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.

Christophe Ena/AP Photo
Spectators watch the riders arrive as Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland is seen, right, prior to the start of the 11th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 184.5 kilometers (114.6 miles) with start in Sisteron and finish in Bourg-les-Valences, France on Thursday.

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

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.”

“I think that we have do to change something in the system at certain levels,” says Didier Rous, BBox Bouygues’ sport director. “But it’s never easy to win the Tour de France.”

This year three stages have been won by the French – though Sylvain Chavanel, who claimed two of those stages, is on the Belgian QuickStep squad. The polka dot jersey, awarded to the race’s best climber, has also been awarded to several French riders so far.

But that’s not much different from the past decade – French riders have averaged 2.3 stage wins each Tour since 2000.

So going forward, what will constitute progress?

“What’s more important than not having a champion now is not having anyone in the top 10,” says Jean Montois, the longtime cycling reporter. “Progress will be if you can look across races the whole year, not just the Tour, and see a French rider at the top.”

A perennial rite of summer

Despite this lack of success, the Tour de France has not suffered in popularity around the country.

More than 10 million citizens will line the course this year, according to organizers, and millions more will watch at home or in bars; public television broadcasts more than five hours of coverage per day.

It boils down to tradition. For many, the Tour de France is more than a bike race; it’s a rite of summer.

“It’s popular because it comes during vacation time,” says Le Teuzot. “French fans may not support cycling anymore, but they still support the Tour.”

Promising potential in Pierre Rolland

But they may have someone to cheer for in the future. BBox Bouygues’ Pierre Rolland was the top French finisher on yesterday’s Bastille Day stage.

At 23, he’s riding in his second tour – last year he finished 22nd overall – and looks to have a promising career ahead of him. But, perhaps a reflection of French cycling these days, he’s not setting the bar too high.

Asked about his future prospects yesterday, he didn’t mention Hinault, Anquetil, or Fignon, all former French champions. Instead, he cited Christophe Moreau, a 39-year old Caisse d’Epargne rider who finished in the Top-10 twice in the past decade.

“If I can fashion a career like Christophe has, that would be a pleasure,” he said.

IN PICTURES: Scenes from the 2010 Tour de France

Tour de France 101:

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