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French seek end to wait for Tour winner

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Matt Slater | 23:11 UK time, Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Ghostbusters, the Milk Cup, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the ZX Spectrum…who can resist a bit of 1980s nostalgia?

OK, nearly everybody actually born in that decade - and later - can probably take the 1980s or leave them, but I would guess there is a sizeable chunk of this website’s readership with a soft spot for Ferris Bueller or perhaps his girlfriend Sloane Peterson.

But if Tuesday’s official announcement of the 2012 Tour de France route is anything to go by, we all must bow to the French in our regard for the quatre-vingts.

When Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour in 1985, it was the 10th time a Frenchman had claimed the biggest prize in French sport in 12 years, and it meant a domestic rider had triumphed in exactly half of the Tour’s 72 revolutions.

tour

Ex-tennis star Yannick Noah and Tour great Bernard Hinault with the new yellow jersey. PHOTO: Getty

Since then? Zut Alors. Cyclists from seven nations have climbed the podium’s top step on the Champs-Elysees but no French hero has even got close since 1989.

That Laurent Fignon got so very close - he lost by eight seconds - only makes it worse.

This 26-year wait is a blink of the eye compared to British tennis followers’ wait for a male champion at Wimbledon or the years of hurt experienced by English football fans, but it is no less nagging. And one of the many videos in an unbelievably grand presentation in Paris highlighted just how annoying this inability to win their own race is becoming.

The premise was a chance encounter between Hinault and tennis star Yannick Noah (the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros…in 1983) on a quiet ride through the countryside.

Ah, salut Yannick, oui Bernard, ca va, tres bien etc etc went the small talk, before a surprisingly chipper Hinault (his nickname is “The Badger” because of his snarling aggression when cornered) brought up the good old days.

“What, when France used to win?” answered Noah. “Une belle epoque,” they both agreed, as did most of the 3,000 people packed into the Palais de Congres’ main auditorium, a number which is staggering in itself, especially when you remember the 2012 route had already been inadvertently revealed on the official website last week.

Sure, the obvious parallel here is Wimbledon and Britain's increasingly shrill desire to scratch that itch. But I think the French longing for a Tour win goes deeper.

Le Tour is France in a way that Wimbledon can never really represent Britain. A certain slice of England, perhaps, but everything about the Tour screams France.

OK, it likes to dip in and out of its neighbours from time to time - twice this year, the start in Belgium and a short detour through Switzerland - but this is always on the Tour’s terms.

There have been 12 wins by native Anglophones since 1985 but there were no concessions to the language of Shakespeare on Tuesday: not that any of the growing band of Aussies, Brits, Yanks et al would complain, they know where it would get them.

In fact, the most recent of that dozen, Cadel Evans, delivered a speech that would have made my French GCSE teacher weep tears of joy.

Of course, the Tour has a huge advantage over Wimbledon in the country-in-a-microcosm stakes as it does, by its very nature, involve the whole nation.

There is also a shifting narrative to the carefully chosen route. Villages, towns and even cities vie for the chance to be included.

Being photogenic helps but the Tour wants more: what’s your story, do you have a link to the sport, do you really, really want it?

A large proportion of the audience at the launch were there to represent places blessed with a start or finish, towns like Abbeville in Picardy, Peyragudes in the Hautes-Pyrenees or any of the other seven locales getting a slice of the action for the first time.

For them, the peloton’s visit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell their tale and sell their wares.

That last point is crucial because the Tour is unashamedly commercial. A quick flick through the list of “partenaires officiels” shows this is more than a sporting contest, it is France’s trade fair.

To give just one example, the real point of the Hinault-Noah epic was to draw attention to the Tour’s new kit deal with that most French of brands, Le Coq Sportif.

So perhaps a better choice for a British comparison would be the Tour versus our entire summer season - Lord’s, Wimbers, Silverstone, the Open and so on - but even this doesn’t quite work for me. France’s love for “Le Grand Boucle” crosses barriers of age, class and geography.

