Today at the Tour: A sprint, and a celebration of French identity

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French cycling fans had one more reason to celebrate Thursday upon the completion of Stage 18, a field sprint won in Pau by Arnaud Démare of Groupama-FDJ.

After putting Swedish rider Tobias Ludvigsson on the front for much of the flat 171km stage to keep the daylong breakaway in check, Groupama-FDJ came to the front in the final kilometres, with Italian Jacopo Guarnieri delivering Démare into perfect position for the victory. After peeling off, Guarnieri’s hands were in the air before Dèmare had crossed the finish line ahead of compatriot Christophe Laporte (Cofidis).

It was the second Tour stage win for the 26-year-old Démare, who took victory in Vittel last year in the sprint that saw Mark Cavendish crash heavily and Peter Sagan disqualified. Yes, in both instances the sprint field was, shall we say, diminished. But it’s still a sprint stage win at the Tour de France for a French sprinter. The last French sprinter to take two Tour de France sprint wins was Jean-Patrick Nazon, in 2003 and 2004.

Démare’s win was also the third by a French rider at this Tour, coming off Julian Alaphilippe’s pair of stage wins in the mountains. This time, it was a French rider winning for a French team, a first at this Tour. It was also a promising result ahead of Sunday’s field sprint in Paris on the Champs-Élysées.

“It’s monstrous, they all did the job, there was the sense of sacrifice, of the collective, of the jersey, of the team,” said Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot, a two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. “This team has an identity, a pride, and a self-esteem. We will continue with this momentum.”

Alaphilippe was also onstage during the podium presentation, awarded the KOM jersey for the ninth consecutive day. Barring disaster, the Quick-Step rider will wear the polka dots in Paris, slotting in nicely to replace compatriot Warren Barguil, who won two stages last year en route to taking the prize but has not been at the same level in this Tour.

There was a third Frenchman on stage during the podium presentation — Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale), who has been leading the best young rider’s competition since Stage 10 and holds a healthy 6:27 lead over compatriot Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert). A two-time national time trial champion and a stage winner in the mountains at the 2016 Vuelta a España, Latour, 24, is quickly becoming a star in the eyes of the French public.

Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale) has been leading the best young rider’s competition since Stage 10 and holds a 6:27 lead over compatriot Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).

Friday’s Stage 19 goes over three big climbs in the Pyrenees, but it looks fairly certain a French rider will be wearing white, as well as polka dots, on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday.

Démare’s victory came as a bit of consolation for French fans after Romain Bardet’s disappointing ride on the Col du Portet Wednesday, where the Ag2r leader lost nearly two minutes from his GC rivals and slipped from fifth to eighth overall — a major disappointment for the rider who finished on the podium the last two years and had hoped to challenge for the maillot jaune.

“It was a terrible day where my legs just did not respond,” Bardet said about Stage 17. “It’s unfortunate, but sometimes that’s how it is. This is sport, and you have to accept it. It did my maximum, but I was just the victim of terrible legs at the end. I actually had good legs through most of the stage, but on the last climb, I just could only climb at my pace. And that was really not good. I couldn’t accelerate anymore.”

The French, of course, have a complicated relationship with their national Tour. A French rider hasn’t won since Bernard Hinault in 1985, and for much of the last 30 years, French teams had been relegated to stage wins, an afterthought at their own event, an endless source of frustration and embarrassment for a proud host nation.

For context: In the 28 years between 1957, the year of Jacques Anquetil’s first Tour victory, and 1985, Hinault’s last victory, a French rider won the Tour 14 times. Since then, it’s been a 32-year drought.

Things began to turn around at the 2014 Tour, however, when both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador were forced to abandon with injuries, opening the door for Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot to finish second and third, respectively, behind winner Vincenzo Nibali. Pinot was the Tour’s best young rider that year as well.

Bardet’s second-place finish in 2016 followed, as well as France’s five stage wins last year with Démare, Lilian Calmejane, Bardet, and Barguil all taking victories.

France may not match that total in 2018, but three wins in 18 stages is better than every other nation except for Colombia and Slovakia, which each also have three. And that total was nearly four; Latour finished second to Dan Martin atop Mûr de Bretagne on Stage 6.

Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) has won two stages in the mountains and worn the KOM jersey for nine days; he’s also captured the attention of the French public.

In fact, Démare’s stage win in Pau came at the expense of another Frenchman, Laporte, who desperately wanted to break his Cofidis team’s 10-year drought of stage wins. Démare’s sprint deviated enough for Laporte to complain, but not enough for the race jury to change the result.

“I didn’t fight in the mountains for nothing,” Démare said. “It’s a fantastic reward. In every difficult moment, I only believed in winning a stage. It might sound strange after the hard time I had uphill yesterday, but I’ve got good legs. Before the Tour, I’ve worked hard on my weak point, which is climbing. Several sprinters aren’t here anymore, but I never gave up. The support I got from my team, my family, my wife and the spectators tremendously helped me. I kept faith in my ability to win a stage. My Tour is a successful one now. “

This year’s race has also been marked by the bittersweet three-week long “au revoir” by Sylvain Chavanel, who is retiring after 19 years in the professional peloton. Thursday’s stage marked his 365th day spent racing at the Tour, a full year of his 39 years on earth spent on the roads of France in July.

Chavanel was the last Cofidis rider to win a Tour stage, his first, in 2008 — one day before the final time trial that clinched the overall win for Carlos Sastre. On the transition stage from Roanne to Montluçon, Chavanel out-sprinted compatriot and breakaway companion Jérémy Roy for the victory. He would go on to win two more stages in 2010, riding with the Belgian Quick-Step team, each bringing the maillot jaune for one day. France took six stage wins that year via Chavanel, Sandy Casar, Christophe Riblon, Thomas Voeckler, and Pierrick Fedrigo. Chavanel’s retirement will mark the last of that group of riders to retire. In 2018, it’s all about riders still in their twenties, names like Bardet, Pinot, Demaré, Laporte, Alaphilippe, and Latour.

There will be no French winner again this year, but the French will once again have reason to celebrate on the Champs-Élysées. And coming two weeks after France won the World Cup, an affable crowd-pleaser like Alaphilippe and a rider for the future like Latour might just be enough. Another win from Démare would be icing on the cake — glaçage on the gâteau.

“I’ve never been supported by the crowd as much as these days with the polka-dot jersey,” Alaphilippe said on Wednesday. “To bring it to Paris would be an enormous pride.”

Pride. There’s that word again. Identity. Pride. Self-esteem. At the moment, it seems as though all of French cycling will continue with this momentum.

French fans lined the course on Stage 18 from Trie-sur-Baïse to Pau.

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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