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.
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 became a fan of professional cycling in the early 90’s and being from Britain this meant watching Tour de France highlights on Channel 4 at home or occasionally Eurosport if I was at a sports club. The Tour was the gateway drug and it was only later that I hit the harder stuff like the Giro or the classics. So watching cycling in this restricted manner at that particular time meant witnessing Miguel Indurain’s dominance. It was very impressive and as I enjoyed a Time Trial I didn’t find the era as boring as others. There were also more flamboyant riders such as Claudio Chiappucci to add some colour to the race but when his team mate Marco Pantani came on the scene my enjoyment of the sport reached a new level. He was different from everyone else, everything about him was striking from his looks to his climbing style, out of his saddle but still in the drops. He quickly became my favourite rider. I was so fond of him I even liked his Carrera Jeans kit with the denim cycling shorts.
He turned pro in 1992 and completed his first Grand Tours in 19994, he was 2nd at the Giro and finished 3rd and won the White Jersy in his Tour debut. During that Tour he had beat the record for the ascent of Alpe d’Huez but missed out on the stage victory as Roberto Conti had triumphed from a break. The climb was to be used again in 1995 and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a stage win slip him by again.
Approaching the mountain there was a break just like the previous year but Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team were racing well and keeping those ahead at a manageable gap. The riders in the break were of a good caliber (Richard Virenque and Ivan Gotti among others) but it looked like they would be caught. On the lower slopes of the Alpe Banesto start riding hard but Gerard Rue tells them to slow down, has he concerns about the form of his leader Indurain? Pantani decides to find out and flies off. He passes by members of the break one by one and after passing Gotti he has the lead. After that his victory is never in doubt and the top riders of a generation such as Indurain, Riis and Zuelle are left fighting for second.
Like some people I’ve never been a Lance Armstrong fan. But unlike the majority of Lance haters I’m old school, not one of these post-oprah ex-dope-denier types. I didn’t like him as a person and while I couldn’t deny he was a great bike rider, he was certainly bad-ass, I didn’t enjoy watching him race. He was too mechanical, I thought he lacked panache. On the big issue that surrounded him, I thought accusations made against him made sense of a lot of things but I would never believe them 100% until there was a positive test (though I was always happy to mention the Swiss cortisone thing to Armstrong fans) and I would never in the world believed there would be a confession. Furthermore I was a huge Pantani fan and deplored the way he acted in the 2000 Tour after the stage to Mont Ventoux. After Armstrong let Pantani win the stage Pantani said in an interview that Armstrong was being a little disrespectful in doing so. Lance being Lance then resorted to his role of schoolyard bully during a press conference calling Marco ‘Elefantino’, a reference to his big ears and a nickname which the psychologically fragile Italian had hated for years. That stage win on Mont Ventoux happened to be Pantanis final victory and as his life headed towards a tragic end Armstrong was becoming the dominant force in cycling. I was hopeful someone would be able to challenge him. Ullrich looked very promising finishind 2nd behind Lance in 2000 and 2001 but I was holding out hope for an ever improving Joseba Beloki.
The Basque rider had turned professional in 1998 aged 24 and rode for Euskatel-Euskadi for two years. During this time he placed well in some mountainous stages of the Dauphine and Tour of Catalunya. He also had the reputation of a decent time trialist, he was perfect GC material. He joined *cough* Festina in 2000, finished 2nd in the Tour de Romandie and in July started his first Tour de France. Without really doing much he finished a solid 3rd behind Armstrong and Ullrich. 2001 saw the exact same podium but Beloki was starting to look much more dangerous by finishing 3rd on the stages to Alpe D’Huez, Pla d’Adet and the Time Trial to Chamrousse. Ullrich was missing from the 2002 Tour. He hadn’t raced since January due to a knee injury and had just been handed a six month suspension for testing positive for amphetamines. (The ban wasn’t for longer as the German Cycling Federation believed his explanation that they were taken recreationaly along with ecstasy thus not performance enhancing). With the German missing Beloki duly finished 2nd. In the Texans first three Tours de France nobody had finished within 6 minutes of him but Beloki was getting closer to him. He was now next to him on the podium and the time differences between the two at the end of each race were shrinking too. I was sure that in 2003 the Basque rider was in with a great chance of winning.
After the first week of the race which was designed heavily for the sprinters the riders were faced with three days in the Alps. Beloki was matching Armstrong all the way during the first two of those stages finishing alongside him in Morzine and Alpe D’Huez. The two were together again on the decent of the Cote de La Rochette which was the final climb of the first block of mountains. Things were looking good. There were only 4 km left till the finish in Gap and Beloki was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall (30 of those were ceded in the Team Time Trial) and 1 minute 30 ahead of Ullrich who had returned after his year out. Beloki could maybe start thinking about what he could do in the Pyrenees. It wasn’t to be.
Cycling is a sport were you hang from success by a thread. If the thread snaps you can only watch it disappear as you eventually crash down to earth. Coming down a straight towards a sharp turn Beloki lost control of his bike. Skidding one way then the other it looked as though both his wheels had locked. He was fighting to regain control but just could’t and ended up crashing heavily onto his hip and sliding down the road. Armstrong just behind him reacted quickly to avoid the stricken Basque but the only place he could go was off road as his momentum took him into a field. He guided his bike downhill over the coarse ground and back towards the road which wasn’t too far due to the twisting nature of the course. There’s a ditch now between him and the road but Lance quickly hops off his bike, jumps over the ditch with it and rejoins the race as the group he was just with goes past. The calm way he instinctively delt with the situation was incredible and contrasted brilliantly with the sight of the wee fan at the roadside running about like a headless chicken not sure whether to help then just standing and clapping. Armstrong didn’t have the riding flair of some of the greats but he certainly provided a bit of Hollywood from time to time.