And yet it is changing, gradually but irresistibly. No matter how hard they try to pretend it isn’t.

Cycling has broken out of its traditional market in France, Benelux, Italy and Spain. Ever since Greg Lemond got the better of “The Badger” in 1986, America has cared, as have us Brits.

What used to be a motley band of English-speaking adventurers is now a sizeable segment of the pro circuit’s population.

Throw in the Scandinavians and multilingual Germans and eastern Europeans, and you have a very noisy minority.

This is reflected in the Tour’s expanding global profile. Pictures from the final stage in Paris are seen in 190 countries around the world, and 70 of those broadcast the entire race live.

Crews from at least half of those countries were in the Palais de Congres.

There is a flipside to this popularity, though, and that is an inevitable dilution of the very Frenchness that sets this remarkable event apart.

You can sense it every time an excitable commentator roars “Cavendish!” when our very own world champion crosses the line again, arms outstretched.

The tagline for next year’s race is “Tous Fous du Tour”, which (I think) loosely translates as everybody’s crazy for the Tour.

That craziness is definitely catching, I just hope it never kills the patient.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at http://twitter.com/mattslaterbbc

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Great read Matt! Methinks it'll be a little while yet, in spite of the Heart of The Voeckler. Next year's route, dare we say it, looks made for Wiggo!

  • Comment number 2.

    "Former professional tennis player Yannick Noah presents five times Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault (left)with the new yellow jersey. PHOTO: Getty "

    Wow. Yannick Noah looks to have lost weight, height, hair and skin pigmentation... is he really the guy on the right if this Bernard chap is the guy on the left?

  • Comment number 3.

    There are some youngsters that have been touted as future hopes such as Rolland, Coppel and Jeunesson but the bottom line is that to win you have to be a complete rider and I'm unsure whether these young guns have the complete package yet.

    I feel sorry for Andy Schleck. Last year was his tour to win and I feel he has missed his chance. With so much time trialling next year I'm not sure that he is even a realistic contender. Surely it is going to come down to a three way battle royale between Contador, Evans and Wiggo?

  • Comment number 4.

    The 2012 TdF will pass through Brive-la-Gaillarde, at the foot hills of the Massif Central. Brive is a sous-prefeture of the economically hard hit departement, La Corrèze. The town has paid a fortune for the privilige of TdF participation. It's the nearest town to my remote in the foothills of thé Massif. It's a wonderful, friendly place. I hope 'les commercants' fill their boots. I'll be there.

    The French along with the English have a very recent history of global domination in mountain-biking (esp. Downhill format). I wonder whether, given the allure of MTB/VTT sponsorship deals, French youth are more interested on knobbly tires than slicks.

  • Comment number 5.

    Sorry for typos at #4.

    I meant remote cabin.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's true that cycling has become a major part of British society. here's a little test. 1. How many current famous British tennis players can you name? 2. How many current famous British cyclists can you name? If only the BBC gave a fraction of the effort into cycling as they do with tennis. For example Cavendish's win in London recently was covered by the the BBC with what seemed to be a bloke in the crowd with a camcorder. As for this weekend's European Track Championships?

  • Comment number 7.

    Point of order - 'Twelve native Anglophones have won since 1985' - surely you mean twelve victories by native Anglophones? I only count 4 separate people (Lemond, Roche, Armstrong, Evans).

    Pedantry aside, another top blog. There's talk of places like Qatar getting in on the action with a Grand Depart sometime in the next decade. What are the likely chances of something like this happening? I feel that would hasten the 'de-Frenchification' process.

  • Comment number 8.

    When the 2012 course was initially leaked I was concerned that it didn't look like it would be an exciting year in the tour. However after looking at the course yesterday I think we could see some very exciting stages (a few more breakaway victories) and the extra time trial stages will force the climbing specialists to me more aggresive (which personally I think is great).

    The course does seem set up for a time trialler to be victorious (Cadel and Wiggo should start as favourites), my outside bet for a top 5 (GC) finish would have to be Tony Martin, if he does as well in the ITT's as last year I can see him holding in their on the climbs (like Voeckler did this year) and perhaps being up there come Paris!

