If you ask almost anyone in the world to name three things they know about France, they would probably list wine, Paris and the Tour de France. Not only is the Tour the world’s most prestigious bicycle road race, but it is also the country’s sporting pride and joy, and probably the only French sporting event that makes as many headlines as Brigitte Bardot once did.
So, you would think that the French would be very keen on making the race not only a showcase for the country’s marvellous landscape and historic towns and cities, but also for the abilities of its homegrown cyclists. That they would give anything to have one of their riders sipping the winner’s champagne on the slow ride to the Champs-Elysees on the Tour’s final stage.
And, no doubt, they are trying. The problem is that, whatever they are doing, it isn’t working. No Frenchman has won the Tour since 1985, when Bernard Hinault, nicknamed The Badger, beat out his American teammate Greg Lemond. That makes 33 years without a French Tour winner – and that will probably rise to 34 this year, because there doesn’t seem to be a French rider in the race capable of beating Chris Froome or the other Tour favourites.
Not only that, since 2008 only four French cyclists have even worn the Tour’s yellow jersey during the race – and none in the past four years! The big question is why, in a country with more than 120,000 amateur road race cyclists, the results have been so poor. France used to dominate the race and is still the country that has won the largest number of Tours, 36, with Belgium second, with 18. So, what happened to French cycling skills? Is it just that the competition is greater today than it was 35 or 50 years ago? Have French cyclists and trainers not kept up with modern training trends? Or is it something in the water?
Hinault thinks the riders are lazy. In a 2009 interview, he told the Guardian newspaper, “The French don’t train. The only way to [motivate them] would be to block part of their salary and only let them have it if they win. Or hold a knife to their throats.”
I think Hinault was simply expressing his personal frustration. A more reasonable answer is money. The French government does not invest in its cycling teams, and for good reason. It doesn’t have the money, because so much goes into its generous national health insurance and social welfare systems.
The effect of national investment in cycling has been made startlingly clear by the 1997 decision of the UK government to use national lottery funds for its cycling teams, both track and road race. As a result, British riders have won 6 of the last 7 Tours – with Chris Froome a solid favourite to win again this year.
Then there is the uncomfortable issue of doping. No one who witnessed it, either in the courtroom or on television, could forget the tears of French cyclist Richard Virenque when he told a French judge in 2000 that he had taken banned substances. That trial, of 10 people associated with the former Festina team, had a huge impact in France – as did, of course, the revelation that seven-time winner Lance Armstrong had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
It may be that French riders and trainers have become so scrupulous about riding “clean” that they are not even taking advantage of rules that allow cyclists to ride in the Tour using banned medications if they are prescribed by a physician for a specific physical condition, such as asthma.
But we don’t know that. What we do know is that French sports federations, including the cycling federation, are “old-boy” networks, run by insiders closely connected to the Ministry of Sports and slow to adapt to changes in the sporting world. They are by nature very conservative and therefore resistant to ideas and methods with which they are unfamiliar.
A good example comes from another sport, rugby. The French national rugby team used to be one of the best in the world, but it has in the last 10 years become mediocre, with embarrassing losses to teams not nearly as talented and falling well behind its European rivals, Wales, Ireland and England. These three teams are now ranked second, third and fourth in the world because they hired head coaches from New Zealand and Australia, where the best rugby in the world is played. These coaches brought new methods and systems that have upgraded not only the national teams, but also the players themselves.
Therefore, the head of the French rugby federation, Bernard Laporte decided to hire the former Ireland coach, Joe Schmidt of New Zealand. But first he asked all the French amateur rugby clubs if they agreed with the proposal. Nearly 60 percent of those who voted said no. And so a Frenchman will again coach the national team, in this year’s World Cup and the next – which will be held in France.
It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the team’s run of disappointing performances will continue for at least five more years – just as it is likely that no Frenchman will win the Tour de France in the foreseeable future unless France’s approach to its cycling teams and its cyclists changes.