• Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) takes a drink to combat the unseasonably warm weather during this year's Tour de France (Getty Images) (AFP)Source: AFP
Rob Arnold weighs in on why the home nation are not performing as well as expected in this year's Tour de France.
By
Rob Arnold

17 Jul 2015 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2015 - 10:16 PM

The brief came through in two words: “The French”. And my response was simple: “Why they’re crap compared to last year?”

“Exactly.”

It’s not only the French who are different riders at this year’s Tour compared with last year. There’s that other guy, Nibali. Last year the Astana rider was untouchable, this year the road goes up, he drops out. So let’s consider the main thing that’s different in 2015, and again just two words will do the job: The Heat.

As stage 12 worked its way from the Portet d’Aspet and onward to the Col de la Core we saw a group of 22 on the attack, over five minutes ahead of the peloton. Half were French, including last year’s sixth-place finisher, Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale).

In the stage before this, Bardet was in a right state. He wobbled over the road and waited for the doctor on a climb. Only a month earlier, he was flying on the roads of the Criterium du Dauphiné, beating Froome, Nibali et al to the top of Pra Loup. It was warm back then, but it was hot yesterday.

“Heat stroke,” Bardet’s sister, Lisa told me while Stage 12 was unfolding. She works in the service presse for the Tour and is Romain’s unofficial spokeswoman; at least she offers updates on his condition for me upon arrival in the press room.

What did he want from the doctors? “He didn’t know,” Lisa answered, “but he was so hot he found it difficult to eat.”

If you don’t eat when trying to race a stage of the Tour in the Pyrenees, you’re in trouble. Bardet was in trouble! He would finish 30th, over 15 minutes behind Rafael Majka. “But today he’s okay.”

Even the best of them have bad days. And to suggest the French are “crap” is to simplify it a bit. This year's Tour is a contrast to the start of last year’s race for many reasons. Until the first rest day in 2014, it was cool or cold. This year the Tour began in a heatwave and, save for a couple of days of mild temperatures in Brittany, it’s been hot or hotter.

“They just don’t have the legs,” said Cyril Guimard, the legenary DS from yesteryear on RMC radio’s post-stage commentary yesterday. The question was like the one issued for this piece? What’s going on with the French.

It’s not just Bardet either. When the road went up in Stage 10, the first in the Pyrenees, we saw Bardet, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), then Jean-Christophe Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) all drop from the yellow jersey peloton: sixth, third and second overall in 2014. (Closer to the top, first would also falter.)

Péraud didn’t search for excuses, he told it how he felt it: “I’m not at the level I hoped for,” he said at Cauteret the day before. “The first week went well, but as soon as we’re in the mountain, I can’t follow the best. The heat plays a role but it’s not only that. The legs matter too. No legs plus the heat, it’s difficult.” Oui, c’est vrai.

Pinot also searched for answers, along with the adoring French media that had him touted as a candidate for the podium (again) this year.

“I used the little strength I had left to try and go into the break,” Pinot said after Stage 11 which began fast and got faster until, after two rapid hours of racing, the selection up front was made.

“I was in the attempt before the break. But when I see how it went later in the day, I have no regrets. I didn’t have legs again today.

“We try to understand why it doesn’t work, why I can’t reach my normal level. I’m far from my best and I don’t manage to raise the tempo. I try to understand it, but I can’t. We’re going to have blood tests to see it something’s wrong. If I didn’t believe I still have chances, I wouldn’t be here.”

He’s not in the break. He can be hot and cold: good in 2012, bad in 2013, excellent in 2014…the story continues.

For years now my sentiment as we approach the Tour de France has been the same: the best thing for the race in global terms would be for there to be a French champion. It’s been 30 years since Bernard Hinault won the title and although there was some promise in 2014, it’s been snuffed out by scorching conditions.

They might not be destined for the podium this year but they’re not complaining about it being summer, just recognising the fact that it’s hot and their bodies aren’t responding as well as they did when it was cooler.

We wait to see what comes of the second half of the Tour but it looks like it’s back to the usual drill for the French; instead of chasing the overall win, it’s back to hunting stage wins. On y va…!