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog.

    I'm already excited about next year's Tour - let's just hope Wiggo stays on his bike this time!

  • Comment number 10.

    So perhaps a better choice for a British comparison would be the Tour versus our entire summer season - Lord’s, Wimbers, Silverstone, the Open and so on - but even this doesn’t quite work for me. France’s love for “Le Grand Boucle” crosses barriers of age, class and geography.
    --------------

    So stop pussyfooting around with toffy-nosed sports and say the obvious. It is like international football is to us. But oh no, the cyclist lobby would hate that comparison wouldnt it?

  • Comment number 11.

    12 Anglophone victories? Sorry, let's just say there were 10 American victories, with two other non-US English speakers winning the race as well.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    I should have clarified, Tour De France is popular in France, whereas most people outside it couldn't tell you which month/s it runs in. I am sure there are many American geographical geniuses who couldn't even tell you which country it is in.

  • Comment number 14.

    @Stevieeng34 - Your claim that most people outside France don't follow the Tour is a little short sited. If you follow the Tour the volume of flags and supporters from different nations is amazing, most of these are focussed around Europe where cycling has a rich history but it isn't just France!

    Cycling is also growing (rapidly) in areas away from its usual places of popularity, The US predominantly since the 80's, the UK and Australia more recently (All three nations have pro teams based in them and a number of top quality riders). As for those American geniuses I'm sure they exist but perhaps shouldn't be a barometer for the Tours popularity!

  • Comment number 15.

    I have spent many a year cycle-touring in France, usually for 2 or 3 weeks. What has always amazed me is the courtesy and respect of French drivers towards cyclists, unlike their English maniac counterparts who all seem hellbent on killing cyclists.
    When mentioning this to French people, the general consensus is: "We haven't won Le Tour for so many years, French drivers are afraid of running over a potential future French winner." I wish the Brits would adopt the same attitude. Here's hoping for civility to enter Brit drivers' heads...

  • Comment number 16.

    Part of the reason why the TdF has suffered from a lack of French success is because it markets itself as the most gruelling and prestigious professional bike race in the world. How many world class cyclists gear their season towards turning up at the Tour in peak condition. Look at the number of Italian victories in the Giro or Spanish victories in the Vuelta since 1985. As someone who has cycled on in all three countries I don't think France is much more challenging than either apart from the competition in the peleton (words can't do justice to some of the climbs in Italy).

    With cycling becoming more global France will never dominate the Tour in quite the same way again. What will be interesting is what new cycling markets bring to the table - personally I'd love to see cycling take off in Africa!

  • Comment number 17.

    Is anybody else having trouble making comments?!? I get something saying "message posting" for 10 minutes.

    Here are some of the replies I tried to make, I've lost the first three!!!

    R-Brooker (4) - Good question. Don't know the answer, though. Wouldn't surprise me at all to hear that MTBing is on the up in France, as elsewhere. But I'd be less sure about it actually supplanting road cycling as a spectator/TV sport any time soon. Not saying it can't happen but I just don't see it yet.

    stevewdy (6) - Preaching to the converted here, pal. It is changing slowly, though. Did you see/hear our coverage of the world road race in Copenhagen? BBC2 and 5 Live. Small acorns.

  • Comment number 18.

    Gunsofnavarone (7) - Now that one is my mistake, mea culpa. As for Qatar, I've heard same rumours and I would not be surprised by it at all. France and Qatar are now very close commercial/political partners (Sarkozy effectively told Platini to vote for Qatar 2022) and the Qatari airline flew the entire race up to Paris after that last TT this year. Where there's a will, there's a way.

    Haventaclue52 (8) - I thought the same, to be honest, but the prevailing mood at yesterday's event was that it's a pretty typical TdF, with perhaps a bit more excitement in the intermediate stages. Tour boss Christian Prudhomme made a big point out of this and really talked up the hilly stages in the Vosges and Jura. Lots of chances for breakaways and aggressive riding.

