The last Frenchman to win the Tour de France was Bernard Hinault way back in 1985 when he won his fifth Grand Boucle. He came close the following year to making it a record six titles, in ’87 his supposed heir Jean-François Bernard finished third and Laurent Fignon was runner-up by the smallest of margins two years later. Through the 90’s Richard Virenque podiumed twice but never really looked like winning, the following decade countless ‘New Hinaults’ came and went and now it is 32 years since ‘The Badgers” success.
At times things have been desperate for French racing fans but their appetite for some home success in their race has never wavered. That hunger may soon be satisfied but the closest I have come to seeing a French Tour victory was in 2011 and the nearly man was Tommy Voeckler.
He was a popular but unlikely source for plenty of excitement on the roadsides during that Tour. After he wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004 his high status among French fans was assured for ever. Stage wins in 2009 and 2010 and his natural attacking style only added to his esteem. But his highest finish in the Tour de France was 18th, during that 2004 edition, and in his seven other entries in the race he never got close to the top 50. He wasn’t a GC man.
His reputation outside of France is a little more mixed. Some love him, some get feelings of angry annoyance as soon as they see him. He is old-school, not interested in heart-rate monitors and power files. He races on instinct which makes him entertaining to watch. But he also tries to be too entertaining at times. He loves it when there is a camera trained on him so he can show us through various facial expressions how he is feeling, desperate for the viewer to understand that though he is winning he is suffering terribly which makes what he is doing heroic. In the days before television races would be explained by reporters in the various newspapers. The days events would be told in epic terms, with the truth often embellished, to keep the reader interested. The character of Thomas Voeckler could easily have been lifted out of the pages of L’Auto.
Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France between Annemasse and Lons-le-Saunier should have been a routine day. It was sandwiched in between the final mountain stage and the penultimate day’s time trial, the wearer of the yellow jersey Lance Armstrong had a good four minute lead over Ivan Basso and the terrain was hilly. You wouldn’t have got very good odds on there being a breakaway and the GC men staying quiet before rolling in together at the finish. However, the day ended up becoming the definition of the omerta which helped keep the ‘EPO era’ running.
The inevitable breakaway was established early on in the day and contained six riders. As the gap grew the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni decided that he wanted a piece of the action and broke from the peloton and started bridging over to the group. Bizarrely though so did Lance Armstrong. The two eventually made it up to the head of the race but once Armstrong started taking turns the peloton, lead by T-Mobile, started the chase. They couldn’t let Armstrong gain more time so it seemed that the breakaway was doomed. Soon Armstrong and Simeoni started arguing and Vicente Garcia Acosta, who was in the original break, joined in the heated discussion. The upshot of the debate was that Armstrong and Simeoni dropped away from the break to rejoin the peloton and the attackers were allowed to go off and contest the stage win.
What was all that about then? It was explained by many at the time as the consequence of a long term rift between two men. Filippo Simeoni had testified in a court case against Dr Michele Ferrari in 2002 where the ‘infamous doctor’ was defending a charge of sporting fraud ans the abuse of the position of pharmacist. During the trial Simeoni confessed that Ferrari prescribed him with products such as EPO and Human Growth Hormone while he was in his care.
There have plenty of great stage 17’s at the Tour de France in recent times. Often it contains the final mountain top finish of the race so has the potential for plenty of drama. So I had to choose two stages for today:
Stage 17 of the 2008 Tour de France had all the ingredients to turn it into a classic. It was was one of the closes races in years, only 8 seconds separated Frank Schleck in 1st and Cadel Evans in 3rd and the top five were all within 1 minute 13 seconds of each other. It was also the final mountain stage with its finale taking part on Alpe d’Huez. Perfect.
The battle to win the Tour that day was going to be between the climbers and the time trialists. Frank Schleck, his CSC teammate Carlos Sastre and Bernhard Kohl knew they needed to put time into Evans and Denis Menchov as the penultimate stage that year was going to a 53 km test against the clock. It was reckoned 2 minutes would have done the trick.
Schleck and Sastre had the advantage of having the strongest team. They had been aided well in the mountains by Frank’s younger brother. Andy Schleck was taking part in his first Tour and held the white jersey. There is a little mentioned story that tells of Frank Schleck proclaiming to some journalists: “If you think I am good then wait till you see my brother”. Andy was living up to his hype. Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team by contrast had been letting him down every time the road went up.
