cracking under the pressure of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma teams to drop to fifth place overall.
But Alaphilippe’s impressive victory in the individual time trial ahead of Thomas – a specialist in the race against the clock – combined with his natural flair and the bold attacks that helped him seize the limelight in the short and punchy climbs he loves so much, bode very well for the coming years.
”He should certainly have a go at the general classification when he’s ready,” Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who has won seven of the last eight Tours with four different winners, told The Associated Press.
But Brailsford believes that Alaphilippe’s transformation into a potential Grand Tour winner would require a different approach to the Tour and a different style of racing, certainly less flamboyant.
”Fighting for the overall title is different mentally,” Brailsford said. ”So he’s got to be ready for that. For now, he enjoys riding his bike. If he takes that flair and enthusiasm away, and gets really focused on the three weeks, rides in maybe a different way, that’s something that he ought to see three years down the line.”
Pinot’s situation is slightly different. A confirmed climber with a team capable of supporting him in the mountains, he arrived at the Tour in the form of his life after focusing on the Giro d’Italia last year.
Having spent weeks based in the Alps with all the big mountain stages in mind, Pinot showed from the start he would be a force to be reckoned with when he jumped on Alaphilippe’s wheel during the hilly Stage 8 to Saint-Etienne to gain time on Thomas and Bernal.
Pinot also showed a newly found mental fortitude later in the race, quickly bouncing back after the loss of 1 minute, 40 seconds in crosswinds. An emotional rider, Pinot responded with a display of class and power in the Pyrenees. In the southwestern mountain range, he stood out from the rest, even putting the pure climber Bernal on the back foot with devastating acceleration which earned him a prestige win at the Tourmalet summit.
But Pinot’s fragile health overtook his challenge. His Tour abruptly ended Friday in the arms of William Bonnet, the teammate who rode by his side in the last meters before his withdrawal, his left leg badly affected by a muscular injury sustained earlier in the final week.
A third-place finisher at the 2014 Tour, Pinot has not finished his home race since 2015. On Saturday morning, he still had to choke back tears when speaking to a TV crew about his withdrawal. But he has promised to come back in 2020.
”The confidence I have in Thibaut Pinot is enormous. He is a great rider and will remain a great rider,” FDJ-Groupama manager Marc Madiot said. ”He always gets back on his feet, I believe the best is still to come.”
And maybe not just for Pinot.
”There are some really good French riders at the minute,” Brailsford said. ”Obviously, the Bardet and Pinot generation. But underneath there is a new generation of young French riders coming through.”
Brailsford, who said a few years ago he would love to develop a French winner within his team, has intriguingly not given up on the idea. At Ineos, riders are split in two main groups depending on their age.
”We’ve been working hard with the younger group in their preparation,” he said. ”That’s where potentially having some very talented French riders in that group would be fantastic.”