STATE OF THE NATION: FRANCE
The latest in our series on international cycling culture looks at France, the cradle of road racing
France invented the modern sport and have won more Tour titles than any other country. Yet their last yellow jersey triumph was 36 years ago, and cycling struggles to capture the attention of young fans. Procycling looks at how French cycling has thrived in the past and how it has recently embraced modern methods
Adate plagues French cycling and will keep haunting it until a saviour comes along: 1985. The last victory by a Frenchman in the Tour de France, that of Bernard Hinault. Three Frenchmen have become world champions since – including current champion Julian Alaphilippe. France has still taken a grand tour victory since then – Laurent Jalabert in the 1995 Vuelta. And France has achieved several podium finishes in the Tour itself through Laurent Fignon, Richard Virenque, Jean-Christophe Péraud, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. Regardless of all that, 1985 remains to French cycling what 1966 is to English football: the end of an era and the start of a decline fuelled by the growing globalisation of the sport.
While Britain can claim to have invented most modern sports, France takes pride in believing it invented cycling or at least turned it into a professional sport with its codes and traditions. More importantly, it created the Tour and as such will remain the keeper of the flame in world cycling, the same as England might lack tennis number ones but still has Wimbledon. That is what makes 1985 such a painful date. France cannot afford to wait for a Frenchman to win the Tour as long as Britain waited for Andy Murray to take the baton off Fred Perry. A Tour win is essential to the success of French cycling. Or is it?
“It is definitely a burden not to have won the Tour for so long even though other countries like Belgium have not won a grand tour for ages either,” ex-pro turned national selector Thomas Voeckler told Procycling. “You need role models and maybe if a Frenchman had won the Tour it could have created vocations and helped France lose a kind of inferiority complex.”
Take Julian Alaphilippe. He is one of the most exciting talents gracing the current WorldTour. His swashbuckling style, his cheerful demeanour and evident joy in racing made him extremely popular with cycling fans the world over. But in France, is he really a household name? Who really knew apart from the fans that he had won Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche in 2019? Who really cared about ‘Loulou’ becoming world champion in 2020? The only thing that made him really famous outside cycling circles was holding the yellow jersey for two weeks in the 2019 Tour de France.
A BLESSING AND A CURSE
The Tour is both a benediction and a curse for French cycling; even more so now that the sport is far from being as popular as it was. Before World War Two, cycling was the most successful sport in the country, to the extent that we called the bicycle ‘la petite reine’ - the little queen. Tour winners like Antonin Magne, André Leducq and Henri Pélissier were superstars. Cycling has been in constant decline since, in spite of the careers of Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thévenet, Laurent Fignon and Hinault. By the time the Badger won his last Tour, France had won Euro 84 at home and was on its way to becoming one of the leading forces in world football. In 1983, Yannick Noah won the French Open while Alain Prost dominated Formula One. These were all urban sports and the downfall of cycling in France coincided closely with the inexorable disappearance of rural France.
Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit, who started his career with JeanRené Bernaudeau’s amateur outfit VendéeU before turning into a globe-trotting team manager, has seen it all happen.
“For the last 30 or 40 years, lots of new sports emerged that you can do without going to a club, just around the corner or in your backyard, like basketball. A sport like cycling is expensive for a kid and dangerous, there are more and more accidents. As a result, the base of the pyramid in France has shrunk sharply even if federal authorities pretend otherwise,” he said.
And the trend continues. Cycling in the land of the Tour de France is often seen as old fashioned, almost obsolete. The Tour goes on and on endlessly for the whole of July and is a good excuse for a little nap in front of TV, when sport in the age of Twitter tends to favour shorter, sharper formats. Unlike in Britain, very few wealthy 40-something bank traders in search of authenticity would buy a bike for 10 grand and go riding in the hills. French yuppies opt for yachting instead and buy ships to go sailing in Brittany or the Mediterranean.
