Ah, les jeunes!
A few years back there was a roar coming out of France: passionate and angry and searching for explanation. People were royally and gallicly ticked.
This rip in the very soul of La Belle France was occasioned by simple fact: French bike racer weren’t winning a damn thing on the world stage, the major events, the Grand Tours.
Two theories were put forth and gained traction depending on the audience. One, the French were lazy, drank too much wine and trained like amateurs. A position supported by, among others, seven time tour winner Lance Armstrong.
Two, the rest of the peloton was doped to the gills, racing on EPO, steroids, human growth hormone, insulin, Dr. Ferrari’s special orange juice, gels with, you know, quadruple caffeine.
The French, as you might guess, were pretty certain theory two was correct. They even invented a catchy phrase to sum up the disastrous situation: cycling “a deux vitesses.” Translation; our nice clean guys are at the back of the pack while your dirty lycra criminals are up front.
You see, the French cleaned up their Festina Mess years ago and had enough anti-doping laws, penalties and most importantly, actual prosecution, to make French riders think twice. But damn, except for Laurant Jajabert, they were slow.
The Italians took their sweet Dolce Vita time but eventually followed the French into the dope wars. CONI and NAS (police) and various stylishly dressed commando units seemed to enjoy busting into riders’ houses and searching hotels. They weren’t as excited about digging through rubbish bins for medical waste like the French but, still, they took care of business.
But then there were the bad boys of Spain — few laws on doping and zero interest in besmirching the reputation of its riders and the honor of the country. Which was pretty much the same thing. There was practically EPO in the tapas and testosterone in the Sangria. It took a Swiss court and over four years to ban Spanish superstar Alejandro Valverde.
To the French that’s an awful lot of cycling a deux vitesses. It’s too many podiums with no French riders spraying French champagne and kissing their French podium girls. Mon Dieu, they invented the concept and now there’s a Spaniard soaking up all the sexy.
And so on July 5th, stage two from Brussels to Spa, we celebrate the victory for French cycling. Sylvain Chavanel took a courageous win after coming back from a fractured skull in this year’s Leige-Bastogne-Leige race. He also slipped on that stylish French creation, le maillot jaune.
Chavanel was nine days early — French Independence Day isn’t until the 14th — but it was a beautiful win and a triumph for cycling at one speed, au meme vitesse. His win also allows us to discount theory number three, which I was prepared to put forth based on the photo I shot at the morning sign-in at Brussels. The French riders were simply too damn small.