The French continue to fire on all cylinders at this year's Tour de France. Lotto-Belisol's Tony Gallopin's stage win in Oyonnax on Tuesday was the nation's second, adding to AG2R La Mondiale rider Blel Kadri's victory on stage eight.
In the general classification, meanwhile, the French are also placed highly, with Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and AG2R pair Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Peraud all chasing podium spots.
And AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu says his riders still have a lot more to give. Kadri's stage win would already have made for a successful Tour. However, with two AG2R riders in the top 10, and fourth-placed Bardet sitting pretty in the white jersey as best young rider, the team with the brown shorts could be heading for their most successful Tour yet.
Lavenu agrees that Bardet and Peraud are in dazzling form, but dismisses any idea that trying to manage two riders' hopes of finishing in the top 10 is difficult to manage. On the contrary.
“It's actually quite reassuring to have two riders up there, as anything can happen, as we've already seen with both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador crashing out,” Lavenu told Cyclingnews. “And there's no problem at all about leadership. In fact, I think it's actually good for both Romain and Jean-Christophe's confidence, having a team-mate next to them up at the front.”
Outside the team bus, Bardet, in the white jersey, certainly exudes a confidence that the French have arguably been missing in recent years. Or perhaps even since 1985 – the year of France's last victory in their home race, thanks to five-time winner Bernard Hinault.
Asked whether the white jersey or a high placing in the GC was his main objective, Bardet was of the opinion that the two objectives go hand in hand.
“Doing well in the general classification will mean that I'm also in with a chance of winning the white jersey,” the 23 year old told Cyclingnews. “However, if I'm unfortunate enough to only finish second in the white-jersey competition, but still finish, say, fifth overall, it wouldn't be so bad, either.”
Lavenu knows that in Bardet – who's participating in only his second grand tour, finishing 15th at last year's Tour – he's got a very special rider indeed, and perhaps an even bigger star of the future. A future Tour winner, even, perhaps?
“Seeing all the French riders doing so well this year is great for us, and great for the French public, too, who've been waiting a long time for a new champion – someone who can be up there with the best at the Tour,” Lavenu said. “We're well aware of just how good Romain is, but of course no one knows just how much better he can still get. It certainly looks as though he has all the qualities of a rider who can get to the highest level, though.”
In the fight for the white jersey, AG2R will have to be vigilant, thanks to both Pinot and Quick Step's Michal Kwiatkowski – the latter perhaps more of a danger in the 'medium mountain' stages, where the Polish rider is capable of getting away and staying away, than in the Alps or the Pyrenees.
Protecting Bardet and Peraud's overall positions will be no easy task, either.
“There's a huge battle for the podium this year,” explained Lavenu. “There's Richie Porte [Sky], of course, and then Tejay Van Garderen [BMC]. And watch out for Alejandro Valverde, who's a real vieux renard” – an old fox – “as we say in French. He's riding very well, and is part of a very strong Movistar team. Watch out for Pinot, too.
“I'd say that there are still perhaps a dozen riders who are in the frame for the podium,” Lavenu added, “and we've got two among those 12.”
While many might think that Vincenzo Nibali already has this Tour in the bag, Lavenu also warns against making such an assumption.
“Even barring accidents, you have to remember that we're only half-way through the Tour, with a very difficult second half to come. Like everyone else, Nibali is not immune to having a bad day,” the Frenchman said.
Watch out for those brown shorts – and Bardet's white ones – in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
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