Tour de France: Why can't France find a home-grown winner?
After 31 years without a winner, the host country yearns to find its own Andy Murray in Lycra
By Gavin Mortimer
What links Italy, Spain, the US, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Australia and the UK? Mais oui, as every disgruntled French cyclist will tell you, they've all produced a Tour de France winner in the last 31 years.
That's an impressive peloton of winners - unless, of course, you're that disgruntled Frenchman.
The last time cycling's most prestigious event was won by a home-town peddler was 1985, a long way short of the 77 years it took the UK to produce another Wimbledon men's singles champion after Fred Perry's success in 1936 but nevertheless how France aches for an Andy Murray in Lycra.
On the surface it's mystifying that France can't find a winner. They're still way out in front of overall winners, with 36 Tour successes from 21 different cyclists. But Bernard Hinault was the last homeboy to cross the finishing line on the Champs-Elysees in the fabled yellow jersey.
Hinault, who won five Tours, marked the end of a long line of French winners stretching back to the resumption of the race after the Second World War. Louison Bobet won three consecutive Tours in the 1950s and Jacques Anquetil scooped four in the following decade before Bernard Thevenet, Laurent Fignon and Hinault rose to prominence in the mid-1970s, winning nine titles between them.
But why have French riders been left behind since then? It's not as if the country can trot out the British Wimbledon excuse - the one about lack of facilities denying kids the opportunity to play tennis. A poll last year reported that 11.8 million French people cycled, making it the third most popular activity in the country behind rambling and swimming.
Mountain biking was tenth on the list with 4.4 million followers so added together, a quarter of the French population is regularly in the saddle.
Yet still they can't produce a Tour winner - and how it rankles, particularly when three of the last four competitions have been won by Brits. So the French press resort to innuendo, wondering out loud about Chris Froome's durability or how it is that Sir Bradley Wiggins won his first in his 30s.
The same accusations plagued Lance Armstrong - and of course, in his case, they turned out to be true. But Froome is as clean as any other rider and certainly cleaner than two-time winner Fignon, who was twice banned for taking amphetamines and admitted in his autobiography to using other stimulants.
The real reason is to do with grassroots sport.
While it's true Britain has invested heavily in sport in the last two decades, helped in no small part by National Lottery funding, France's steady decline as a sporting nation is down to its school system.
It's why the men can't produce a Tour de France winner, a tennis star (Yannick Noah's French Open title in 1983 was their last major success), a Formula 1 champion (Alain Prost, 1993) and why they've slipped down the Olympic medal table in the last 20 years, from 15 golds in 1996 to 11 in 2012 – during which time the UK increased its gold tally from one to 29.
The curriculum in France's schools doesn't include organised and competitive sport. There are no football, rugby, netball or athletic matches against other schools, thereby depriving children the opportunity not just to practise their motor skills, but more importantly to develop the psychological make-up required to become a champ: grit, guts and a never-give-up attitude.
As the Daily Telegraph reported last week, British sport has never been stronger. Yes, the England football team are a bunch of pathetic, pampered prima donnas, but in the real world of international sport, Britain is great.
France, on the other hand, is on the road to nowhere.