PARIS — Maybe the drought will be over soon for French riders at the Tour de France.
It is 32 years since the Tour had a home winner, when Bernard Hinault won the last of his five titles back in 1985.
He didn’t know it then but Hinault’s fifth crown brought an end to a glorious era in French cycling, a period when the home nation won nine Tour titles out of 11.
A long and painful drought followed, but a pair of riders has emerged to rekindle French hopes.
Fan favourite Romain Bardet embodies the revival of French cycling and secured a second consecutive podium finish at the Tour on Sunday, claiming third place, 2 minutes and 20 seconds behind four-time champion Chris Froome.
A year after finishing runner-up to Froome, Bardet was again praised for his bold attacks in the 2017 race. A strong climber with a natural instinct for racing, Bardet rode more consistently but cracked in the final time trial in Marseille.
He still salvaged his podium finish by one second, holding off Froome’s teammate Mikel Landa.
It wasn’t much more than a consolation for the 26-year-old Bardet, but he showed he is now Froome’s match in the high mountains and displayed a fighting spirit in the final few hundred meters of the time trial at the Stade Velodrome.
"I’m pretty excited about the future," Bardet said.
Froome, who is six years older than Bardet, still has the upper hand in time trials, but has lost the ability to drop rivals with ease at altitude, like he did in 2013 and 2015.
Bardet was quicker than Froome in mountain stages this year and dropped him in the steep climb to Peyragudes in the Pyrenees. He needs to hone his skills in the race against the clock, a discipline he neglected, if he is to compete for the title.
"I can improve a bit, especially in the time trial," Bardet said. "I made a choice not to focus on the time trial because it’s not the way I like to ride. Going out to train on my time trial bike is a little bit boring for me. I paid a high price … but I’m still only 26. I want to fight in the next few years for the win."
Bardet will also have some help in his bid to dethrone Froome, with his AG2R La Mondiale team emerging as the second strongest behind Froome’s Sky.
In the Massif Central and in the Alps, Bardet’s teammates took their responsibilities seriously as they tried to unsettle Froome. They almost succeeded on the road to the Puy-en-Velay when they set a high tempo that split the peloton. Froome, who also had a mechanical problem with his bike that day, scrambled to bridge the gap.
In the alpine stage leading to the summit of the Izoard pass, AG2R riders again rode at the front, setting Bardet up to attack Froome on the last big climb of this Tour.
Another Frenchman to watch is 25-year-old Warren Barguil, a rider with a fiery character and lots of potential.
Barguil, who won the best climber’s polka-dot jersey, sent a strong message with a prestigious win at the top of the Izoard. On a brutal day of racing at an altitude of 2,360 metres, Barguil won his second stage of the tour after he attacked with six kilometres left to climb.
The feat was even more impressive considering he fractured his pelvis in a crash in April, and broke his wrist last year when he was hit by a car on a training ride.
Barguil, who rides for Team Sunweb but has reportedly been approached by Sky and Astana, also won Stage 13 on Bastille Day.
"He is very strong, and still young," Froome said. "We will see him more often in the future."