There has definitely been a change of generations in the Noughties and Hinault had a lot more in common with Bobet than he has with current pros like Bardet or even Pinot. French riders these days are more educated than the cycling heroes of the past, who were farm hands like Raymond Poulidor or workers from the Parisian suburbs like most of the pre-war legends. But even the most prominent of them in the WorldTour today are small-town boys. Bardet comes from Brioude and the Aubrac region, famous for its beef; Pinot hails from a remote part of Haute-Saône hard hit by the decay of the timber and coal industries; Alaphilippe is from St Amand-Montrond, population 9,000; while Arnaud Démare lives in the hamlet of Warluis, close to Beauvais, a small prefecture twinned with Maidstone.
It is easier to ride in the countryside than in a big metropolis. But as a result, cycling became as striking a symbol of the growing rift between small towns and big cities in France as in the rest of the world. Riders often belong to the same environment as the ‘gilets jaunes’ who demonstrated for most of 2019 in the country before the covid crisis. Cycling is still the sport of la France profonde, the rural heart of the country, and the Tour de France, which often avoids the larger towns, is also the showcase of a dying world, full of nostalgia for a golden age that probably never existed.
And yet there was a time when cycling in France was an urban sport, before cars took over town centres. Paris was where the UCI had its first HQ and where the Tour was born; its suburbs were where bicycles were manufactured while clubs like VC Levallois or AC Boulogne-Billancourt attracted the best riders in the world.
“The problem is that all the great Paris clubs are gone and that the great Parisian races that made the wealth of amateur racing in France are gone with them,” said Mauduit. “After the Festina scandal in 1998, the French federation installed major clubs in the provinces to fight the mafias and older riders who were tarnishing the sport and were often Paris-based, but at the same time they destroyed top-flight clubs like Levallois or ACBB who had a long heritage and attracted foreign youths from Britain or Australia because they
had a real culture for the classics. They disappeared within a few seasons and now the Aussies don’t need to come to France to become pros. They can do it at home.”
The problem for French cycling was and still is an inability to reinvent itself in an era when the sport has become more global and in which French, no longer the official language, only survives in the technical or colloquial lexicon of echelons and domestiques – French words that, oddly enough, the French peloton does not use.
1998 was the other date to have a major impact on French cycling. The Festina scandal vastly reshuffled the teams, their organisation and the whole mindset of cycling pros, with some taken to the police station during the investigation that followed. Team managers like Marc Madiot, Roger Legeay or Vincent Lavenu had to realise that the world of impunity had changed. While it is very likely that the endemic culture of doping within the peloton decreased sharply in France at the time, which could in part explain the poor results by French riders in the following decade, Festina was a chance for the sport to start from scratch. And it is questionable whether the opportunity was seized.
THE TOUR’S DOMINANCE
Richard Virenque, the leading culprit in the Festina trial, told this writer that without the discovery of doping products in the boot of soigneur Willy Voet’s car before the 1998 Tour de France, he was absolutely certain he would have won the race. Then the 1985 jinx would have ended, by illegal means, but who would have cared at the time? Virenque gave up his quest for the holy grail of the yellow jersey and instead set his views on the polka dots. Jalabert, who managed to avoid getting caught despite fronting Manolo Saiz’s ONCE which later collapsed in the Puerto scandal, also turned into an unlikely climber, while the KoM classification became a French speciality. For riders like Voeckler or even Bardet, to have won the Tour’s polka-dot jersey almost eclipsed their other victories. Because it was the Tour. Always the Tour.
As the lost generation of French cycling gradually disappeared – think Jalabert, Virenque, Brochard, Philippe Gaumont, Christophe Moreau, Jacky Durand or even anti-doping heroes Gilles Delion and Christophe Bassons – a new one emerged which should have hoped to start with a clean slate. It did happen to some extent. But not entirely. Simply because the men who took over French cycling in the postFestina era were rooted in the traditions and came from the very world that had been suddenly turned upside down. Madiot still runs Groupama-FDJ; Vincent Lavenu, who was in charge of the Casino team of convicted dopers Bo Hamburger, Rodolfo Massi or Alexander Vinokourov, still heads Ag2r-Citroën. Jean-René Bernaudeau launched what is now Total Direct Energie on strong anti-doping foundations 20 years ago, but came from the 1980s as a racer. As for Cofidis, the team was rocked by its own doping scandal and is now managed by a man, Cédric Vasseur, who could not be ignorant of the extent of doping in the teams he rode for in the 1990s (US Postal, Cofidis). While teams from several other countries are still run by men from the EPO generation, they often seem to have embraced the growing globalisation of cycling far less reluctantly than the French. It is the same at club level, as Mauduit points out: “Most clubs are led by elderly pensioners and volunteers. Club presidents are often 70-year-olds which does not help dynamism. When you come up with new ideas, you’re told that things have been working fine for 100 years and there’s no reason to change.”