    Right, got to break off and do something else. Thanks for reading.

  • Comment number 19.

    I think that potentially France could have be once again sucessful in the tour. If you look at team Europcar, they had two stand out performances from the tour, the first being Thomas Voeckler, who battled for his dear life to keep the yellow jersey for as long as he did, the other being Pierre Rolland. I mention Voeckler first as time is not on his side. Rolland however, was Voekler's right hand man and was with him on more or less every break that Voeckler attended and must have been put in physical anguish leading out his French team mate. Then to top that off after nineteen rides of pulling Voeckler around in yellow, took it to the top rider in the world in winning at the top of Alpe d'Huez, taking the scalps of not only olympic road cycling gold medalist Sammy Sanchez but three times winner of the tour Alberto Contador. It was rides like this that put the french man in the white at the Champs-Élysées. Cyclist have been able to turn the white to yellow, alberto contador being the only member who obtained both in 2007 but other white jersey winner have been strong contenders for the tour; Andy Shleck, Ivan Basso, Jan Ulrich to name a few. If his sucesses resonates around French cycling then France could possible find themselves on the top step of the tour sooner rather than later.

    The 2012 tour will be good unless you are a shleck, definietely puts the favourites as Contador/Evans/Wiggins even Tony Martin in the mix if he can stay in the mountains. This should also provide the "Cav" with the best possible chance of being Tour de France winner and Olympic road race champion that he is ever likely to get.

  • Comment number 20.

    I find this a very strange article. Next year's route is announced and the BBC's take on it is: French 'angst' re a non-native winner in recent times? I doubt it. Unlike 3-minute attention span celebrity-obsessed Brits, the French respect their sports ahead of 'personalities'. Le Tour and its traditions count for much much more than 'the nationality of the winner'. That's a distinctly divisive British view, or more accurately perhaps, BBC view.

  • Comment number 21.

    All that talk of Yanks, Aussies and Brits would seem to imply that someone from Britain has actually pulled on the famous yellow garment. My recollection is that you're still waiting for one (though I agree that the course for next year could give Wiggo his best opportunity). Quelle domage, there is nary a mention of the Irish in all this. Stephen Roche the second anglophone on the top step, Sean Kelly's power and dominance all round, particularly in the green jersey and two riders in Martin and Roche that could also push towards the top 10 next year, though perhaps not actual contenders. Though Britain is catching on rather late the Irish have been rapping on that door for some time!

  • Comment number 22.

    Nice angle on the tour Matt. As for Wiggins - well yes he has a chance but what about Chris Froome after this years Vuelta? Will Sky put both of them in? Already looking forward to next year - would love to again see Voeckler get the yellow jersey early on and answer the 'So can you keep it for 10 stages?' question with a gallic shrug. Sadly the early time-trial will probably rule this out.

  • Comment number 23.

    Great blog, and so true each year the French cyclists are becoming more and more irrelevant, however they had some youngsters who did very well this year notably, Rolland who won the White jersey will be the onlycredible challenger this year, and who knows how well he may have done if he had not had to help Voekler when he struggled. Realistically the large amounts of time trialling will not help him but he could aim for a top five and the crowd have to get behind him!

  • Comment number 24.

    And i think this years Tour is very mediocre in terms of difficulty and this should play to Wiggins' favour!

  • Comment number 25.

    The best blog on here in ages. Thank you, Matt. I am so pleased that road racing is getting the press coverage it deserves. This has been a great year for road racing, and it will be better next year.

    The point of Le Tour is not in the day to day racing - there are tougher stages in the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta Espana. But in the same way that the Olympics does, it only it can bring together the very very best individuals and teams. The other two grande tours are pale in comparison, great events, but Le Tour is the Grande Master of them all.

    But I take issue on one point you made:

    'There is a flipside to this popularity, though, and that is an inevitable dilution of the very Frenchness that sets this remarkable event apart.'

