The Tour de France—which concludes today (July 23) is the premier race in cycling, and one of the most important events in French sports. Yet French riders seem incapable of winning it.
This year, at least, they had a shot at ending the nation’s 32-year losing streak.
Romain Bardet, a boyish 26-year-old from Brioude and last year’s runner-up, was in second with two days to go, trailing UK’s Christopher Froome by just 23 seconds after almost three weeks and 83 hours of cycling. He could’ve taken the lead by erasing Froome’s lead in Saturday’s 14-mile time trial in Marseille. Unfortunately for France, Froome is a specialist in the time trial—where cyclist ride solo, and race against the clock—and Bardet is not. Bardet did poorly, and lost a place, falling to third, while Froome will cement his fourth tour title today. Columbia’s Rigoberto Uran finished second.
France’s last Tour winner was Bernard Hinault, a ferociously competitive rider nicknamed “the badger,” who dueled with his own teammate, American Greg LeMond, to win the 1985 race. In a 2009 interview Hinault blamed French laziness for the title draught. “The French don’t train,” he told the Guardian. “The only way to do it would be to block part of their salary and only let them have it if they win. Or hold a knife to their throats.”
As appealing as the explanation is to francophobes, it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. France has produced more individual stage winners than any other nation, including five this year, tied for the most with Germany. And France manages to consistently produce some of the world’s best athletes in soccer and track and field.
A more plausible explanation is the lack of national investment in French cycling. The UK began pouring national lottery money (paywall) into its cycling team in 1997, and it’s paid off with dominance in the Olympics and the Tour, where five of the last six winners are British.
There’s also the messy problem of doping: Seven Tours since 1985 were won by master cheater Lance Armstrong, who has since been stripped of his titles, and who knows how many others winners were never caught? The French may not dope, or they may just not be as good at it.
But there’s another possible, though less satisfying, explanation, too: It’s just random chance no one from France has won in recent decades. Success in sports is a combination of skill and luck. There are only a handful of men capable of winning the Tour, and it’s contested just once a year. With such a limited number of opportunities, it’s not that unlikely that a French winner hasn’t emerged. Throughout sports—the British men at Wimbledon, the Red Sox Cubs in baseball—long losing streaks can take on outsized significance, and are attributed to everything from a lack of national will to cursed billy goats. But eventually, after enough rolls of the statistical dice, they all end at some point.