French cycling fans continue to dream about the day one of their own will again win the Tour de France.
But the 29 years of hurt since Bernard Hinault's 1985 victory could soon be at an end. Likely not in 2014 – Astana's Vincenzo Nibali at least appears unbeatable – but perhaps in the next couple of years, and the two men looking most likely to do it for them are Ag2r La Mondiale's Romain Bardet and FDJ.fr's Thibaut Pinot.
The fact that Bardet, 23, and 24-year-old Pinot are currently duking it out for the white jersey as the Tour's best young rider, as well as for the chance of a place on the overall podium in Paris – Bardet is currently third overall, and Pinot fourth – has gripped the nation, and French media haven't been backward in being forward about the two youngsters' chances both this year and in the near future.
Having started Saturday's stage 14 with just 16 seconds separating them – in Bardet's favour – the fight for the white jersey was very much on for the 177-kilometre stage between Grenoble and the summit finish at the ski resort of Risoul.
On the descent off the Col d'Izoard – the stage's second, and penultimate, climb, and the highest point in this year's race at 2,360 metres – Bardet and Ag2r teammate Jean-Christophe Péraud, who is another Frenchman chasing a high overall finish at this Tour, went on the attack, in a blatant attempt to take advantage of Pinot's well-publicised weakness.
Although Pinot hung back from the front of the group, his compatriots failed to get rid of him, and, on the final climb up to Risoul, Pinot stuck close to Bardet, while Péraud was able to follow Nibali's attack to finish third on the stage – two seconds down on Nibali and 26 seconds behind the day's winner, Tinkoff-Saxo's Rafal Majka.
Pinot and Bardet came home together, 50 seconds down, with podium rival Tejay Van Gardern (BMC) just a few seconds behind them.
The trio also managed to take half a minute out of Spain's Alejandro Valverde, who nevertheless remains in second place overall, 4:37 behind Nibali, and just 13 seconds ahead of Bardet.
“The main thing was not to lose time,” explained Pinot, “but today was actually my worst day on the Tour so far. On the climbs, I felt as though I was lacking something, and could really feel my legs on the Lauteret [the first climb of the day] after yesterday's stage. But when it came to the final climb, I'm happy to have been able to stay in contact with Bardet and van Garderen.
The white-hot fight to be the Tour's best young rider, and to perhaps take a place on the podium, is now set to continue in the Pyrenees when the race arrives there on Tuesday, with just 16 seconds still separating Bardet and Pinot in the general classification – although Bardet will be trying his level-best to increase his advantage.
“The Pyrenees are the mountains I like the most, and I've got big ambitions,” said Bardet. “I'm in a great position, and I'm ready to go on the attack.”
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