Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: SWpix.com
As the 104th Giro d’Italia rolls on, deeper into its first week, it does so without a French rider expected to contend for a top three finish.
Only a few years ago, French riders were resurgent, poised for glory, with Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet regularly figuring among the pre-race favourites for a top three finish on the podium in either Paris, Milan or Madrid. The thought of one of them ending the French Grand Tour drought — the last French overall win was through Laurent Jalabert in the 1995 Vuelta — seemed credible.
Not any more.
Pinot is now a disillusioned shell of the rider who sent French fans into a frenzy of expectation in the July of 2019, while Bardet, now sharing Giro leadership at Team DSM with last year’s runner-up, Jai Hindley, seems more vague on his career path than ever before. How much of Bardet’s repositioning is down to the years of pressure leading a French team, now in his past, allied to the aftermath of his frightening concussion in the 2020 Tour, is hard to tell.
Like Pinot a few years ago, Bardet is now looking to the Giro to reboot his career.
“I feel in my element,” he said of racing in Italy, as the Giro began. Yet if that is genuinely his intention, he hardly got off to a flying start. His performance in the opening time trial, over 50 seconds down on stage winner Filippo Ganna in the 8.6 kilometres test, was among the worst, even for a rider whose career is littered with time trial fails.
Bardet’s time trialling has long been an Achilles heel, however, so no big surprises there, but his attitude to Giro reconnaissance seems even more nonchalant. “We decided not to do any reconnaissance, so I am swinging a little in the unknown,” he admitted as the race began in Turin. “I’ve been to the Dolomites a few times, but I don’t know them as well as the Alps or the Pyrenees, that’s obvious.”
In contrast with the Tour, which Bardet described as often “padlocked,” he said that he was “in the mood” for what he described as the “beauty and grandeur” of the Giro. The first real test of just how much Bardet is “in the mood” is likely to come on Tuesday’s stage four, a schizophrenic day that goes from flat and rolling to steep and mountainous in the closing hour or two of racing.
The final climb, Colle Passerino, with sections as steep as 16 per cent, may make Bardet wish he had done some reconnaissance, given how infamously eccentric the Giro’s road book, the Garibaldi, can sometimes be. In reality though, Bardet, like so many others, is hanging on for the final week of the Giro, when the accumulation of brutal and demanding climbs will take their toll.
Yet it feels as if a French Grand Tour win is as distant again as it ever has been, as unlikely even as a British Grand Tour win once was. What has happened to the buoyant French scene then, since Bardet finished second in the 2016 Tour de France?
Firstly, it is unfair to pin it all on these two riders.
Many others too have flattered to deceive, from Thomas Voeckler to Tony Gallopin to Pierre Rolland, and so on. It seems there’s always a long line of French riders willing to be this season’s Christophe Moreau.
This year, it’s likely be either David Gaudu, third in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or Elie Gesbert, fifth overall in the Tours of Valencia and Algarve, who bears the burden of Grand Tour expectations, Julian Alaphilippe having wisely removed himself from Tour de France build-up chatter by talking up his hopes for the Tokyo Olympics.
In Gaudu’s case, his growth in profile has been a long time coming but he is a natural successor to Pinot. It remains to be seen how he will handle the inevitable pressure.
Ask those working in French cycling why, after all the years spent in the wilderness, the nation is now again struggling to find a convincing Grand Tour contender and the responses are not particularly enlightening.
At the beginning of 2020, Pinot’s experienced sports director Philippe Mauduit told me: “After the Festina Affair, all the French teams had an excuse — ‘tout le monde est dope!’ or ‘everyone is doping!’ — and the standard of work went down. They reached the point when they had to stop that mentality and rebuild.”
“Maybe cycling was still not clean but there was another truth too,” he said, “that the French were left behind, they were stuck, blocked, because of Festina. It’s not that the past two, three, four years has seen a huge change, but more that all of that rebuilding work is coming good.”
Twelve months on, however, at the start of 2021 and plagued by back problems, Pinot himself painted a very different picture.
“Cycling still operates at two speeds, I think,” he said in a long interview with French daily L’Equipe.
Explaining his rejection of the use of injections for his back pain, Pinot said: “…you abandon, you play the game, and you do things properly. That’s what gets to me most with all of this. You can get angry with the world, but I’ll stick to my own thing and I’ll finish my career like that.”
“There’s always a new thing that comes along,” he said. “Anyway, I think I’m too anxious, too stressy to mess around with that nonsense. If you told me to take this or that, I wouldn’t sleep at night.” There’s little doubt what the Frenchman was alluding to with those words.
From a distance it looks as if Pinot’s glory days are now over, while Bardet’s lacklustre time trialling continues to play against him in Grand Tours, which, after a few seasons during which the race of truth was almost absent, are now building kilometres against the clock back into their routes.
The last Frenchman to win the maglia rosa was Laurent Fignon, 32 years ago, in the spring of 1989. Once it looked as if Pinot might succeed him, just as it seemed that Bardet was within touching distance of the maillot jaune and possibly, victory in Paris. In another time, maybe they would both have been successful, but whatever the reasons, their chances have gone.
Now, having done no reconnaissance, Bardet is casting his eye around the Giro’s hills and mountains, using the beautifully drawn but somewhat eccentric Garibaldi as his guide. You don’t have to know the Giro very well to know that this may not be the best recipe for success.