France's most recent Tour de France podium finisher, Richard Virenque, believes that there is a very real chance that his compatriots will now re-conquer the Grand Tour's top three - for the first time in 17 years.
Now a TV commentator, Virenque finished second in the 1997 Tour de France, since when Christophe Moreau in 2000 and Thomas Voeckler in 2011, had both taken fourth. But this year, Virenque - speaking before the end of stage 14, after which there were French riders in third, fourth, sixth and tenth overall - is convinced they can go at least one better.
"Thanks to the absence of [Chris] Froome (Sky) and [Alberto] Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), the Tour is a very open one," Virenque told Cyclingnews. "The French are up there, and on top of that we're holding onto the Best Young Rider's jersey and the Best Team Classification."
"The podium is still on the cards, for sure.... You can't rule out that Nibali has a bad day, either, too, even if he's going very strongly. It's maybe this year or never for the French."
An editorial in L'Equipe recently argued that the French riders had become collectively decomplexé, which translates roughly as 'unhibited' - i.e., their levels of confidence have risen dramatically and suddenly. But Virenque sees it differently.
"I don't agree, I think there's a whole generation of young riders - climbers, sprinters and so on - who have suddenly and simultaneously staged a breakthrough. That means here on the Tour, for example, that the chance of a podium is very real indeed."
Amongst French society in general, Virenque - who says he is a fan of Thibaut Pinot, currently fourth overall and Romain Bardet, who is lying third - "is beginning to wake up to the fact that they've got a lot of good cyclists. I think we'll see a big increase in support for the French riders in the Pyrenees."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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