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French failings

Native riders fall short of victory in homeland

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Posted: Monday July 26, 1999 10:10 AM

 

ARPAJON, France (CNN/SI) -- The race took riders through the French countryside and into France's most famous city, but the native riders couldn't bask in the glory of riding through their homeland.

The 1999 Tour de France was a disappointment for French riders, with not a single stage won by a Frenchman. It was only the fourth time since World War II that one didn't finish in the top five overall.

Nothing seems to be diminishing their enthusiasm for the world's top cycling event, but French fans are bewildered at the performance of their riders.

The Champs-Elysees, where Sunday's finale took place, is where hundreds of thousands streamed a year ago to bask in the glow of France's surprising World Cup triumph.

But right now, French sports are going through a rough time.

Last Sunday, French golfer Jean Van de Velde let the British Open slip through his fingers after a disastrous last hole. And the national rugby team is coming off a terrible string of results, including a record test defeat of 54-7 to New Zealand.

Christian Mahe, a 17-year-old student and cycling fan from Arpajon, is one of millions of French teenagers who never saw a Frenchman win the Tour, the quintessential French event.

Proudly wearing a polka dot cap in honor of French rider Richard Virenque, he was among the crowds thronging the start line of Sunday's final stage, from Arpajon to Paris.

"It's a real shame that one of our guys can't win. After all, this is the Tour de France," he said.

"Of course, we'd like a Frenchman to win, but it's not a serious prospect," said Olivier Rodrigues, a builder from Arpajon. "Anyway, I like Armstrong. Didn't he have cancer? It's incredible that he is going to win."

Since the Tour's inception in 1903, French riders have won a record 36 times.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the legendary French duo of Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon dominated the race, notching up seven victories between them.

But the last triumph for a French rider was Hinault's way back in 1985.

"It's a shame for the public that a French rider didn't win a stage. It isn't so good for French morale," tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc told The Associated Press on Sunday.

"Maybe the quality of French cycling isn't up to scratch at the moment. But don't forget [World No. 1 Laurent] Jalabert isn't here," he added.

The French are getting used to the feeling.

An Italian, Marco Pantani, won last time. In 1997 a German, Jan Ullrich, won for the first time, and the year before it was a Dane, Bjarne Riis.

In each of the last four years, the French have had only one top-five rider. This time its best placed was Virenque, in eighth.

French cyclist Thierry Gouvenou points out that this year's race began with 43 Italians, compared to only 39 Frenchmen.

"The Tour is getting more international, so it is logical that we aren't winning," he said.

But the French media was making no excuses: "The French, what a mess!" screamed a headline in sports daily L'Equipe.


 
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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