Ou est le nouveau Hinault?
French frustrated in hunt for new Tour championPosted: Wednesday July 23, 2003 8:55 AM
BAYONNE, France (Reuters) -- The French would have loved nothing better this year than a home winner to celebrate the centenary of the Tour de France.
Unfortunately for them, it has now been 18 years since Bernard Hinault was crowned for the fifth time, and no French rider appears ready to end the drought.
So where is the new Hinault?
"He does not exist, it's as simple as that," said Cyrille Guimard, the man who discovered and trained the last two French winners, Hinault and Laurent Fignon.
"Or in any case, he is not among the 39 French riders at the start of this Tour," added Guimard, who also looked after Lance Armstrong shortly before the American was affected by a near-fatal cancer.
With five days left before the end of the race on the Champs-Elysees, the leading Frenchman is eighth, while the three best-placed riders from the host country are veterans.
Christophe Moreau, fourth in 2000, trails race leader Armstrong by more than 11 minutes and while the 32-year-old Credit Agricole team leader is a good climber and time trialist, he is a class below the Texan and German Jan Ullrich.
The second Frenchman to have made an impression in this Tour is Richard Virenque, who won his sixth King of the Mountains jersey, equalling a record held by Spain's Federico Bahamontes and Belgian Lucien van Impe.
Winner of the first mountain stage in Morzine, Virenque briefly held the leader's yellow jersey, a feat he achieved 11 years before in his first Tour.
Fourteenth overall, 22 minutes behind Armstrong, Virenque is also a member of the generation expected to retire in the next couple of seasons.
French champion Didier Rous, in 17th place, Stephane Goubert and former world champion Laurent Brochard, 29th and 32nd respectively, are all well into their thirties.
Ironically, the five French riders who fared well in this Tour all belonged to the Festina team which was kicked out of the Tour on doping grounds in 1998.
"Only the riders from the older generation did what they had to do," said Guimard. "Behind them, it's a deserted landscape, unfortunately."
Sylvain Chavanel, Sandy Casar and David Moncoutie were among the young French riders expected to blossom this year.
Chavanel led Monday's sensational stage to Luz-Ardiden until the favorites began the serious battle. The Brioches La Boulangere leader will be remembered most for being patted on the back by Armstrong as he stormed past on the final climb.
Casar, a promising 13th in the Giro d'Italia, is 127th overall, while Moncoutie, 13th and best Frenchman last year, is 43rd, more than 90 minutes behind Armstrong.
"Some of the young French guys were seen attacking early on, but they were nowhere to be seen when the real fighting started," said Guimard. "Some of them are good riders, but none of them are great riders."
Since the first Tour in 1903, Frenchmen have won it 36 times, followed by Belgians, who have been crowned 18 times.
It is hardly a consolation for French fans that Belgium, once the greatest cycling nation, has been waiting even longer, having last won the Tour in 1976.
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