    If all 198 of the cyclists were from South Sudan and Kitts & Nevis only, it will still be a very French affair and supremely French, at that. Traditional, unabashed, brilliantly executed with an undefinable Frenchness - the 'terroir' of sport if you like: it brings together so many aspects of France and Frenchness that it is hard to accurately say what its Frenchness is.

    But the real audacity, is that each year France gets to show to the world....France. With Wimbledon you see a sports arena. At St Andrews you see some greens and a lot of sky. But for Le Tour you see France magnifique!

    It is a marvellous annual show, which matures with age. Vive Le Tour!

  • Comment number 26.

    wow. a blog about lé Tour a whole 9 months or so before the next one! extraordinary.
    but great work. was a very enjoyable read.

  • Comment number 27.

    Good to see an article which is truly about cycling, rather than something nationalist driven (though of course the state of British cycling should be celebrated).

    French cycling is certainly on the up again. This year was its best year for some time, even excluding the Tour. Last year's Tour de France was special for France with 6 stage victories - none this year, but somehow it must have meant so much more. It will be fascinating to see how well Voeckler and Rolland go next year. But then there's also Gadret, Peraud and others. And at the World Championships the 1-2 in the U-23 Road Race was just another sign that the next generation of riders looks very favourable for the French.

    If we're talking Tour winners though, France's biggest hope has to be Thibaut Pinot, who is riding incredibly for his age. If he progresses well, we're looking at one of the best climbers in the world in a few years most likely, and how France would love that. Even though he'll be only 22 when the Tour comes around, a bit like Peter Sagan, you can bet he'll be lining up at the start. Not that we should expect anything from him just yet, but given what he's already shown this year (particularly in the Dauphine), he's definately one to keep an eye on.

    As for the route, it looks fascinating. Good to see more time trial kilometers and some lesser-used climbs. In theory plenty of aggressive racing - and this, combined with a huge number of serious contenders - should make it a good spectacle.

  • Comment number 28.

    In the words of Half Man Half Biscuit: "I don't normally like tomatoes, John, but this is delicious."

    In other words, from a non-cycling buff...top blogging!

    Reckon half the competitors next year will have one eye on the Olympics, particularly Cav, who I backed at 66/1 to be SPOTY a few months back. If it comes off he can take the rest of the year off as far as I'm concerned.

  • Comment number 29.

    Half Man Half Biscuit...excellent.

  • Comment number 30.

    A Tour de France blog on the BBC 9 months ahead of schedule. Oh the fickle BBC - Cavendish does something amazing and the Beeb are all over it. A couple of years of drought and I suspect the Beeb will jog on. How about creating the demand, as opposed to mincing in and out of 'other sports' when a Brit does well.

    Now to the article proper. You could also look at the Yanks in the last 5 or 6 years and wonder what their take is on the Tour - they seem to be a bit meek about it probably because their legendary champs (Landis and Armstrong) along with anyone else from the 'Great' US Postal / Discovery team have shown to be complete frauds.

    The French, Italians and Yanks seem to have fallen out a little with the Tour, whilst those outside are making up for lost years. Its now a global event.

    Perhaps the French can't handle it. Hee hee.

  • Comment number 31.

    The lack of a french winner of "The Tour" seems to coincide with the drastic shortening of the tour route over the years.Now it must seem like a sprint not a marathon.

  • Comment number 32.

    The most remarkable thing has just been brought to my attention, Half Man Half Biscuit (Chris Charles, #28) have recently released a song that references another sporting location very dear to my heart:

    "But then disastrously / They ask him casually / You come from Leigh-on-Sea / Do you ever get to Roots Hall?"

    Not sure what this coincidence means but it has filled me with hope for the day.

  • Comment number 33.

    Of course there are plenty in France who say 26 years ago France started dope-testing its riders, while in Spain and elsewhere anything goes.
    And they see the recent relative improvement in French fortunes to the fact that the French are winning the battle to have dope testing introduced everywhere.
    The same argument explains why UK based riders, subject to Olympic testing regimes, suddenly shine on the tour.

  • Comment number 34.