Armstrong finished the stage and was still in the lead of the race. It was however a disaster for Beloki. A teammate had stopped to see how he was but it was over for him. The crash was horrific. He had hit a piece of tarmac which had melted in the intense heat of the day. His injuries included fractures on his right thigh, elbow and hip and would effect him for years to come. He was never the same rider after this stage, the crash had ended his career as a world class GC rider. Beloki retired in 2006 and has since worked as a commentator for Basque radio and various magazines and was also a training consultant for the Cafes BasqueBasque team.
One of the best things about watching the Tour is witnessing the pleasure it gives to everyone involved in the race. Whether it’s the excitement of the massive crowds on mountain stages, the joyous celebrations of a rider winning a stage or comfort that @nyvelocity gets from the Tour de France inspired tractor art by French farmers. The role the Director Sportifs who manage the riders have can be a stressful one so it isn’t surprising that they can lose control of their emotions from time to time too.
Marc Madiot the ex-cyclist and twice Paris-Roubaix winner had been manager of La Française des Jeux since its inception in 1997. The Tour de France would always be their main focal point of the year but going into 2012 they had only 7 stage wins in 15 editions. Stage wins would be all they could hope for too. An overall win was never possible if you considered the strength of their riders and they had to watch from the sidelines as the other French teams won the King of The Mountains jersey at various times over the years.They were very much the ‘petit poisson’, but Madiot knew things were about to change.
French cycling in general had been in the doldrums for years but things were starting to look up as many exciting young riders with genuine talent were beginning to emerge. FDJ had one of those talents and his name was Thibault Pinot. Only 22 years of age and although he still had much to learn he had already shown he had exeptional climbing ability by wining the climbers jersey at the 2010 Tour de Romandie. It was only a matter of time before he showed his worth on the biggest stage.
The moment he chose was a medium mountain stage ending in Porrentruy, Switzerland. With 6 categorised climbs already completed he had been part of a large breakaway chasing down two lone leaders. Nearing the top of the final climb of the day, the category 1 Col de la Croix he had escaped from the break and caught the final man up the road Freddie Kessiakoff. Aftet steaming past him and peaking the climb he only had 17km of descent then flat road between him and the finish. On the descent the liked of Froome, Wiggins, Evans and Nibali got their act together and briefly looked like they’d catch up with Pinot but the closer the finishing line was to him the more likely that he would complete a famous victory. Marc Madiot wasn’t taking any chances though. In the team car behind his rider he started shouting encouragement to the young climber through the radio. The shouting soon became screaming then screeching and before long he was shrieking out the window, banging on the car door as with 1km to go the victory was certain.
It was a great moment and brought a smile to everyones mouths. It showed exactly what the race means to people. Perhaps the only person who didn’t appreciate the rabid and deafening nature of Madiots way of dealing with staff morale and probably learned to turn off his team radio before trying moves like that in the future.
All sports have hero’s and villains. Their presence adds to the spectacle of what you’re watching and changes it into theatre. Unfortunately in cycling many of the heros are actually villains and when you find out you realise that you’ve been watching a tragedy.
David Millar was one such hero of mine. Being Scottish I had always been a fan of his namesake Robert but never had much of a chance to watch him race. I saw him a few times on Channel 4’s highlights show. I remember the sense of anticipation before the 1995 Tour after hearing he would be making a return after a year away from the race with his new Le Groupememt team, then the disappointment after they folded days before the Grand Depart, an event which was shortly followed by Millar’s retirement . So when David Millar came on the scene at the start of the 2000’s I was loving being able to watch someone from my own country race in the Tour de France. (Many have questioned his Scottishness but Millar had a similar life to me. I was brought up abroad, I considered another country home for years and I didn’t sound particularly like ‘a jock’ but I feel Scottish. I am Scottish). When he started winning stages and wearing the yellow jersey I was delighted. So when he was popped in 2004 I couldn’t believe it. I felt cheated. All his success which I had celebrated was actually worthless, it was a lie. He wasn’t my hero anymore, he was an embarrassment.
Roll forward to the 2009 Tour and the stage finish in Barcelona. I’d been to Barcelona before and it’s always enjoyable watching a race and seeing the peloton go through areas you recognise but there was added interest that day. David Millar had attacked from the days breakaway with about 30 km to go and had been holding a steady lead over the pack. But with about 5 km to go he arrived at Montjuic with its steep slopes and his advantage was starting to look shaky. I had a dilemma at this point where his fate was unknown. Should I be wanting him to win or fail? I still felt a little betrayed by him but it was 5 years since he was caught cheating and this was already his third Tour since coming back from suspension. Had he done his time for the crime? I decided to just try and enjoy the moment and see it as a brave attack from a cyclist in the Tour de France. It’s the way I often need to watch cycling these days. Enjoy the moment rather than let an individuals doping past spoil things.
In the end Millar was caught with only 1 km to go. While I didn’t celebrate I thought it was a fair outcome. For me, Millar still hadn’t suffered enough to earn forgiveness and glory, but now with this agonising defeat could his redemption could perhaps be complete?