French cycling is on the cusp of a new era, a renaissance of sorts as VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood so appropriately wrote prior to the start of the 75th edition of Paris-Nice in northern France last week.
“I didn’t think the pack would be split the way it was so early on in the day,” said the 25-year-old Démare, who won last year’s Milan-San Remo classic. “My team and I were lucky to be near the front at the time. I really enjoyed racing today. It’s great to be able to take part in races such as these.”
Démare held on to the lead for three more days before surrendering it to Alaphilippe, who won the Stage 4 individual time trial by 19 seconds over Contador. The 24-year-old 2016 Tour of California victor dropped the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage to eventual race winner Sergio Henao (Team Sky), and instead finished the race fifth overall and atop the points classification in green.
Henao: Winning Paris-Nice is my biggest achievement
It has been 20 years since a Frenchmen last won Paris-Nice. Laurent Jalabert claimed three straight (1995-1997) while riding for Spanish team ONCE. Prior to Laurent Jalabert’s hat-trick, countryman Jean-François Bernard took the win for Banesto in 1992, thus ending a 12-year shutout for France dating back to Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle’s win in 1980, which preceded Ireland’s unprecedented eight-year domination with Stephen Roche (1981) and Sean Kelly (1982-1988).
Now French riders are back on the radar, with both the spring classics and Grand Tour aspirations clearly in sight. Not since Bernard Hinault (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985) and Lauren Fignon (1983-84) dominated in the late 70s to early 80s, have the French celebrated an overall victory at the Tour de France.
Image credit: Eurosport
Since the days of ‘The Badger’ and ‘The Professor,' only a smattering of French riders have made headlines with a stage win here or there. Thomas Voeckler’s fourth-place finish at the 2011 Tour being the most recent opportunity to end the drought.
That was until Jean-Christophe Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) finished second and third behind Vincenzo Nibali in 2014. That same year, Péraud’s AG2R team-mate Romain Bardet finished sixth overall giving the French its best GC placement since the tainted second-place finish of Richard Virenque of Festina in 1997.
While the now-retired Péraud, 39, would go on to win his second straight Critérium International the following year, he was never going to be a long-term solution to stop the bleeding but rather an integral spark with Pinot that the nation desperately needed to turn the ship around.
Jean-Christophe Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) au départ du Tour de France 2015
Image credit: AFP
According to Hood’s Velonews report, following the 1998 Festina scandal the French government imposed a battery of new anti-doping laws, unleashed surprise out-of-competition doping controls, and introduced groundbreaking quarterly health checks that laid the foundation for the biological passport, eventually adopted by the UCI in 2009.
“Those were not easy years,” said AG2R La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu. “We put ethics ahead of results, and we had sponsors who supported that vision. The sport has changed a lot, and that is one reason why we are seeing these new young French riders do so well.”
Funding is another factor.
The French Cycling Federation operates with a reported annual budget of more than $19 million, which it invests substantially in the development of younger riders. In fact, most of today’s French stars have come through the national development system.
Now names like Démare, Alaphilippe, Pinot, Bardet and sprinter Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) are commonplace when compiling pre-race favourites – a newfound position not lost on Bardet.
Tour of Andalucia: Pinot mugs Contador on stage two
“My generation is lucky,” Bardet told VeloNews. “We have the chance to compete now and win. I trust in my competitors and you can see that many younger riders are successful in the peloton today.”
Controversy abounds across the Channel…
While French cycling appears on its way back, its British counterpart – and specifically Team Sky – is spending most of its time lately defending against doping allegations
After one look at the opening team time-trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, one could say the wheels are literally coming off of the most dominant pro cycling franchise in modern history.
Over the past year, Team Sky, has been under the microscope following the discovery of a mysterious package – alleged to contain triamcinolone – delivered to team doctor Richard Freeman at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine and administered to eventual race winner and 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins on the team bus.
While Wiggins claimed he was fully aware that the corticosteroid he obtained a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for in 2011, 2012 and 2013 had performance enhancing properties, he asserted the substance was the best course of treatment for his allergies.
Under the TUEs, Wiggins was permitted to take the substance, which would usually be banned in the course of legitimate medical treatment.
While the entire drama continues to play out daily in the news under the UK Anti-Doping investigation, Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford continually denies wrongdoing despite claiming “mistakes were made” by the team. The troubled team director recently admitted to his own use of the corticosteroid to treat a knee injury in 2008.
Most recently, the Daily Mail reported that at least one Team Sky cyclist was prescribed the sex pill Viagra during a 2010 training camp to see if it would enhance performance.
While Viagra is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list, there have been campaigns in the past to prohibit its use by athletes.
In the wake of all the controversy and both British Cycling and Team Sky’s failure to follow guidelines on recording their athlete’s treatment and medication use, UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl said the governing body must “restore the credibility” of the sport and that funding between UK Sport and British Cycling will be contingent on following a 39-step action plan to improve athlete and staff welfare.
One notable name missing in the social media support of Brailsford initially was three-time Tour champion Chris Froome. However, he finally gave his, limited, support, on Monday noticeably talking about the past work that had been done, not the future.
He said: "With respect to Dave Brailsford, he has created one of the best sports teams in the world. Without Dave B, there is no Team Sky.
"He has supported me throughout the last seven years of my career and I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunities and the experiences I've had."
Great Britain's Christopher Froome (L), wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, and Team Sky director Sir Dave Brailsford (R) drink a glass of champagne
Image credit: AFP
Throughout the latter stages of the maelstrom, Brailsford has remained silent and has not spoken to the media since Team Sky’s training camp in Mallorca in early January. That is until he spoke with both Cyclingnews and Cycling Weekly on Friday at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he once again refuted any wrongdoing and stood steadfast in leadership role with the team.
“I’m fine in myself and I’ve got confidence in my team,” Brailsford told the media. “No. My thoughts are about what’s good for the team and what’s right. We’re just here to win as many races as possible and do it the right way and that’s my primary concern and that’s what I think about.
“I’m disappointed that anything from the past, I’m not saying that there was any wrong doing, but that the current guys within the team get any reflection from something, which has nothing to do with them. I’m very disappointed they have to do that. On the other hand, we’ve got to move forward. Personally, I’m fine.”
Henao to the rescue…
Aside from all the drama swirling around Sky at the moment, recently crowned Colombian national road race champion Sergio Henao served up a ray of light with his two-second win over two-time race winner Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) in the overall standings of the 75th edition of the ‘Race to the Sun’ on Sunday.
Spaniard David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) narrowly defeated Contador at the finish of the eighth and final stage to cost his compatriot valuable bonus seconds needed to overtake Henao, who he trailed by 31 seconds at the start of the day. However, Contador was denied and Henao was able to squeak in 21 seconds off the stage winner in 12th place to secure the yellow jersey.
Team Sky's Henao survives Contador onslaught to win Paris-Nice
In fact, the 29-year-old delivered his team its fifth Paris-Nice win in six years and dedicated the victory to his beleaguered sports director afterwards.
“I’d like to dedicate this victory to the team, the staff, and the mechanics, but especially to Dave Brailsford. He was always there when I needed him.
“He was there when I was injured when I crashed several years ago and my knee was destroyed. He always supported me, and he never gave up on me.”