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Why Can't Frenchmen Win the Tour de France?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

When a French rider last won the bike race named after his country, François Mitterand was in the Elysée Palace, Ronald Reagan had recently been inaugurated for his second term, Saddam Hussein was waging a terrible war on Iran with American support, and a single European currency was barely a gleam in the eye of zealous Eurocrats in Brussels. And yet as Bernard Hinault stood in the Tour de France winner’s yellow jersey on the podium in the Champs-Elysées on July 21, 1985, there were already signs that not all was well for French bike racing—or for France.

On either side of him stood, most ominously, two anglophones, whose very name, along with les anglo-saxons, inflames French insecurity or even paranoia. Sure enough, the year after Hinault’s fourth and last victory, the Tour was won by the man who had been second to him in 1985, when Greg LeMond was the first American winner of the Tour. Third to Hinault was Stephen Roche, and in 1987 he became the first—and to date the last—Irish rider to win the great race. Since then the Tour has been won by Spaniards, Americans, a Dane, a Luxemburger, an Australian, and, last year, for the first time ever, an Englishman. Of course, in too many cases it should be “won*”, and we’ll come back to the asterisk.

Not only is French bike racing in a long eclipse; as even we recovering Francophiles can see, France is in a mess. Mitterand may have been something of a fraud, but he towers over the latest François in the Elysée. Very few people in Corsica from where I write, or anywhere else in France, have a good word for President Hollande. He excites derision among his opponents and only the most tepid enthusiasm among his alleged supporters, his poll ratings have plummeted, and at an important special election just held in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, his Socialist party was knocked out in the first round of voting, to leave a close run-off between the official opposition conservatives and the hard-right National Front.

No one seriously believes that Hollande will deal with the large structural problems of the French economy. There are well-informed commentators who murmur that the whole French banking system is fundamentally insolvent. And the way the French are holding up a trans-Atlantic free trade deal over “cultural exceptions” for French movies can look like grandstanding, moreover of a rather sad kind, given France’s reduced cultural circumstances: Those of us who still weep at the thought of Arletty in Les Enfants du Paradis can’t very well say that Audrey Tautou in Amélie is quite the same.

Although it can be tempting to see sports as a metaphor or mirror for national greatness or decline, that doesn’t always follow. No English (or British) tennis player has won the men’s singles at Wimbledon for 67 years, even if the dramatic departure from the tournament this week of Rafael Nadal, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, and Roger Federer gives an unforeseen boost to Andy Murray’s chances. And yet, while Fred Perry’s title in 1936 was followed by three consecutive American victories, we did manage to win the Battle of Britain in 1940 (and the Americans, as it were, did not). In the five years to 1939, the Tour de France was won by Belgian, French, and Italian riders, and that was no augury of military greatness to come. 

Nor did last year’s victory in the Tour by Bradley Wiggins presage any recovery for the British economy, though it was very popular indeed in England, and helped take our mind off things, following the Queen’s diamond jubilee and preceding the London Olympics. Wiggins opened the Games, before winning one more gold medal, and ended the year as Sir Brad. More surprisingly, he was well-liked in France as well, where his mildly comical shtick—the 1970s guitar, the sideburns (now shaved off)—caught the public imagination.   

He isn’t defending his title this summer, and has hinted heavily that he may never ride in the Tour again. In May, Wiggins had a terrible time in the Giro, the Italian version of the Tour, pulling out after a week with a chest infection although he also seemed to have lost his nerve downhill, in admittedly hideous, almost Arctic conditions, with icy rain and then heavy snow. But he would also have faced a challenge for the Tour from within his own team from Chris Froome. Not that it’s any consolation to the French that one more British rider—albeit Kenyan by birth and South African by upbringing—is the very heavy favorite for this year’s one hundredth running of the Tour, which begins in Porto Vecchio in Corsica on Saturday, when another Englishman—albeit Mark Cavendish from the Isle of Mann—hopes to win the first stage to Bastia. 

When Wiggins won last year, the Equipe hailed him as “M. Propre”, Mr. Clean—and there’s the rub. To write about the Tour at present in terms of historical glories and prospective winners is a little reminiscent of that lame joke, “But how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” This hundredth running of the race takes place in the shadow of what may be the greatest scandal in the history of competitive sport. The chief villain happens to be a Texan who claimed to be a hero but turned out to be a mendacious imposter—not that I’m suggesting another sports-to-politics metaphor, or any comparison between Lance Armstrong and his friend George W. Bush—but he was very far from the only culprit. Even now the ripples spread.

For a generation past there hasn’t been a better loved cyclist in France than Laurent Jalabert, “Ja Ja” to his adoring fans, a former French national road champion and until recently a National team selector, as well as television commentator. He retired from racing at the end of 2002, and when I covered the Tour that year it was very touching to see the painted slogans everywhere wishing him a happy retirement: “Merci Ja Ja—Bonne Retraite.” Now Jalabert has just withdrawn from his jobs after he was accused of having used EPO, the performance-enhancing drug beloved of Armstrong and his team. This is on the basis of a sample taken during the 1998 Tour, at a time when no satisfactory test existed for the drug, but kept frozen in a lab until later when such a test works, just as happened to Armstrong himself. 

When Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, was asked a little sarcastically this week by the Figaro whether it would be another 100 years before a French rider won once more, he replied that two years ago his answer would have been, “Not soon,” but that now he would say, “It’s still a bit early,” and that young riders like Thibaut Pinot offered more cheerful prospects. That’s what I think too, or hope, just as I hope that France can recover form her grave economic, social, and political woes. But in both cases, don’t hold your breath.