Vive la Belle France! With its beautiful mountains, sunflowers, history, many revolutions, and deep history of bicycle racing, Tour de France is the best showcase of the fortunes of the country of France, its people, and perhaps its riders and teams. How will French riders and French teams fare in their home Tour? They may not have a GC threat just yet, but in recent years they have won other leader jerseys, such as Europcar’sAnthony Charteau‘s polka dot jersey win last year (taken notably off the shoulders of another Frenchman Jérôme Pineau of Quick-Step. No longer do we view French riders in breakaways as mere means of getting media attention, as last year’s TdF saw 5 stage wins by French riders. Furthermore, there is finally an entire generation of French riders who still chose to pursue cycling despite the Festina Scandal. They seem to carry with them a fresh outlook on riding, and perhaps also on winning. Take it from us – The French shall rise again.
This year’s parcours – which has 10 flat stages, 6 mountains (with 4 summit finishes), 3 breakaway stages, and two TT stages – has plenty of opportunities for the French to win stages or perhaps even the King Of The Mountains jersey again. In particular, Stage 14 is an escape artist’s dream: plenty of points to earn and the GC contenders are likely to be watching each other. Look to Charteau to try and repeat his feat again, as his climbing is better suited to the Pyrenees than to the Alps. It is certain that Charteau will not be the only one to harbor polka dot dreams. Other contenders such as Pineau of QSI or even Sylvain Chavanel of Quick-Step, might be looking for a revenge on Stage 18 with a mountain top finish on the Galibier. With two HC climbs before the final rise, the GC contenders are likely to play it safe and give escapees some leash.
As far as stage-hunting goes, the French contingent has no shortage of contenders. Sylvain Chavanel won the national champion’s jersey last weekend in very convincing fashion, showing that he is firing on all cylinders after following last year’s build-up through the Tour de Suisse. Last year saw him net two stage wins, and a spell in multiple leaders jerseys. He may not repeat the latter, but nobody will bet against a stage win or even two. The Quick-Step team banks everything on either sprint wins by struggling star Tom Boonen, stage wins by Chavanel, or perhaps even the KOM jersey.
Stage 17 to Pinerolo seems tailor-made for FDJ’s Sandy Casar to add to his tally of three career Tour de France stage wins. With his squad deprived of Pierrick Fedrigo, Casar is their best bet especially given that other riders such as Steve Chainel and Yoann Offredo have poor records in stage racing.
Given all the escape opportunities, my bet is on Europcar to shine. They may have come up empty-handed in last weekend’s national championships, but their esprit de corps is shining and eternally youthful leader Thomas Voeckler is hopeful for a good result.
Sadly, not all teams are on their top form for the TdF. Ag2r may have had a great tour last year, but this year the best they can field is an injured Nicolas Roche and an uncertain John Gadret. Gadret impressed with a stage win and 4th overall at the Giro d’Italia, but a repeat performance at the Tour might be too much to ask. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that manager Vincent Lavenu may have to do a lot of shuttle diplomacy between his two stars.
Team Cofidis seems to also be down on their fortunes a bit. David Moncoutie has struggled with form for a while now, but relative youngster Julien El Fares is getting used to winning.
Is Saur-Sojasun worth mentioning? Fielding no credible leaders, the best they can hope for is TV time.
Of note are the French expatriates in foreign teams. It’s been a while since Astana’s Remy DiGregorio declared himself the successor to Richard Virenque, but this year he may actually deliver, perhaps following on his stage win in Paris-Nice.
Men of the hour: Sylvain Chavanel, Sandy Casar, Antony Charteau.
On the Hot Seat: Europcar, FdJ. Nicolas Roche v. John Gadret.
Up and Comers: Remy DiGregorio, Julien el Fares.