The French, for me, are not so much a nation as a form of entertainment. And before I am removed from their collective Christmas card list I should add that I love them. The moods, the insouciance, the way their character seeps out of every utterance and action; it’s a joy!
And today, Stage 8 of le Tour, a big ol’ day in the Pyrenees, was very French.
Character study number one came in the form of Nans Peters. The AG2R man rampaged away in the break, nine minutes clear of the peloton over the massive Port de Bales, with random Russian climber Ilnur Zakarin in pursuit.
Tongue waggling, he wrestled his Eddy Merckx bike beneath him like a TV naturalist taming a wily croc. Zakarin gaining on the uphill bits, only to be scuppered by a total inability to ride downhill fast on the other side. Even the religious trinket swaying from his seat-post failed to help.
Or, to put it in classic, tactlessly French fashion a la Peters: “I saw he was going down like a goat.”
Back down the road, on the final big climb – to the summit of the mighty Col de Peyresourde – Julian Alaphilippe also gave us a characterful insight. As a tense game of who-will-blink-first played out amongst the big boys last year’s near-winner attacked with a flourish.
YES! we yelled.
Five seconds later, he cracked. Gone. Slipping backwards down the mountain as the race rode away. Attacking, knowing he was about to crack, a big F*** YOU! to the world, dishing out several seconds of utter panic as his final act.
Crashing out on his terms.
This left Guillaume Martin as the strongest looking Frenchman in a fiercely whittled group of team leaders. Martin being perhaps the Frenchest of all the French cyclists; a philosophy graduate, author, and potential dark horse/enigma for le Tour.
An athletic intellectual.
Your standard issue smouldering Frenchman.
Which leaves us, alas, with Monsieur heart-on-his-sleeve himself, Thibaut Pinot. Ahh, Thibaut. You break our hearts again with your struggles, your brothers-in-arms back-slapping leave-no-man-behind teammates, and your epic levels of sheer humanity.
Losing twenty-five minutes (!) he will not win le Tour. Not this year. Maybe not ever.
When Pinot is good he is extraordinary – Stage 14 last year on the Tourmalet, Il Lombardia 2018 – but (damn you mainstream TV!) our defining image is of a broken man. Still suffering from his crash on Stage 1, Stage 8 was his jours sans.Embed from Getty Images
All of which French fascination fails to even touch on the mano y mano of the General Classification battle today.
On the Peyresourde, we reached that point in every Tour de France where the state of each team leader is laid bare. With many kilometres to the final summit leaders, almost to a man, were left without teammates.
Roglic, Pogacar, Yates, Quintana, Lopez and Landa were exposed and forced to show their hand. They would live or die by their own abilities. Egan Bernal, the reigning champ, had teammate Carapaz, but appears in a constant state of damage limitation.
Guillaume Martin was the free-spirit, looking sprightly, as if born ready to assume the mantle of Great French Hope™. Yellow Jersey Yates yo-yoed but held firm. Roglic gave nothing away. Literally. In any sense. Quintana, newly happy-go-lucky, toyed playfully with his rivals.Embed from Getty Images
But they were left in the wake of child-star Tadej Pogacar, the man with a thousand pronunciations and the clear man-crush of TV’s David Millar.
“Just look at him…smooth, lithe, sexy, he’s a beauty,” as Millar didn’t actually say but certainly intimated.
Pogacar clawed back half of the minute-and-more he lost in the crosswinds of Stage 7.
We learnt a lot today; not enough to stick the mortgage on any single rider to win, but enough to know who certainly won’t. We have a top ten of Yates, Roglic, Martin, Bardet, Bernal, Quintana, Lopez, Uran, Pogacar and Mas, and a mere minute between them.
I, personally, am now fully behind Guillaume Martin and his undoubtedly doomed attempt to end the thirty-five-year losing streak of la Republique.
Vive la France!
(Guillaume Martin Image: By Nicola, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71973631||Top Image Thibaut Pinot by filip bossuyt from Kortrijk, Belgium / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0))