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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT
What happened to the French?
Richard Virenque makes a point
Who will emulate Virenque's triumphs in coming years
The nation that invented cycle racing are suffering - BBC Sport Online's Chris Russell says French riders are enduring problems all too familiar to English sports followers.

Trying to explain the French fascination with the Tour to the average British sports fan can be hard.

But think of it this way: The English have cricket's Test matches to help them through the occasionally long, hot days of summer.

The French, with rather more reliable weather, will never understand bat and ball. They have the Tour, a similarly engaging marathon event with periods of relative inaction punctuated by moments of high drama.

Listening to French radio commentary of the Tour can be a bit like tuning into a Gallic version of the BBC's Test Match Special.

They're talking about Richard Virenque's haircut
  Translation of 'in-depth' French radio coverage

I am able to follow what I would describe as "cycling French" with its talk of pelotons, attacking and punctures, but can be pretty sure the conversation has wandered away when I lose track.

While speeding down the Autoroute to rendez-vous with the Tour, I once asked a companion whose French was far better than mine to translate.

"They're talking about Richard Virenque's haircut," was the reply. And this on a major mountain day in the Alps.

"What now?" I asked. "How things were much better in their day," was the answer.

So here was France's answer to Fred Trueman complaining about the lack of commitment and technique from his nation's current professionals. Plus ca change, as they rarely say at Lord's.

And therein lies another comparison with the English and cricket. France has not had a home win in the Tour for 15 long years, by far the longest period in the event's history.

  French facts and fiction?
Last home Tour winner: Bernard Hinault in 1985
Last stage winner: Jacky Durand in 1998
Complaints of cycling at two speeds
Anti-doping health checks are more vigorous than other nations
French teams are filled with imports

Just as Test Match Special's commentators get most excited by the skills of Brian Lara and Shane Warne, it is Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong who have sent the Tour's microphone men into recent frenzy.

Last year the French did not even win a stage, and in 1998 there was only one triumph. Despite having football's world champions, the national sport is in the doldrums.

Virenque, who has now sensibly refrained from bleaching his dark locks, was runner-up in 1997 but his world fell apart in the infamous Festina controversy of 1998, when he was thrown off the race in disgrace.
Laurent Jalabert
Tricolour talent: Jalabert in national colours

For many he remains a hero, but only he and fellow thirtysomething Laurent Jalabert have competed at the highest level in recent years.

And Jalabert, world no 1 for most of the past year, boycotted his home country throughout 1999 following the drug busts and severe attitude of the French police and cycling authorities.

Cyclisme a deux vitesses - cycling at two speeds - has been a frequent topic of conversation recently.

The theory suggests that French cycling has cleaned up its act while others have not been so ruthless in weeding out the drug cheats.
Beranrd Hinault in French national colours
Bernard Hinault: Last French winner of the Tour

It explains the campaign against Armstrong's efforts last year, when sports daily L'Equipe's headline said he was Sur un autre planete, like his American namesake Neal had been during the moon landing 30 years previously.

The 1999 Tour winner and cancer survivor is probably the least likely rider in the peloton to risk illegal substances.

The proposed test for the drug EPO would have provided the level playing field the French crave, but has been put on hold until at least after the Tour.

And anyway, most suspect that this development alone will not provide a resurgence in French cycling.

Import policy

Like English football, French cycling teams now rely on a number of imports rather than young Frenchmen.

Credit Agricole riders are more likely to be English-speakers, Cofidis' team leader is a Belgian while both the La Francaise des Jeux (FDJ) and AG2R teams have a number of eastern Europeans on board.

So considering the age of Virenque and Jalabert, who are the potential French stars of this Tour?

Former national champion Francois Simon, a former stage winner, and Jean-Cyril Robin, who finished sixth in the 1998 Tour are the stars of the second division Bonjour team.
Steohane Heulot of Francaise des Jeux
Stephane Heulot: Former national champion and yellow jersey-holder

At least they are in the race, unlike France's second best-ranked rider at the moment, Laurent Brochard, who failed to get an invite.

Chrisophe Moreau is a competent if unspectacular time-triallist, while Stephane Heulot has had his moments and led the Tour in the past.

But all are from a generation which has failed to succeed at the highest level, and the best young hopes are David Moncoutie, a climber with Cofidis and stocky sprinter Jimmy Casper at FDJ.

However both have been the subject of much criticism about their attitude in recent months. It is said that Casper does not train enough while Moncoutie is technically deficient and fails to possess a killer attitude.

And if that sounds like the familiar English cricket fans' complaint, then are you surprised?

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Tour 2000: Web links
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