Iâ€™m not too proud to admit that I happen to be wrong from time to time. Case in point: during last seasonâ€™s Tour de France, I did my best to fly the flag for the home team, proclaiming that the 2010 Grand Tour might be the dawn of a renaissance in French cycling. To me, Brice Feilluâ€™s heroic stage win, AG2Râ€™s days in yellow, and Christophe Le Mevelâ€™s top-10 finish, all were signs that the times may be a-changinâ€™ in a nation long-starved for big-time success.
But following yet another lukewarm off-season for the French, Iâ€™m starting to second-guess myself. As we enter into 2010, the French status quo has been maintainedâ€”at bestâ€”but the situation could soon prove to be much, much worse.
First of all, of the 18 Pro Tour teams, only 2 are French. Sure, Pro Tour status doesnâ€™t quite mean what it once didâ€”even Italy only has 2 squads. And yes, there are still 3 French Professional Continental teams (with Agritubel being replaced by StÃ©phane Heulotâ€™s Saur-Sojasur outfit). But every year it seems that one French team or another needs some kind of Ave Maria just to keep its title sponsor. One year itâ€™s Cofidis, the next itâ€™s BBox, and so on and so forth. Only la Francaise des Jeux seems to have survived the last decade with nary a hint of sponsor dissatisfaction or pulloutâ€”a surprising situation when you consider the lack of big wins for Madiotâ€™s boys.
But itâ€™s not only the title sponsors that seem to be growing weary of supporting French squads. Two French teams now have Italian bike sponsorsâ€”Bbox and AG2R. True, itâ€™s not the first time: AG2Râ€™s outsourced for years, and Kuota was Agritubelâ€™s bike supplier for two seasonâ€™s before providing bikes to AG2R in 2010. A big deal? Perhaps not. But something just doesnâ€™t feel right to me about a French team riding a Colnago.
And sponsors arenâ€™t the only ones leaving France for greener pasturesâ€”riders are too. Franceâ€™s best Classics riderâ€”Sylvain Chavanelâ€” already rides for a foreign teamâ€”Quick Step. Now the countryâ€™s most exciting hope for GC success at the Tourâ€”Brice Feilluâ€”has gone north to Dutch upstarts Vacansoleil. And that French espoir who won the Tour de Lâ€™Avenir and the World U23 Road Race, Romain Sicard? He signed a professional contract with Euskaltel. Euskaltel. Clearly somethingâ€™s wrong when a nationâ€™s best teams canâ€™t even lure its best riders.
Clearly, if thereâ€™s any country in need of 1980â€™s-style Superteam, itâ€™s France. Not a Superteam in the mold of Team Sky or Team HTC-Columbiaâ€”multilingual teams comprised of riders from across globe, backed by sponsors with interests straight out of Thomas Friedmanâ€™s book The World is Flat. No, France needs a team it can support unequivocally, with French stars riding French bikes for a French sponsorâ€”maybe a Supermarket? Yeah, I like the sound of that.
It could happen, non? Maybe Chavanel grows tired of playing 3rd fiddle behind Boonen and Devolder at Quick Step. Maybe the Feillu Brothers begin regret trading wine and foie gras for tulips and Heineken. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone successfully pulling the anti-Van Gogh, leaving France for career success in the Netherlands?
Am I being too hard on myself and the French? Maybe. But are we indeed witnessing the renaissance of French cycling? Unlikely. Instead, the Dark Ages seem destined to linger a bitâ€”at least until someone comes along with the money and wherewithal to do something about it.
So while the world might be getting flatter for some, if youâ€™re a fan of the French, itâ€™s looks to be all uphill from here.