As the Tour de France reached its climax, two Frenchmen were in contention to win the biggest race in cycling. But it was not to be. Thibaut Pinot’s challenge ended on Friday due to injury, and then Julian Alaphilippe saw his lead fall away. The BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris reflects on 34 years of hurt.
Watching the Tour de France in France is not like watching it from your living-room in London , Liverpool or anywhere else. Because this is not just a race that French people are watching, it’s a moment of cultural communion.
The perfect illustration of this is the presence in the commentary box, next to the two race experts who tell you what’s going on, of a man who knows absolutely nothing about cycling. He’s called Franck Ferrand, and he’s a historian.
As the Tour weaves its progress around the highways and byways of provincial France, and as the helicopter sweeps over the landscape sending back breathtaking views of mountains and rivers and fields, Franck Ferrand tells the French about their own country.
Look, he says, as the peloton moves past a château outside the southern city of Nîmes. This is where Louis XIV put down the rebellion of the Protestant Camisards in 1709.
Up in the Alps on Friday, as they sweated up the Col de l’Iseran mountain pass, we learned about the chain of forts built in the 19th Century when Savoie was still an independent duchy, and how the quaint River Arc is 127.5km in length and runs into the Isère at Chamousset.
It’s all utterly irrelevant, but for the French inextricably part of the experience. Because for them the Tour de France is not just the greatest road race in the world, it’s also a chance to look in at themselves and be very proud.
Only one thing would make them prouder.
And that’s if only, somehow, the gods of the French Republic would let a Frenchman win once again.
The last time was in 1985, which was before most of today’s riders were born.
It was when France’s pre-internet Minitel service seemed to be the last word in telecommunication; when the secret service was blowing up Greenpeace boats in New Zealand; and when the number one hit in France was the ghastly Life is Life, by a group of Austrian mullet-heads known as Opus.
Nothing since Bernard Hinault
There have been lots of stage wins, sure, and a near-miss with Laurent Fignon, who lost by eight seconds in 1989.
But a curse has fallen. It is just not allowed to happen.
Just as Yannick Noah will be for eternity the last French tennis player to win the men’s championship at Roland Garros, so it has been decreed that in the Tour, the French have run their race.
Others, not least those dastardly ultra-professionals under Britain’s Team Ineos, will do the winning.
Oh, but how all of France thought this week that finally the curse had been broken. Between Julian Alaphilippe, the goateed mischief-maker from Montlucon, and Thibaut Pinot, the climber from the Vosges, one was surely on course for victory.
Everyone said it. Even the London bookies. A French victory was really looking like the most likely result. Even if Alaphilippe fell back in the Alps, well hadn’t Pinot shown his brilliance in the Pyrenees?
And the Ineos boys under boss Dave Brailsford seemed to be tactically at odds with each other. The anticipation here in Paris was becoming distinctly pleasurable.
Alas, poor France.
By the end of Friday’s dramatic stage up to Tignes, stopped because of hail on the road a day after a heatwave, the dream was dying.
First, Pinot limped out in tears with a torn thigh muscle.
Then Alaphilippe cracked, and the Brailsford boys – Colombia’s Egan Bernal and Welshman Geraint Thomas – steamed ahead. After Sunday’s largely ceremonial stage, Bernal tops the podium in Paris with Thomas in second place, and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk third.
Ah well. It has been a tremendous Tour.
The excitement has been intense. Right up to the last day, there were still several riders who could win. Just not a Frenchman.
The curse continues.