Cycling is a sport where you get to witness some tremendous, and some unbelievable feats. Sudden attacks can move you to the edge of your seat and long range attacks can leave you mesmerised, staring at your TV for hours willing a brave rider towards victory. Then there are the times when a rider begins to crack. I wouldn’t say watching these moments are as enjoyable, there is certainly no rejoicing, but I wouldn’t miss them for the world. There is a type of voyeuristic fascination with seeing an old champion or new contender failing in their quest.
When I first started following cycling it was at the start of Miguel Indurain’s five Tours in a row. There was certainly no pizazz about the way he won those titles but I enjoyed watching non the less. The Tour de France was the only race I could watch back then, I hadn’t seen any other way to win a Grand Tour, and the way Indurain powered through the three weeks was impressive to me. That’s why it was so absorbing to watch him fall away from his rivals in 1996 seeing for the first time that what I thought was a machine was in fact human.
Going into stage sixteen Indurain was in 8th, 4 minutes 38 seconds behind the leader Bjarne Riis. He had already had a terrible day, his first at the Tour in over five years, on stage 7 when he bonked on towards the top of the final climb Les Arcs. After a decent time trial, where he equalled Tony Rominger’s time, and finishing with the favourites in Sestriere though his fans hoped that he would preform a miraculous comeback on the final two mountain stages. The first finished on Hautacam and the second, with five major climbs, went past Indurain’s childhood home and ended in Pamplona. But they were hoping for a miracle.
Andy Schleck was my favourite Tour rider for a while. It’s always good to see young riders come through and especially if they are gifted climbers. By 2010 he had won the previous two white jerseys and finished 2nd in 2009. He just needed another small step up to become overall champion but near the top of the Port de Balès on stage 15 he succumbed to the rotten luck, indecision and poor judgement that plague his career and rob him of a glittering palmarès.
At the start of the day, The second of four Pyrenean stages which would decide the race, Schleck had a stage win and was in yellow with Alberto Contador 31 seconds behind. With the next best rider Samuel Sánchez a further 2 minutes back it seemed the the winner of the Tour would be either Schleck or Contador, who were close friends.
As the French Champion Thomas Voeckler who had attacked out of the days break neared the top of the Port de Balès Schleck attacked out of the group of favourites. It was a strong move and he quickly put a gap on his rivals but he quickly came to a sudden halt. His chain had jumped off his drive-train and soon rider after rider were steaming passed him as tried to continue, unsure what to do. He got off his bike, tried to sort out the issue, got back on, got off again, managed fix things before getting going to chase down Contador. After his pursuit up the rest of the climb, down the other side and along the valley to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon he lost 39 seconds and the yellow jersey to his Spanish pal. He was now 2nd and the top two positions would remain the same all the way to the finish in Paris where Contador won by, 39 seconds.
Over the 25 years or so of being a cycling fan I have had many favourite riders who I have willed on during many different races. I have shouted with excitement when they’ve won and felt their pain in defeat. I have never been an avid follower of any cycling teams though. I liked ONCE and T-Mobile back in the day because they had a few of my types of riders but I have never been like the avid Belgium fans of either Quick-Step or Lotto or the Team Sky diehards.
In 2014 the team gained its first entry to a Grand Tour after getting a Wild Card for that years Vuelta. They put in a solid performance with all their riders finishing and Sergio Pardilla their top rider in 17th place to show they belonged in the biggest races on the calendar. At the end of the season their new General Manager Brian Smith announced some big name signings for 2015 such as Edvald Boasson Hagen and Matt Goss and that along with their showing in the Vuelta convinced ASO to give them a wildcard berth for the 2015 Tour de France.
Brian Smith introduced another aspect to the team for 2015 with made them more supportable for me, the distinctive black and white jerseys. I had hoped that fellow Paisley Buddie had got inspiration for the design from our local football team St Mirren but he admitted in an interview that he was thinking more along the lines of Juventus.
