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Lack of home-grown talent won’t dampen French spirits

Nine miles from the finish in Saint-Brieuc, the race went through the little village of Trémuson. As the peloton entered and exited huge banners by the roadside proclaimed: ”Welcome to the land of Sébastian Hinault”.

That sums up the plight of the French: Sébastian shares a name with the nation’s greatest cyclist of recent years, Bernard, five times a Tour de France winner, but little of the Badger’s talent has rubbed off on him. Sébastian isn’t even in the race.

Since the Hinault era ended 23 years ago, French cycling’s record has pretty much mirrored Sébastian’s: worthy endeavour, lots of local pride, relatively little success.

Hinault remains their last winner, in 1985. No Frenchman has made the first three in the Tour since Richard Virenque’s EPO-fuelled second place in 1997 and it is two years since they last placed a cyclist in the top 10 overall.

Even so, nothing, or so it seems, can dim the French population’s view of the Tour. Opinion polls showed a catastrophic drop in interest in cycling after last year’s disastrous race, but also pointed to a steep rise this spring, when French cyclists enjoyed a relatively successful few months’ racing, with a series of victories in their home events at least.

Six hours before the race was due to pass — and in spite of the chilly temperature, steady rain and gusting wind — the Citroëns, Peugeots and Renaults were being parked on the verges in the final kilometres and the picnics were being unpacked as the garden chairs and tables were set up.

On the day’s main hill, Mur de Bretagne, they began arriving shortly after dawn. It is an unchanging picture that goes back more than a century.

That summed up this long Breton weekend, which began last Thursday with the team presentation in Brest and ended this week when the race reached the river Loire.

After last year’s expedition to London and Canterbury — and ahead of a 2009 trip to Monaco — the Tour returned to its roots for the Grand Départ.

The French cyclists responded, in a Sébastian-ish way, with much bravado, rather than by doing anything of which Bernard would have been proud. On Saturday they fielded four men in the day’s eight-man escape and Monday’s échappée was as home-grown as the bubbly cider uncorked on the picnic tables, if not quite as potent or intoxicating.

Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler were the initiators, joined later by Christophe Moreau and David Lelay, the latter a promising local boy from the regional team, Armor Lux, who jumped ship to the slightly more prestigious Agritubel when Armor did not get into the Tour.

Much of Armor’s cash came from a pig-breeder, while Agritubel make the frames that farmers use to restrain cows. Moreau is their leader and their presence at the head of affairs in this most rural of stages was only too appropriate.

Any remaining doubts that French cycling might have lost touch with its agricultural roots were dispelled at the site by the roadside of a white goat painted with large red polka dots in homage to the King of the Mountains jersey. This award has a particular place in French hearts thanks to Virenque’s histrionic efforts to capture the maillot à pois each July; each year sees an ever-more inventive variety of artefacts painted red and white: cars, children, giant syringes.

Voeckler, one of the first cyclists to ”come out” as clean, when he led the race in 2004, is King of the Pimples, while Chavanel and Moreau have their eyes on the jersey in the long term. Although they missed out on the stage win they could all claim to have achieved something.

The race has gone through Calorguen, where Bernard has his dairy farm and Martine Hinault is the mayor, where the home crowd had been hoping it is his magic rather than that of his namesake that prevails. —

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