Tour Hopefuls: Vive France!
– By Gordon Cameron –
If you’re French, it’s the Tour, and only the Tour, that matters……………
If a team doesn’t get one of those precious Tour de France invites from Jean-Marie Leblanc, it can sink without trace, a fate that looks like befalling BigMat-Auber 93, who’ve announced that their main sponsor is quitting after failing to get in this season. When news broke that they hadn’t made it, director Stйphane Javalet said: “There is a big chance now that this will mean the end of BigMat.” The message couldn’t be clearer…for the French teams, it’s the only race that counts.
Only one French outfit, Cofidis, made the Tour on merit this year, and is likely to start with just a couple of Frenchmen. Bonjour, Ag2r, Credit Agricole and FDJeux.com had to rely on wildcards. Jean Delatour only got in after the Societe du Tour renounced Saeco’s invite after a drug scandal. This ‘favouritism’ always rankles with the guys who miss out, and Coast must be pretty upset, sitting 4th in the standings, having to watch teams ranked way below them take the start in Luxembourg.
So, what can these teams hope to achieve at the Tour? Survival as a squad for next season is one aim, because all those precious hours in front of the camera mean a lot of valuable publicity which you don’t normally get for your money, doubly so if the guy wearing the lycra is French. This in turn offers a better chance that sponsors will continue, or a new one will be found.
On the sporting side of things, it’s a good bet that Credit Agricole will be the most visible French outfit. Christophe Moreau will aim for yellow, and Stuart O’Grady is still Erik Zabel’s main challenger for the green jersey, meaning we’ll see a lot of CA jerseys up front for the sprints, and with guys like Hushovd, Vaughters and Voigt capable of stage wins, they should be in the thick of things for the whole 3 weeks, making for a satisfied sponsor. If they can win the Team TT again, it might be the only time a Frenchman gets on the podium.
From the perspective of French riders’ success, do the others deserve to be there at all? They do have their merits, and Bonjour could be the leading lights. Like CA, they had a good Tour in 2001. Didier Rous, still consistent after a long (occasionally chequered) career, is a fair chance for another stage win. Damien Nazon could get up there in the sprints. But the new star could be Sylvain Chavanel. His climbing is sound, shown when he took the Trophee des Grimpeurs in May, but a solid victory at the Four Days of Dunkirk is proof of a more consistent ability and strength.
FDJeux.com’s best French hopes are Sandy Casar, who shot to prominence at Paris-Nice, where he overhauled Jalabert for 2nd, and Jimmy Casper, the punchy sprinter. Casar is only 23 and has the guts and verve to try his hand in an attack, and if he does a bit of swashbuckling, the home fans will love him for it. Casper may have enough strong men around him to have a shot at the likes of Steels, Zabel and Svorada. No-one should write off Jacky Durand, cycling’s own lone ranger. If a stage needs livening up, ‘Dudu’ is the man to look for. And he can still win, as he did at the Dauphine last month.
Jean Delatour will rely on their older riders Brochard and Seigneur, whilst Patrice Halgand has a number of good wins to his name and may put the sponsors name on show in the hillier stages.
Cofidis will be going with Millar and Kivilev overall, but David Moncoutie has shown more consistency to go with his undoubted ability, with good results in 2002. He can climb, and has a bit of the flamboyant about him. Keep an eye on him, and former Maillot Jaune, Cedric Vasseur, who has a point to prove to USPS .
From a French point of view, Ag2r look the weakest of the weak. Agnolutto scored a stage win before, but they will rely on Kirsipuu’s foreign talent.
Whilst the old favourites like Virenque and Jalabert will be prominent on foreign teams, at least there’s a few home riders who could help the French teams shine. And hopefully, they’ll come back stronger and intact in 2003.