As the years have gone by since I got interested in the sort, professional cycling has become more and more a game being controlled by directeur sportifs and scientists than a spectacle preformed by cyclists. During races many riders seem to be glued to their power meters thinking of the numbers that have been drilled into them during training sessions waiting for the order to attack. Orders which, as time goes by, seem to come higher and higher up final climbs. The rest of the time the generals sit in their carriages, letting a breakaway hang by a thread before telling the peloton to advance and swallow them up. What this leads to are smaller time gaps and fewer daring escapes by GC contenders. Winning margins of over 15 minutes by breakaways should be consigned to the black and white era.
So in 2006 I would have never imagined I would witness five riders escape with over 200 km to go and finish 29 minutes and 57 seconds ahead of the rest at the finish. The gap was so big that if the race jury had applied the rules strictly then only Jens Voigt, Oscar Pereiro, Sylvain Chavanel, Manuel Quinziato and Andriy Grivko would have contested the rest of the race as the time limit for the day was 29 minutes.
However, amazing as these numbers are, behind them lies the calculations of the Phonak teams directeur sportif John Lelangue. His star rider Floyd Landis was leading the race but the rest of the team had been finding things tough going, particularly in the Pyrenees a few days previous. As the gap to the break kept growing during the stage he realised that one of the escapees could move into top spot overall. If that were allowed to happen then the pressure would be off Phonak for the coming Alpine stages. And he really wanted rid of the yellow jersey because the top placed rider in the break was Oscar Pereiro who started the day in 46th place at 28 minutes 50.
At the finish line Voigt took victory and his second ever stage win, Pereiro was a close second and had the chance to go into yellow with Chavanel third. The French escape artist was bitterly disappointed at the finish. Not only had he missed a great opportunity for a stage win but he would now get catapulted up the GC making it less likely he would be allowed into any breaks in the coming days.
I sometimes wonder how many hours or even days I have spent over the years staring at the TV watching the parts of bicycle races where nothing is happening. The break has formed, the peloton is cruising along and the only thing happening is the riders are going from A to B. Thankfully there is usually some beautiful scenery to look at and my mind can be occupied by thoughts of having an idyllic life on the continent. It’s the same escapism I get into when going for a ride on my own. There is one day at the Tour every year though that gets my full attention from the start of the broadcast to the end, and that falls on the 14th of July.
The atmosphere on the roadside during Bastille Day is absolutely fantastic. It seems that the whole of France watches the race during la Fête nationale and the high spirits make the race a joy to watch back home. However, when there is the chance of a French victory things reach fever pitch.
The first time I witnessed this happen was in 1995. There hadn’t been a French Bastille day win for six years, the longest such gap since the Second World War but the hosts were having a decent Tour. Jacky Durand and Laurent Jalabert had both worn the Yellow Jersey in the first week and going into stage 12 Jalabert was now in Green and Richard Virenque was leading the mountains classification.
Of those two in-form French riders it was Jalabert who most suited the terrain, rolling hills through the Massif Central with a steep 8 km climb at the finish to an airfield in Mendé. He didn’t wait long to make his move and attacked after 20 km, meaning he and the other five escapees would have to survive over 200 km if they were to win the stage.
One of the most dangerous parts of pro cycling are the mass sprints. To be successful in these tightly packed, high speed situations the riders need plenty of bottle. Skill and aggression are also necessary and in 2010s stage 11 these two attributes were used by HTC-Columbia to win the stage.
The teams biggest rival were Garmin-Transitions and the friction between the two was the closest you would get to a football club style rivalry in cycling. They were both American teams and they loved beating each other and as they had two of the top sprinters of the time, Tyler Farrar of Garmin and Mark Cavendish of HTC, the flat stage 11 meant the teams would again come head to head, literally.
Coming into the final 600 meters Cavendish and his lead out man Mark Renshaw were on the left of the road close to the barriers. Just to their right was Julian Dean leading out Tyler Farrar. Dean seemed to be veering left which meant the HTC men might get boxed in. Renshaw decided to put an end to it by headbutting Dean on the shoulder. The first two times didn’t do the trick but the third one certainly did. Dean was moved to the right and a huge space opened up for Cavendish and he did a long sprint for the win as he was charging off Renshaw swung back to the left almost pushing Farrar into the barriers, in effect taking care of both of the Garmin men.
Cavendish saw Renshaws actions as great team work but the commissaries disagreed and disqualified Renshaw from the race.