No Renaissance for France?

I’m not too proud to admit that I happen to be wrong from time to time. Case in point: during last season’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 Feillu’s heroic stage win, AG2R’s days in yellow, and Christophe Le Mevel’s top-10 finish, all were signs that the times may be a-changin’ in a nation long-starved for big-time success.

But following yet another lukewarm off-season for the French, I’m starting to second-guess myself. As we enter into 2010, the French status quo has been maintained—at best—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 doesn’t quite mean what it once did—even Italy only has 2 squads. And yes, there are still 3 French Professional Continental teams (with Agritubel being replaced by Stéphane Heulot’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 it’s Cofidis, the next it’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 pullout—a surprising situation when you consider the lack of big wins for Madiot’s boys.

But it’s not only the title sponsors that seem to be growing weary of supporting French squads. Two French teams now have Italian bike sponsors—Bbox and AG2R. True, it’s not the first time: AG2R’s outsourced for years, and Kuota was Agritubel’s bike supplier for two season’s before providing bikes to AG2R in 2010. A big deal? Perhaps not. But something just doesn’t feel right to me about a French team riding a Colnago.

And sponsors aren’t the only ones leaving France for greener pastures—riders are too. France’s best Classics rider—Sylvain Chavanel— already rides for a foreign team—Quick Step. Now the country’s most exciting hope for GC success at the Tour—Brice Feillu—has gone north to Dutch upstarts Vacansoleil. And that French espoir who won the Tour de L’Avenir and the World U23 Road Race, Romain Sicard? He signed a professional contract with Euskaltel. Euskaltel. Clearly something’s wrong when a nation’s best teams can’t even lure its best riders.

Clearly, if there’s any country in need of 1980’s-style Superteam, it’s France. Not a Superteam in the mold of Team Sky or Team HTC-Columbia—multilingual teams comprised of riders from across globe, backed by sponsors with interests straight out of Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. No, France needs a team it can support unequivocally, with French stars riding French bikes for a French sponsor—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 bit—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 you’re a fan of the French, it’s looks to be all uphill from here.

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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