France’s wait for the heir to five-time yellow jersey champion Bernard Hinault may continue for a while yet.
But when it comes to winning stages on the Tour de France, the hosts are leading the way.
After 18 days of racing French riders have won six stages, equaling a modern day record that was last set in 1997 — a year before the Festina doping scandal almost brought the event to its knees.
“I’ve won two stages, that’s enough to make me happy,” said Sylvain Chavanel, who has since been offered another two-year contract by his Belgian outfit Quick Step after winning stages two and seven.
As well as a welcome cash prize, a prestigious stage win can launch, or save, the careers of riders as well as help in negotiations when it comes to extending sponsors’ contracts.
The sponsors who fund Bbox-Bouygues are pulling out at the end of the year, leaving team manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau uncertain of his future, and that of his 30-plus staff.
While the search goes on, Bernaudeau’s team have done him proud.
A day after AG2R rider Christophe Riblon capped a superb breakaway attempt with victory atop Ax-3-Domaines on stage 14, BBox rider Thomas Voeckler won the second of four days in the Pyrenees on the tough stage 15 to Luchon.
The French champion’s victory gave ideas the next morning to teammate Pierrick Fedrigo, who battled hard to reach an early breakaway on stage 16 before out sprinting an eight-man group, including Lance Armstrong, to win in Pau.
French riders have now won three of the four stages in the Pyrenees. But for BBbox sporting director Didier Rous, his team’s successes are no coincidence.
“It’s just rewards for all the work the guys have put into this race. We have not missed a single breakaway,” said Rous, who won one of the French’s six stages in 1997 as part of the Festina team.
The man Fedrigo beat to the finish line on Tuesday was fellow Frenchman Sandy Casar, whose victory on stage nine to Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne was executed to perfection.
The FDJ rider had been part of a long breakaway which was caught in the final kilometer by overall contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
However Casar, who has finished runner-up twice on stages in the past three years, kept his composure to beat talented Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez and former Giro d’Italia winner Damiano Cunego at the finish line.
“Second place is horrible. I’ve finished second twice and today I just didn’t want to do it again,” said Casar.
In cycling there is a belief that stricter doping controls have leveled the playing field for the hosts, who have one of the cleanest reputations in the peloton.
Although that is hard to prove, AG2R sporting director Julien Jurdy says one thing is for sure: “We have to be honest, the peloton is not riding as fast as it used to.”
France’s best-placed finisher in the race’s general classification in the past decade has been Christophe Moreau, who finished fourth in 2000 — three places behind Hinault on the last of his five wins in 1985.
Moreau will retire at the end of the season, and while knows there is no one currently able to challenge Schleck or Contador, he believes the future is bright.
“We don’t have anyone to challenge for the overall but in one-day races we can hold our own,” said Caisse d’Epargne rider Moreau.
“This is a great opportunity for French cycling.”