Cédric Vasseur believes that the pressure on French riders has been lifted thanks to the currently generation competing for two of the podium spots in this year’s Tour de France.
The former professional, who wore the maillot jaune in 1997, has described the current crop of Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud as the best riders France has produced in the last twenty years.
Since Bernard Hinault's fifth and final Tour de France win in 1985, the nation has struggled to produce a genuine Grand Tour contender. Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta a Espana in 1995 and lit up the Tour de France on occasions but Richard Virenque, Christophe Moreau and Thomas Voeckler have been the only riders to challenge for top five places overall in a protracted lean spell for France.
“We may have the best generation of the last 20 years,” Vasseur told Cyclingnews after French riders continued to go on the attack and impress in the Pyrenees.
Vincenzo Nibali may have a vice-like grip on the leader's yellow jersey and Chris Froome and expected rivals Alberto Contador have long since abandoned. However Jean-Christophe Peraud, Romain Bardet, and Thibaut Pinot – with the latter two contesting the white jersey, have been overall contenders throughout the race. They’ve not just followed wheels either, with all three animating the race through the Alps and Pyrenees.
“We were waiting such a long time for riders to make the podium in the Tour but as we’ve seen we have riders not only following the yellow jersey but also attacking in the race,” Vasseur said.
“I think all the work we’ve done in France over the last ten years is starting to be effective on the road. It’s not only the GC though because you see that we have Demare and Bouhanni in the sprints. We have a really good generation. I’m sure that what we’re seeing from our riders will give the children at home and by the roadside inspiration to become professional riders too.”
Vasseur typified the French hopes during the 1990s and 2000s describing them as plucky and courageous when on the attack but lacking the ability to challenge for yellow. While doping could have played a factor, the former GAN and US Postal believes that riders in the past faced too much pressure and were unable to live up to a nation’s hopes and expectations.
“When you put too much pressure on a generation that’s maybe not that talented, it’s difficult. Yes, you always have up and downs in every country but in the past a lot of pressure on the French riders. Maybe too much. Take someone like Sylvan Chavanel for example. He was able to win stages, great stages and he could keep the yellow jersey for a couple of days but he wasn’t able to ride for GC. Now we have these new champions and this new generation who can do it. I think it’s impressive for cycling fans but also for the casual fans too because in the last ten years I think the general French public lost some interest because we didn’t have someone would could battle for the overall.”
France’s Tour de France renaissance has not been an overnight success. While Peraud has found success on the road in the twilight of his career, Bardet and Pinto have steadily moved through the amateur and neo-pro ranks in recent years. They’re not the only riders putting France back on the map. Demare, and Nacer Bouhanni are competitive sprinters in their own right, while Tony Gallopin, Cyril Gautier, and Pierre Rolland have also emerged in recent seasons.
Vasseur hints that the talent has always been present but that French teams have lacked a level of structure in the past.
“We had a lot of good juniors and we started to see that with Demare becoming world champion in Copenhagen and Sicard doing the same in Mendrisio. We have a huge generation at junior and espoir level (Under 23) but in the past the gap between those levels and professional was perhaps too big. Crucially, now, the French teams have added more structure.”
The two-time Tour de France stage winner also pointed the emergence of super teams like Team Sky as part of the catalyst for French success.
“Team Sky arrived in 2010 with all these big goals and it pushed the French structures to improve and become bigger. To be able to be on the podium in the Tour de France you don’t just need the good legs, you need a good structure around you. The support and structure around French teams now is a lot better than it was ten years ago.”
The French find their freedom
The team structure and better coaching, as seen with FDJ.fr in recent years have certainly played a part. However nothing can make up for what Vasseur describes as the ‘belief factor’ an element he thinks was missing for a sustained period.
"Now there’s a different approach because even if you have Nibali is the strongest, he’s not putting both hands around the Tour or pushing like Pantani or Lance did. That gives the French a freedom. It’s like in tennis if you don’t feel right or good then your swing is off but if you feel good then you hit the ball hard and you hit the lines every time.”
Vasseur also hinted that the emergence of talented French riders could have happened now because France was among the first to tackle doping within the sport.
After the Festina affair French riders coined the phrase of a ‘two-speed’ peloton, and implication that they were riding clean or cleaner than their rivals. Results backed the claim to a certain extent: a French rider hasn’t won a major Classic since Jalabert won the Tour of Lombardy in 1997, although Tony Gallopin claimed San Sebastian last year.
“It’s true that in 1998 we saw that there were wrong things going on in the bunch. I think the French took some time to work at being at the same level but we saw from 2006 that the passport arrived and we have so many more controls, not just for riders but we check the bikes too. I think all the riders today are on the same level as they start a race. We’re back to a more normal cycling,” Vasseur said.
Winning the Tour
It is impossible to predict how Bardet, Pinot and Peraud would have faired had the two pre-race favourites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome not crashed out. However it does the French a disservice to dismiss their current achievements.
Nibali is still a level above them and shows no signs of cracking before Paris. Vasseur acknowledges that there is still a massive step between where the French are now and where they need to be in order to end the nation’s Tour drought and win the yellow jersey.
“There’s a big difference between second and winning because you have all the pressure of the race on your shoulders. Bardet and Pinot are young and they will learn a lot here but they need to have an improved structure around them,” he said.
A key factor for Vasseur is the structure and team support around the likes of Bardet and Pinot. Team Sky have won the last two Tours with British riders but they’ve done so with international squads around them, a blueprint that Vasseur should be copied by the likes of Ag2r-La Mondiale and FDJ.fr.
“They need to convince their team managers like Madiot and Lavenu to buy the Kiryienka and Siutsou of this world – the guys who can really push. There’s still a French touch in our teams and we don’t play the international card as much as we should. To win the Tour you don’t have to have a totally national card you need to take the best riders even if they’re from Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, wherever."
"When we go in this direction maybe we’ll have our French winner. From now on if we have a French winner of the Tour over the next few years it will for sure be from Pinot or Bardet.”