Separated by 13 years in age, Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot combined to bridge a 30-year gap for French cycling at the Tour de France on Sunday. For the first time since 1984, when the late Laurent Fignon preceded Bernard Hinault, two Frenchman stood on the final podium in Paris. Indeed, it was the first time since 1997 that any Frenchman had finished higher than fourth overall.
As ever, the Badger himself was on hand to hector riders and dignitaries into position for the presentation ceremonies after the stage, but before attending to his duties, he had words of praise for Péraud and Pinot. "We've had a very good Tour because we had riders who dared to go on the attack," Hinault said.
Péraud's run to second place was built largely around his twin performances at Risoul and Pla d'Adet, when he was the only man able to track yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali's accelerations on the final ascents. He suffered a late scare when he crashed on the finishing circuit on the Champs-Elysées, but he quickly remounted to secure his podium berth.
"I never do things the easy way," Péraud smiled afterwards. "But that little crash doesn't change anything.
"The hardest day of this Tour de France was actually the stage to Hautacam when I was struggling to follow Thibaut Pinot. That was a bad day for me. It was harder than following Nibali on the stage to Risoul. I suffered there too, but it wasn't as bad because I was feeling better."
As well as at Hautacam, Pinot showed his class with aggressive showings at Chamrousse and on the Port de Balès. "It's my way of riding," Pinot said after descending from the rostrum. "I like attacking, and I like to enjoy myself in the mountains."
The 24-year-old still had to defend his podium place in the 54-kilometre time trial to Perigueux on Saturday afternoon, but he demonstrated the strides he has made against the watch by doing so with relative ease. Pinot's 2013 Tour challenge fell apart due largely to a crippling fear of high-speed descending, but exhibited considerable sangfroid to finish out his race on a high this time around.
"All year long I've done good time trials so there was no reason why I should do a bad one at the Tour," said Pinot, who won the white jersey of best young rider to boot.
"My objective was always to finish in the top 10, but as the race went on, my legs told me that I could do better than that," he said. "After that, the white jersey came along almost by itself."
Pinot was born six years after Fignon and Hinault shared the podium, but hails from a family steeped in cycling - his brother is a coach at FDJ.fr - and he seemed aware of the importance of his achievement. "I want to savour this podium finish, and it's starting to sink in now," he said. "I want to enjoy it."
Péraud was seven years old at the time, but admitted that he did not remember the 1984 Tour de France. "I'm ashamed, but no," he had told L'Équipe earlier on Sunday. "I only started to get interested in the Tour when I was 18 or 19 and started racing. I'm struggling to understand what it means for the public but I'm aware of the joy it's brought me."
Lest there be any doubt, a communiqué issued by French president François Hollande on Sunday evening was a reminder of the significance of the feat. "Seeing them on the second and third step of the podium of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées is a matter of great pride for French cycling, which has waited for this for thirty years," he said.
Neither Péraud nor Pinot - nor, indeed sixth place finisher Romain Bardet - will need any reminding that 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of another landmark in French cycling. The French Tour winner was Bernard Hinault in 1985, and home expectations are growing apace.
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