The year was 1985. There was Live Aid; the Unabomber; Paul Hogan was Australian of the Year; compact discs were launched; this writer was four; the wreck of the Titanic was found, and Bernard Hinault became the last Frenchman to win the Tour de France.
It was the final of his five victories at the Tour, and best remembered for the internal battle raging within the La Vie Claire – Wonder – Radar team between the man known as ‘The Badger’ or Le Blaireau, and American Greg LeMond. The 1985 Tour also brought an end to a rather fabulous quinquennium for French cycling with Laurent Fignon and Hinault the only men to claim GC victory from 1981.
So how is it that in 33 years, the French have not had a reasonable hope of recapturing the maillot jaune? As a die-hard supporter of a rugby league team that hasn’t won a premiership since 1986, I feel the French pain. It’s a long and frustrating road. While there is always next year, nothing beats the anticipation that this might be the year.
The French have won their home grand tour 36 times, with 23 riders. The next best, the Belgians, managing just half those wins. In the years since, the current generation owes much to the efforts of Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel who over two decades kept the fires burning, taking the French fight to the rest of the peloton. 2011, the year Voeckler earns his highest-ever finish at the tour with fourth place, proved to be a turning point. More recently, the focus has been on the efforts of Romain Bardet.
But in 2012, another Frenchman, Thibaut Pinot made his debut, the youngest rider in the race at age 22. Pinot, riding for FDJ – BigMat, claimed victory on Stage 8, soloing to the finish line in Porrentruy after attacking the race leaders from the peloton with less than 80km left to go. On a stage with seven categorised climbs, it was an effort that in part led to Pinot finishing 10th overall and second in the youth classification behind Tejay van Garderen. Most significantly, it was a result that handed Pinot great expectations and confirmed France had a future grand tour contender to cheer for.
While Bardet has been exceptionally solid in his Tour de France performances, breaking into the top 10 in 2014, runner up to Chris Froome in 2016, third a year later and sixth in 2018, his time trial remains his Achilles heel.
Another crucial difference between Bardet and Pinot is unlike his compatriot, Bardet hasn’t shown his hand in the other grand tours. At the same time, perhaps this is the very reason we are yet to see Pinot at the peak of his powers at the Tour de France, and why 2019 is his year.
If the time trial is Bardet’s perpetual hurdle, then high-speed descents loomed as a potential issue for Pinot and his ambitions when he returned to the Tour in 2013. He abandoned the race, unable to maintain the mental fortitude required to stick with his GC rivals in the Pyrenees. A year later, no such trouble, finishing third overall and in the white jersey.
At the Vuelta a España for a second time, Pinot was unable to better his seventh overall finish from the year before. Making his debut at the Giro d’Italia in 2017, Pinot finished fourth overall with a stage win over his climbing rivals in Asiago in an attacking finale. Pinot then attempted the Giro-Tour double, but illness brought an end to his lap of France.
Last season was arguably Pinot’s best yet, despite a WorldTour stage race win remaining elusive. He won the Tour of the Alps, snagged four podium finishes at the Giro before a DNS on the final stage as he fought what would eventually be diagnosed as pneumonia. Before his health faltered, Pinot was in prime position to finish as a runner-up on another grand tour. Ruled out of the Tour de France, Pinot won two stages at the Vuelta, finished top 10 at the world championships in a supporting role, before one-day victories at Milano-Torino and the Italian Monument, Il Lombardia.
This year’s schedule has finally resulted in a Tour de France focus for Pinot. A dominant win at the Tour de l’Ain, the 29-year-old was showing all the right signs at the Critérium du Dauphiné, finishing fifth overall. Bardet, on the other hand, wasn’t as convincing.
There are just three surviving French Tour de France winners, Lucien Aimar (1966), Bernard Thévenet (1975, 1977) and Hinault (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985) and while you would never want to be known as “the last,” the weight of expectation that comes with being “the next” can’t be any more comfortable.
While the detractors will focus on who wasn’t at this year’s Tour de France come July 28, you can bet if there’s a man named Pinot standing on top of the podium on the Champs-Élysées, it will be more of a case of c’est la vie.
You’ve got to be in it to win it, and Pinot is the man to do it.