Could a Frenchman finally lift the Tour de France 'curse'?

BY Martin Rogers u2014 @MrogersFOX • July 26, 2019

The French public can’t quite work out if it is a drought or something more — like a curse — but either way they just want it to end.

“For my generation, it is like an itch that you can’t reach,” Laurent Prince, a 55-year-old Parisian marketing executive, told me around the start of this year’s Tour de France. “But for the youngsters it doesn’t hurt quite as much, because they don’t remember.”

Back then, nearly three weeks ago, the chances of a Frenchman finally ending the 34-year gap since the host nation saw one of its own win cycling’s grandest race seemed non-existent. Now, with the race winding down and not one, but two French riders at the forefront of contention, things just got real.

Julian Alaphilippe, bold and popular, wasn’t anyone’s idea of a likely winner at the beginning of this grueling 2,162-mile, 21-stage trek around the country. Neither was Thibaut Pinot, a homebody who keeps sheep and goats on his country property. Yet Alaphilippe has worn the famed yellow jersey since the end of the first week and won two stages in fine style, while Pinot, a climbing ace, might have the race within his grasp as it leads up into the Alps over the final days.

It is not often that a sports story moves an entire nation. This is one of those times.

The last time a French rider won the Tour was in 1985, when Bernard Hinault won the last of his five titles. He was past his peak by then, but was assisted when his team signed a leading rival, American Greg LeMond, to improve his chances. In return, Hinault promised to support LeMond the following year.

Instead, he challenged and attacked him all the way. LeMond eventually won, but no rider from France has emerged victorious since.

Following team orders and supporting the leader is an inherent part of Tour culture. That’s why some think there is a post-Hinault curse — for France, and, perhaps, for the Tour itself. If it is lifted, the outpouring of joy would be just as great as when the French men’s soccer team won the World Cup last summer.

Alaphilippe or Pinot can put that right on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.

“The Tour has a special kind of magic anyway, but that just goes completely into overdrive when you have a Frenchman in contention to win it,” Jason Sotolongo, a Los Angeles television producer and cycling fanatic told me via email on Thursday. “It ignites the whole country and it turns the big stages into a kind of national celebration. But as we get closer to the end of the race you see a lot of nervousness mixed in – France has waited a long time for this.”

It is not just that no Frenchman has won it recently, but the Tour has been dragged through the mud since Hinault triumphed last. Subsequent decades saw one doping scandal after another, highlighted by the most infamous of them all. Lance Armstrong became cycling’s ultimate icon, then the most notorious cheater in sports history, and there are still gaps in the record books – Tours where the victor was stripped and no “clean” winner was named in his place.

When the race was largely cleaned up recently, France struggled to find stars, and it was Great Britain that dominated – first with Team Sky and then its successor Team Ineos – winning six of the last seven races. The defending champion, Ineos’ Geraint Thomas of Wales, is still a threat to come from behind to win this one.

He, or anyone else that is not French, won’t find much support out on the roads. Hinault once lamented that the generations of talent that came after him were “soft.” Alaphilippe and Pinot have the chance to prove they are made of sturdier stuff, and hope their tiring legs find fresh vigor from the roars and cheers that will greet every turn of the wheel.

Viewing figures in France have been extraordinary. When Pinot put himself firmly in the mix with victory in Stage 14, it was estimated that 60 percent of the French population tuned in during the race. The rider was greeted by president Emmanuel Macron at the finish, and sports newspaper L’Equipe devoted 13 full pages of coverage. No one saw this coming.

“(This) is why this race has been so thrilling,” Tom Cary wrote in the Telegraph. “Chaos, rather than control, has prevailed. Romance is back.”

Pinot is perhaps the slightly more sentimental choice. Not only is he French and proudly so, but he also represents a French team, Groupama-FDJ. Alaphilippe is employed by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, based out of Belgium.

In truth, the host nation would be delighted with either. But despite his tactics and apparent climbing strength making him a favorite among the bookies, Pinot is taking nothing for granted.

“If there is one thing I have learned in racing it is that things can change very fast,” Pinot said.

Things haven’t changed anywhere near fast enough for French cycling, but they might be changing now.

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