Today is Bastille Day, or, as it’s more simply and literally known in France, le 14 Juillet. A day of celebration and hand-wringing, especially as it always falls during the Tour de France, which the French have not won since 1985.
T oday is Bastille Day, or, as it’s more simply and literally known in France, le 14 juillet. A day of celebration and hand-wringing, especially as it always falls during the Tour de France, which the French have not won since 1985.
Comparisons were always made with British tennis players and Wimbledon. Thanks to Andy Murray, they no longer apply.
There have been even fewer false dawns in French cycling than there were in British men’s tennis between 1936 and 2013, though admittedly the drought at the Tour de France doesn’t quite stretch to 77 years.
But at 34 and counting it is not insignificant. (And don’t start on French tennis: it’s 36 years since Yannick Noah was the last Frenchman to win the men’s singles at Roland Garros.)
This year, though, there is a genuine possibility. The mercurial Thibaut Pinot has the talent and the team – the only question concerns his temperament.
On Thursday’s first mountain top finish at La Planche des Belles-Filles, in Pinot’s home region of the Vosges, he rode strongly. He was fifth, only two seconds behind Geraint Thomas, the defending champion.
The expectation on this stage in particular had been immense. It was his home climb, his name was daubed all over the tarmac and by the roadside it rang out. He could have risen to the occasion or collapsed, and on Thursday he rose. When his young team-mate, David Gaudu, surged to the front as they approached the steepest part of the climb, with Pinot tucked behind, it was clearer than the thousands of iterations of his name on the road, passing rapidly beneath his wheels, that he is in a good place.
There would be much to celebrate were the earthy, down-to-earth Pinot to win, because there is much to admire. He has not decamped to Monaco, Andorra or any of the other tax havens where so many riders live. He comes from, and still lives in, Mélisey, a tiny village in eastern France where his father is the mayor. Pinot bought a farm there and enjoys nothing more than tending to his animals and fishing in his pond.
He is coached by his brother, Julien. And he rides for a French team, Groupama-FDJ, where he has spent his entire career. Not just a French team, FDJ is the archetypal French team, sponsored by the national lottery and run by Marc Madiot, who, as he does every Bastille Day, will today sing La Marseillaise to his riders on the team bus before the stage.
Pinot burst into the national consciousness in 2012, when, a day after Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey at La Planche des Belles Filles, he won alone in Porrentruy. The stage was as memorable for Madiot’s histrionics in the closing kilometres: leaning out the car window, yelling encouragement to Pinot and hammering the door. Pinot was tenth overall in Paris that year and in 2014 finished third behind Vincenzo Nibali. A year later he won at Alpe d’Huez, continuing an upward trajectory that many imagined would end with him winning the Tour.
But he failed to finish the next two. It was said that he developed a phobia of descending, turning to classical music and racing cars to find a cure (he says now that his fear of going downhill was exaggerated).
The heat was also said to be a problem for Pinot, but the biggest issue was the pressure. It led to him falling out of love with the Tour and opting to ride the Giro d’Italia instead. There, he relished the lack of attention. It all came together for him at last year’s Il Lombardia, the autumn classic, which he won with a performance full of daring and panache.
But it was inevitable, given his team’s identity and Madiot’s patriotism, that Pinot would return to the Tour. And so it has come to pass, with the 29-year-old starting this most open of races as one of five or six riders who could win.
So far he has made a perfect start, and there is a new air of seriousness and sense of purpose around him. Yet there is also the question of whether he really wants to be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault, pictured inset. On the eve of the race he told L’Equipe that “it’s the dream of every rider [to win] but it brings inconveniences with it. The French rider who wins the Tour will be a star. And do I want to be a star? No.”
Winning the Tour “is not an obsession,” he added, which might seem to end any comparisons with the tennis player who ended the British drought at Wimbledon, whose drive and single-minded ambition were never in question. Murray and Pinot do have humility in common, though. And it’s possible that Pinot is simply doing what he can to relieve some of the pressure. He knows, after his experiences in Italy, how beneficial it can be to be unburdened by expectation.
As for the French failure since 1985, numerous explanations have been suggested – that the reason is doping (or not doping), that the riders are pampered and overpaid, that too much is expected of them.
But a big factor is surely cycling’s popularity, or lack of. A sense of malaise affects the sport as a whole. You see lots of old men on bikes in France but very few teenagers and young adults.
It is traditionally a sport of the working class and rural France. This has always been evident in the identity of many of the team sponsors. Unlike in newer cycling countries like the UK, Australia and the USA, it has never been cool or fashionable – at least, not since Jacques Anquetil in the 1960s, or Louison Bobet, Fausto Coppi and co in the 1950s.
Were he to win, Pinot, as representative of rural France as a Breton farmer (as Hinault was), might only reinforce the traditional image of his sport. But his appeal, as with Murray, is centred on his rootedness and authenticity. No question, a Pinot victory would be enormously popular – even in France.