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Can France find a Grand Tour GC winner?

Felix Lowe
20 Jun 2022

After Romain Bardet’s hopes were cruelly dashed in the Giro, Felix Lowe asks if, when and how France will ever win a Grand Tour again

And so France’s long wait continues. At the recent Giro d’Italia, while Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz and Australia’s Jai Hindley slugged it out for the win, the best France could manage was Guillaume Martin, who trailed more than 28 minutes behind the leaders.

It has been 27 years since Laurent Jalabert last won a Grand Tour for France at the 1995 Vuelta, and you have to go all the way back to 1985 to find the last French winner of the Tour de France in Bernard Hinault.

France’s last victory at the Giro was nearly as far back, with Laurent Fignon winning in 1989, but for a moment at this year’s race, Romain Bardet had French fans dreaming again.

Fresh from winning the Tour of the Alps, Bardet looked in the form of his life. On course for his best Grand Tour finish in five years, he slugged it out with the GC favourites on Etna, then came second on the savage summit finish on Blockhaus.

Photo: Chris Auld

Although just 14 seconds down on GC, he even led out DSM teammate Alberto Dainese to a sprint win in Reggio Emilia. Then, just two days later, illness forced him to abandon during Stage 13, just as he was hitting his stride.

Bardet’s shock withdrawal meant compatriot Martin entered the top five. But not for long. While the 28-year-old self-styled ‘Socrates in the saddle’ is a keen philosopher off the bike, he clearly doesn’t overthink his efforts when racing.

Guillaume Martin. Photo: Chris Auld

If France is ever going to end its pink, yellow or red hiatus, it probably won’t be thanks to Martin, a rider whose ongoing search for a maiden Grand Tour stage win casts him in a perpetual struggle with the fringes of the top ten.

The focus now turns to the Tour, where Bardet and Thibaut Pinot will once again fly the tricolor and shoulder the burden of the hopes of an entire nation. If fit, Julian Alaphilippe will be there too.

He’ll no doubt animate, but I think we all know the double World Champion will never get as good a chance of winning the Tour as he did in 2019. That ship hasn’t sailed so much as morphed into the Titanic.

Back in their pomp, Bardet and Pinot both soared to podium finishes during Chris Froome’s reign of dominance. Cruelly, their declines came once Froome was out of the picture yet preceded the Colombians and Slovenians wresting control themselves. 

Away from the media glare, the Giro has in recent years presented an alternative focus for both Frenchmen: Pinot came fourth in 2017, Bardet seventh last year.

Thibaut Pinot. Photo: Chris Auld

When Bardet returns to the Tour for the first time in two years this July, it will not be with a French team, but the German team in which he has thrived since 2021. Where others have struggled to fit in, the 31-year-old has taken to life at DSM like a hand in a silk glove – or, at the very least, like Bradley Wiggins to the back of a motorbike.

It was Wiggins, in his new broadcasting role for Eurosport, who caught the emotional scenes as Bardet clambered into his team car in the Giro after coughing up his insides in a layby. It’s worth considering that both Bardet and Pinot are still younger than Wiggins was when he won Britain’s first Tour in 2012 – to end a drought far more arid than the one France is currently experiencing.

After stints at FDJ, Crédit Agricole and Cofidis, it was only once Wiggins joined Garmin and then Team Sky that he reached his full potential – something many promising young French pros might want to consider if they’re serious about ending their nation’s long wait.

David Gaudu, Pinot’s 25-year-old teammate at Groupama-FDJ, comes to mind. Perhaps he would be better off joining compatriot Pavel Sivakov, 24, on a team like Ineos Grenadiers? Sure, he’d lose his current freedom, but the strict discipline and winning attitude would give him a fair few marginal gains.

The French have got to try something. At the moment, no matter how hard I scan the horizon, it is impossible to see a likely French contender for any Grand Tour crown. Although it should be stressed that France’s current predicament is not unique to France.

No Italian has won the Giro since Vincenzo Nibali in 2016, and Alberto Contador is the last Spaniard to win the Vuelta, in 2014. Indeed – fact alert – before Hindley every one of the previous 14 Grand Tours had been won by riders from just four countries: Britain, Colombia, Ecuador and Slovenia (and Carapaz almost made it 15).

Photo: Getty

Besides, it’s not as if France gets no joy whatsoever from Grand Tours. Alaphilippe, Warren Barguil and Geoffrey Bouchard have won polka dot jerseys in recent years; Arnaud Démare (pictured above) has just secured a second maglia ciclamino in three years; while the likes of Lilian Calmejane, Clément Champoussin, Nans Peters, Florian Sénéchal, Rémi Cavagna and Gaudu have all notched memorable stage wins.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on Bardet and Pinot, two fine but brittle riders who should be appreciated for their capacity to at least make a nation dream.

Main image: Milan-San Remo

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