From Hinault to Chavanel, Anquetil to Voeckler, French cycling is well-known for its colourful and often controversial characters. Playing host to the world’s biggest bike race, it is not difficult to see France’s influence on the sport, and the sport’s influence on France. Cycling heroes permeate French culture in a very big way – you even get French punks singing about Louison Bobet!
France, like every other nation, has had its share of cycling shame in recent history but this – and the lack of a French winner of the nation’s Grand Tour since The Badger all those years ago – has done little to dampen the flames of their love affair with the sport. Indeed having won nearly a quarter of the stages of last year’s Tour de France, plus Voeckler’s King of the Mountains triumph, a ruck of combative rider awards, two top ten GC finishes, and a second place for Thibaut Pinot in the young rider classification, you could say that French cycling is on the up.
Given that a good number of the cyclists that we love at VeloVoices Towers are French, I wanted to carry out a little investigation into what makes them tick, and what makes us love them. I’ve enlisted the help of our own resident expert Sheree to talk us through it.
As you all know, what we at VeloVoices like is passion, and the French seem to have bucketloads of the stuff. I often wonder if Thomas Voeckler, like French cartoon hero Obelix, fell into a cauldron of some kind of magic potion as a baby. Brimming with flair, often burying himself while looking like a dog hanging its head out of a car, he oozes passion. But when it comes to passion, you can’t top Marc ‘Mad Dog’ Madiot from last year’s Tour, ‘encouraging’ Pinot to the win.
Ant: So do we put this abundance of panache down to Gallic passion? What do you think, Sheree? Is it all ‘Volvic Volcanicity’, or is there something more deliberate in the way the French raise their riders and develop their attack-minded mentality?
Sheree: In years past, the French put their lack of success down to the fact that everyone else was doping. Turns out they were right! So, if you don’t think you can win, you go for airtime with heroic, but often doomed escapes. It’s popular with sponsors and the viewing public, plus it ensures everyone knows your name. But you’re right, Ant, the French like passion, flair and derring-do, not marginal gains. By and large, French teams are run by former French riders and they tend to perpetuate what’s been done before. French teams are slowly but surely embracing change but I hope they never lose their charming characters and idiosyncrasies.
Ant: I hear you, Sheree, that impassioned stance has really set them apart from the rest. The backs-to-the-wall mentality is a powerful motivator, but passion will only take you so far. It takes real talent to make it count. Guys like Marc Madiot can get the best out of riders – having won Paris-Roubaix twice he knows all about hunting down the win – and I think I’d hit 500 watts with him screaming down my ear! The impressive current crop of riders suggests that there’s more to this than just a strong legacy, savvy coaches and culture. Is there anything more scientific in the way that they identify and develop talent?
Sheree: No, there really isn’t. However, there’s plenty of support at the grass-roots level to get kids cycling in the first place and, if the kids are keen and want to race, the cycling clubs provide kit, bikes and cover the not inconsiderable expense of racing. The clubs with the deepest pockets also provide training plans and nutritional and medical support. Beyond the clubs, France has ‘centres of excellence’ that allow young riders to continue with the sport while completing their studies. It’s this backbone of financial support that gives France its depth of participation in many sports. Money is spent at the grass-roots not the elite level.
Ant: It strikes me that, although France has produced some great opportunists, time trialists, and climbers, I can’t recall a particularly prolific sprinter in recent years. Although French teams don’t tend to operate in a way that is conducive to sprinters, it’s still surprising that one hasn’t surfaced at some point. Do you think there is a strategic choice behind this, or is it purely a result of circumstance and culture?
Sheree: Most sources tend to cite Charles Pelissier, who rode in the 1930s, as the last great French sprinter, so you may have a point that there’s a lack of role models and precedents. I seem to recall Laurent Jalabert started his career as a sprinter but a nasty crash saw him concentrate his efforts on being a more all-round rider. If you say French sprinters, I tend to think of Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r La Mondiale), Sebastien Chavanel (Europcar), Jimmy Casper (retired) and Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM), who have done well in the French Cup races. But the current crop of young French sprinters looks far more promising: Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and Adrien Petit (Cofidis). And don’t forget France has some formidable sprint stars on the track with Gregory Bauge, Michael d’Almeida, Kevin Sireau and Arnaud Tournant. There is also Bryan Coquard, omnium silver medallist at London 2012, who has a great turn of speed and is taking to the road this season as a neo-pro with Europcar.
Ant: And finally, who do you think we need to be looking out for this season?
Sheree: Above I mentioned three French sprinters – Bouhanni, Demare and Petit – I would expect them to continue to progress, likewise Pinot. I’ll also be keeping a close eye on new neo-pro and climbing star Warren Barguil (Argos-Shimano), plus I’ll be hoping the management change at RadioShack galvanises Tony Gallopin. Romain Sicard (Euskaltel-Euskadi) looked to be returning to form last season after injury, 2013 will probably be a make-or-break year for him. I’ll be hoping it’s the former. Such is the wonderful unpredictability of cycling that someone who’s currently under our radar will come to prominence.
Ant: It’s great, isn’t it? It can be quirky, unpredictable, even frustrating, but when it’s good, it’s good!
Sheree: Ant, there you have it in a nutshell! ‘Gallic flair’ is why I love living in France – that and the weather!