Friday, January 29, 2010

No Renaissance for France?

I’m not too proud to admit that I happen to be wrong from time to time. Case in point: during last season’s Tour de France, I did my best to fly the flag for the home team, proclaiming that the 2010 Grand Tour might be the dawn of a renaissance in French cycling. To me, Brice Feillu’s heroic stage win, AG2R’s days in yellow, and Christophe Le Mevel’s top-10 finish, all were signs that the times may be a-changin’ in a nation long-starved for big-time success.

But following yet another lukewarm off-season for the French, I’m starting to second-guess myself. As we enter into 2010, the French status quo has been maintained—at best—but the situation could soon prove to be much, much worse.

First of all, of the 18 Pro Tour teams, only 2 are French. Sure, Pro Tour status doesn’t quite mean what it once did—even Italy only has 2 squads. And yes, there are still 3 French Professional Continental teams (with Agritubel being replaced by Stéphane Heulot’s Saur-Sojasur outfit). But every year it seems that one French team or another needs some kind of Ave Maria just to keep its title sponsor. One year it’s Cofidis, the next it’s BBox, and so on and so forth. Only la Francaise des Jeux seems to have survived the last decade with nary a hint of sponsor dissatisfaction or pullout—a surprising situation when you consider the lack of big wins for Madiot’s boys.

But it’s not only the title sponsors that seem to be growing weary of supporting French squads. Two French teams now have Italian bike sponsors—Bbox and AG2R. True, it’s not the first time: AG2R’s outsourced for years, and Kuota was Agritubel’s bike supplier for two season’s before providing bikes to AG2R in 2010. A big deal? Perhaps not. But something just doesn’t feel right to me about a French team riding a Colnago.

And sponsors aren’t the only ones leaving France for greener pastures—riders are too. France’s best Classics rider—Sylvain Chavanel— already rides for a foreign team—Quick Step. Now the country’s most exciting hope for GC success at the Tour—Brice Feillu—has gone north to Dutch upstarts Vacansoleil. And that French espoir who won the Tour de L’Avenir and the World U23 Road Race, Romain Sicard? He signed a professional contract with Euskaltel. Euskaltel. Clearly something’s wrong when a nation’s best teams can’t even lure its best riders.

Clearly, if there’s any country in need of 1980’s-style Superteam, it’s France. Not a Superteam in the mold of Team Sky or Team HTC-Columbia—multilingual teams comprised of riders from across globe, backed by sponsors with interests straight out of Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat. No, France needs a team it can support unequivocally, with French stars riding French bikes for a French sponsor—maybe a Supermarket?  Yeah, I like the sound of that.

It could happen, non? Maybe Chavanel grows tired of playing 3rd fiddle behind Boonen and Devolder at Quick Step. Maybe the Feillu Brothers begin regret trading wine and foie gras for tulips and Heineken. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone successfully pulling the anti-Van Gogh, leaving France for career success in the Netherlands?

Am I being too hard on myself and the French? Maybe. But are we indeed witnessing the renaissance of French cycling? Unlikely. Instead, the Dark Ages seem destined to linger a bit—at least until someone comes along with the money and wherewithal to do something about it.

So while the world might be getting flatter for some, if you’re a fan of the French, it’s looks to be all uphill from here.


  1. Sicard signed for Euskatel in part because he is from the Basque region. It's hard to over-estimate just how strong a sense of national identity that region has. They regard themselves primarily as Basques and then perhaps French or Spanish if they are feeling generous.

  2. How about Spain? The most powerful national peloton in cycling and Caisse is about to lose sponsorship, leaving Spain without a team. Hopefully Fernando Alonso can line up his F1 sponsors and pick up Caisse to build a Spanish super squad with Contador as captain.

    The news that Saxobank is pulling out as well highlights the difficulties even for countries where the talent level is higher then it's been in France in this economic climate.

  3. Interesting thoughts. This is part of the myriad of issues facing the pro tour, lately: the exit of main sponsors, emergence of very competitive non-pro tour teams, and the existence of top level races/tours outside the pro tour. Only 2 pro tour teams in France and the same number in Italy, the two predominant cycling countries in the world? Crazy.

    Keep the articles coming. Love the insight and analysis.

  4. awesome writing dude.
    sylvain chavanel for paris-nice!

  5. Great point, Alex. Sicard's Euskaltel speaks more to his Basque heritage than anything else. He certainly can't be blamed. but the fact a French team wasn't able to lure him away says something as well. Thanks for the great comment!

  6. Yes, Mr. Rueda, Spain faces a similar situation. In fact, I'll be addressing in today's soon-to-be-released Monday Musette. At some point, the globalization vs. tradition conversation needs to take place. I'm happy to see more a competitive balance nation-to-nation and team-to-team, but I can't help but feel a bit of a nostalgia for the old days.

  7. Thanks for the compliments Mikey and CH. Chavanel is good pick for sure--I'd love to see him win Het Nieuwsblad.

  8. The renaissance of French cycling will begin when young French people start riding bikes again. For whatever reason, the youth of France seem to have abandoned cycling as a pastime. Most of the riders I see on the roads of France are my age or even older, and I'm way past pro cycling age! Americans abandoned cycling for almost 100 years,and recently we came roaring back. I hope the French will one day return to cycling. Meanwhile the Spanish and the Belgians will dominate the Euro scene.

  9. Great points, Velocodger! It's true that the heart of the matter regards young people riding bikes, much the same way that people wonder about the lower number of American kids playing baseball as opposed to basketball and football.

    Thanks for reading!


Thanks for your comment! We'll take a look and add it to the site shortly.