Tour de France: Locals love race, even without a French winner
French cycling has taken a hit from rising costs and competition from sports such as basketball. A Frenchman has not won the Tour de France in more than two decades.
If French soccer supporters were frustrated with their team’s performance at the most recent World Cup, one can only imagine what the country’s die-hard cycling fans think about their homegrown talent – or lack thereof – in the Tour de France.Skip to next paragraph
It’s been more than two decades since a Frenchman won the race – Bernard Hinault in 1985 – or even wore the yellow jersey on the final day; in 1989, Laurent Fignon had the lead coming into Paris before American Greg LeMond snatched it away. As of Stage 10, no French riders are in the overall top 20.
For a country reputed to have invented the modern bicycle, this is a curious phenomenon, but not necessarily a cause for national mourning. Like most any national issue in France, there are a variety of opinions on cycling's decline: it's become a sport for the rich; basketball is more popular; and it doesn't really matter, because the Tour will always be a rite of summer – French champions or not.
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Among the handful of French contenders that have emerged over the long drought, climbing specialist Richard Virenque has come closest to a win, finishing second overall in 1997.
But Virenque is now retired, and no French rider has made it onto the podium since. French cyclists have also fallen short elsewhere on the international circuit, qualifying only six riders for their nine-man quota at World Championships last year.
When a working-class rider could become five-time Tour champion
One explanation is that riding a bike isn’t as popular as it used to be among young athletes in France. Between massive doping scandals and the international success of soccer and basketball, cycling has fallen on the totem poll.
“It’s clear that there are distractions and that this is a country that’s now divided its attention among other sports,” says Jean Montois, a veteran cycling reporter for Agence France-Presse.
The pool of potential riders has also decreased as the cost of equipment and elite training rises.
Once a sport for the working class – in the 1950s, Jacques Anquetil attended technical school before becoming a five-time Tour champion the next decade – it’s become a wealthier venture.
“It used to be a rural sport, too, a way to get out of your life of agriculture and make the big time,” says Jean-Louis Le Touzet, a writer for the Parisian newspaper Libération. “Now riders come more from the cities and have more education.”
What will progress look like?
France's failure to win the Tour can’t be simply from a drop in participants, though. This year 35 of the 197 riders who started the Tour de France were French. Four of the race’s 22 teams are even based here. Only the United States has as many squads in the Tour.
Perhaps it’s systemic, as former star and national team manager Laurent Jalabert suggested last year. "It's very disturbing," he told L’Équipe after France qualified only six for Worlds. “It says a lot about the true position of France in international cycling.”