    I'm optimistic for the French hopes of a GC winner, however, as the route contains more climbs than previous years but less high altitude climbs. Perhaps this may suit puncheurs such as Thomas Voeckler and the current French National Champion Sylvain Chavanel. Maybe Vockeler will do us all a favour and actually train for the race next year.

    A few questions though:
    If the course suits puncheurs does that make, World Number 1, Philippe Gilbert a contender or does his move to BMC with Cadel Evans scupper that idea?
    Can Sky get their team management sorted during the race to ensure they can achieve their targets or will a clash of priorities (Wiggins v Froome v Cavendish v Boassen-Hagen) mean nobody wins?
    What price on a win for Pierre Rolland? Was his shot at French win last year sacrificed in the hope that Voeckler would pull through?
    Is there too much time trialling? Is a tete a tete contest not more exciting to watch (and likely to receive a larger audience)?

  • Comment number 35.

    I for one care more about seeing a British winner of the GC, we may be on that cusp, Cavendish winning the Green jersey was fantastic and i hope he can continue to achieve great things with Team Sky. I'm sure the French will produce a winner(one day), the only 2 colours left for us to claim are Yellow and white. I for one am looking forward to next years tour, also what happened to BBC's coverage of the tour this year, it was awful! last year there was a good twitter feed throughout the day now nothing? hope its better next year

  • Comment number 36.

    Question: How much TdF success in recent years has been correlated with the different level of tolerance/intolerance to doping within each national governing body? In this respect I believe France is taking a lead to set high standards in anti-doping, so are they at a disadvantage.

  • Comment number 37.

    @knucklonian:

    1. No, I don't think so. This isn't a mountains-free course, it's just lighter on mountains than in previous years. There's still the Tourmalet, the Madeleine, the Peyresourde, etc... Of course, he could make a Wiggins/Voeckler style transition to overall contender and 2012's course might be the easiest for a few years to make that change.

    2. I don't expect Cavendish to go for the green jersey in 2012. I think he'll go for stage wins and drop out to concentrate on the Olympic race. He could have four/five wins by Metz and then drop out. Wiggins and Froome should be able to complement one another, but that might be more of a problem, presuming of course that they both ride. B-H will be there to do a domestique job, with a view to proving he can stay with the contenders in the high mountains.

    3. I agree with you, I think Rolland riding for himself could have done more this year. He could be an outside call

    4. As Brits I guess we're biased towards time-trialling! I'm slightly disappointed to see the prologue return, but I'm happy to see the team time-trial go in favour of an individual one.

  • Comment number 38.

    The course this year is probably more suited to a time-trialler that can climb than a puncher in the likes of Gilbert, I agree with Rob I think there are too many climbs (and a lot of the medium mountain stages look very challenging incomparison to last year) for those in the ilk of Gilbert.

    I think Cav has stated a few times that he will definatly complete the Tour (Fitness allowing) as he is only competeing in the road race and not on the track at London 2012. The Tour finishing only 1 week before hand is not ideal but it will be a case of the riders just maintaining their workload from the tour in preparation for the Olympics (and I expect a few of the riders will be doing this!).

    I'm not a fan of the Prologue I would rather the Tour started with a short (

  • Comment number 39.

    #32 Classic! Great to see they're still together after initially splitting up some years ago because gigs were getting in the way of them watching their beloved Tranmere Rovers, who always used to play home games on a Friday night (presumably to avoid clashing with those other teams in Merseyside).

  • Comment number 40.

    Thanks, another good blog. I agree with Stevewdy, comment 6 - it is good to hear he is preaching to the converted, to who else is preaching required to improve cycling coverage on the BBC? Not all GB's riders are young, will it be all over for Wiggo before the BBC catches on to the nation's growing level of interest?

  • Comment number 41.

    Stop dreaming , the race has not even started yet and you have wiggo winning it , he dose not have a chance , as for Cav he will prob get the odd stage win , the schleck's will be more aware , Scotland's Robert Millar's 4th place will never be beaten ,nether will his King of the mountains, this man is a true tour legend, and wiggo and Cav are not even close to him.

 

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