Since 1985, the rejuvenation of cycling has come from abroad, and mostly from countries with different cycling traditions, like the USA, Australia or Britain. Whatever one may think of the Armstrong era, and even though he was managed by a Belgian, he helped introduce new approaches that changed cycling once and for all. In 1985, there were no buses at races, TT bikes were rudimentary, diets questionable and ‘marginal gains’ only referred to the prize money riders got from off-season criteriums. All those improvements were brought in by teams with a new perspective, because their cycling background was different, from the outdoor, nearly hippie cycling scene of Colorado to mountain-biking or track, as was the case with Team Sky and most Australians. As different types of more market-inclined investors appeared in cycling, the main French teams were and remain family businesses. FDJ is run in the rural Mayenne region by the Madiot brothers with Yvon’s daughter Elisa in charge of the PR while Lavenu, who is based in the Alps, also works with his daughter Magali in the same capacity. Total Direct Energie has become Bernaudeau’s creature entirely. The team HQ is set in a small
703 TOUR DE FRANCE STAGE WINS 1985 remains to French cycling what 1966 is to English football. France takes pride in in believing it invented cycling. More importantly it invented the Tour. That is what makes 1985 such a painful date
manor house in the Vendée town of Les Essarts, which is also home to the team’s amateur structure, Vendée U, created by Bernaudeau in 1991. Such a strong connection with the regions they originate from can also be seen as a blessing for those teams, who are often supported by local authorities. While it might insulate them from outside change, it is also a safety net when the business model of pro cycling is relatively fragile.
Yet Mauduit, who worked as a DS for teams as diverse as Saxo Bank, BahrainMerida and UAE Emirates, warns against stereotypes: “Groupama-FDJ hired me to see how it worked elsewhere but I was very surprised because it’s probably the best organised team I’ve been in next to the Bjarne Riis outfits. It has a traditional French flavour because our top guys and our top staff are French, but I think we had 14 different nationalities in the squad last year and here I’m going to the Volta a Catalunya with a Hungarian, two Swiss, a Spaniard and a staff in which a coach is Finnish and the masseur Australian.”
The only thing preventing French teams competing with the very best, according to most managers, is France’s tax system: “When a French team has 20 million euros on January 1, it goes down to 10 or 12 million by the end of the year because of our tax system, whereas 20 million in Britain or Bahrain is really 20 million,” Mauduit said.
It would still be unfair to state that French cycling has not been open to innovation and progress. But the Festina scandal meant that French outfits failed to attract foreign riders until very recently and those who came did not always fare as well as they did elsewhere. It came as a huge change from the days when France were the gatekeepers of world cycling and when most pro careers started by joining French clubs, as in the cases of Stephen Roche, Paul Sherwen, Bradley Wiggins or more recently Adam Yates. But foreigners have been back in the last couple of years.
By the same token, French riders do not travel much, and those who do tend to obtain better results than when they were riding on home turf. It was the case for Jalabert at ONCE, for Sylvain Chavanel when he left Cofidis for Quick Step, for Warren Barguil at Giant-Alpecin and for Alaphilippe today.
“The fact that there are more teams in France means that they compete for the best French riders, which leads them to be better paid and does not push them to go abroad,” Mauduit said.
Such conservativeness probably affected the results of French prospects as well. The last two winners of the Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar and Egan Bernal, both raised their arms on the Champs-Élysées only two years after winning the Tour de l’Avenir, a race clinched before them in 2016 by Frenchman David Gaudu. Waiting for Gaudu to grow, his team Groupama-FDJ adopted the old-school approach of letting him mature and take his time to peak. But will he? Or did the Colombian 2019 Tour champion and his Slovenian successor reach the top too soon? Time will tell but it does not seem to be on Gaudu’s side for now.
Voeckler admits that the weight of tradition can be misleading: “Those riders who suddenly rose above the rest at a very young age, like Pogacar and Bernal, took us off guard and I was the first to be surprised by the trend. In France, we are a little bit too bent on the preconception that cycling was a sport in which you peaked at a later age. Those youngsters destroyed the codes. While I’m convinced we won’t get Pogacars
69 GIRO D’ITALIA STAGE WINS
and Van der Poels every year, you must accept that the scheme you had in mind for so many years can be flawed.”
In the last Vuelta, Ag2r team director Stéphane Goubert said he had to face remarks by promising all-rounder Clément Champoussin, asking him why the riders with whom he competed on an equal footing at amateur level were already winning WorldTour races while he was kept waiting. Goubert admitted Ag2r might have been over-protective.
The Tour obsession is again partly to blame. Bardet showed with podium places at the Worlds, Strade Bianche and Liège in 2018 that he could be much more than a Tour rider. But he devoted most of his pro career to the unsuccessful pursuit of the yellow jersey. His move to DSM this season is also an attempt to make up for lost time. Pinot has always made it clear that he loves racing in Italy and loathes competing in France. His Tour attempts, with rare exceptions, have ended in disappointment. As for Barguil, he was simply flying when at Sunweb. He never found the same kind of form that earned him the polka-dot jersey and two stage wins in 2017.
Chatting at a dinner during the Quebec Grand Prix two years ago, Ag2r-Citroën manager Lavenu told this writer how Team Sky/Ineos or the Slipstream structure led under various guises by Jonathan Vaughters had changed the perspective and forced mainland European teams to up their game just to stay in contention. And they did.
All is not grim in the French peloton, far from it, even if Tour hopefuls Bardet, Pinot and Barguil will probably never win it while sprinters Démare, Nacer Bouhanni or Bryan
Coquard have had as many downs as ups.
“Generally, French cycling is doing alright compared to Italy for instance. We have a dozen pro teams, the most pro races in the world and teams which might not be at the very top, but it’s a budget problem,” Mauduit said.
“I think the level of French cycling is rather good as winning the Worlds with Alaphilippe indicated. There was a little gap when we were not doing so well and it was during my time actually. But for a number of years now, we can be happy with our performances,” Voeckler said.
While French pros sometimes struggled to leave their comfort zone, the experience of French coaches and team directors made them as much in demand as French managers once were in the Premier League. As Lavenu puts it: “To breed young riders is our DNA.” And France might become a provider of talents abroad, as has been the case for football, providing that they become as bold as coaches and DSs about working abroad.
The importance of the late Nicolas Portal in the Team Sky set-up was immense. Both schooled and discovered by Bernaudeau, Christian Guiberteau – who was directeur sportif at Giant-Alpecin for four seasons – and Mauduit made a name for themselves away from home, as did Yvon Ledanois, once in charge of Movistar and later BMC. They all returned to France precisely because of their foreign experience and openness to new ideas. Guiberteau is now with a far more diverse Cofidis, Mauduit has been named to rejuvenate both the image and the philosophy at Groupama-FDJ while Ledanois works for fast growing outfit Arkéa-Samsic. The latter might be an example to follow. They started as a small unit entirely funded by the Brittany region and are now on the brink of joining the WorldTour with an international lineup led by Colombia’s Nairo Quintana and Barguil. The team managed by former pro Emmanuel Hubert has yet to nurture Tour ambitions. It probably will soon. For better or for worse.
But Mauduit is not convinced the Tour de France is such a curse: “It’s thanks to the Tour that we have 10 pro teams and a pro race nearly every weekend in France. It’s because at the top of the pyramid, you have the Tour. Even if the Tour does not give back a lot, it creates an emulation.
“I’m not even sure that a Frenchman winning the Tour would change much. In 2019, we had two riders, Alaphilippe and Pinot, in the spotlight during the Tour but I’m not convinced there were many more kids joining clubs in the following months.”
But nevertheless, the wait for a Tour winner goes on.