PARIS (Reuters) - Julian Alaphilippe surrendered the yellow jersey in the penultimate competitive stage and Thibaut Pinot was left sobbing at roadside as he abandoned in the Alps, yet this French duo restored the pride of a cycling nation and revived hopes of a long-awaited home-grown winner of the Tour de France.
World number one Alaphilippe claimed the overall lead with a long-planned attack in Epernay and wore yellow for 14 days until he cracked in the Col de l’Iseran and dropped from the podium places on the eve of the parade to the Champs Elysees.
But the musketeer-faced Alaphilippe brought fresh panache to a race which had for years been monopolized by Team Sky — now still thriving as Team Ineos — and with his cavalier approach won the hearts of millions of fans on the road and TV viewers.
“He is the biggest change to the Tour, he’s created a ripple effect,” conceded Team Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who celebrated his seventh title in eight editions when Colombian Egan Bernal crossed the Paris finish line in yellow.
“Because of him, we were forced to react to the situation minute by minute.”
French riders had long been seen as “a laughing stock” in the peloton, according to Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit, who has worked in foreign teams with the likes of Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.
“I remember the times where our two team cars were behind the ‘gruppetto’ (a pack of dropped riders) and I was wondering whether we would make it within the time cut,” said the Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot, who started the team in 1997.
For long, his best result was taking Sandy Casar to 10th overall in Paris in 2009, just as the sport implemented the biological passport to fight against doping after the EPO and Lance Armstrong eras.
Since then, Groupama-FDJ have grown alongside their leader Pinot, winner of his first Tour stage in 2012 as the youngest rider in the race.
Third overall in 2014, Pinot surged into real contention this year with a dual attack with Alaphilippe in St Etienne, and then writing off time lost in the crosswinds with two awe-inspiring performances in the Pyrenees.
He won atop the iconic Col du Tourmalet and was the strongest the next day at Prat d’Albis, distancing Bernal on both occasions.
Pinot was ahead of the Colombian when he started Thursday’s stage to Valloire, but he was already injured. The next day, he climbed into his team car with hands over his face to hide his tears.
Speaking to Madiot as French TV filmed a documentary, Pinot, sitting on his bed bare-chested, said: “What did I do to deserve that? It’s finished, I quit.”
On Saturday, he told French TV just before the start of the 20th stage: “It will take time (to recover from the disappointment). They’re going for the stage and I’m going home. It’s tough.”
Pinot, who has stage wins in all three grand tours, promised he would be back to fight for the 2020 title.
A fierce racer, described by Cyrille Guimard, the former boss of Bernard Hinault — the last Frenchman to win the Tour in 1995 — as a “tiger on a bike”, the 29-year-old must now break the jinx that has seen him abandon the Tour four times in seven editions.
Should he fail, Alaphilippe, 27, demonstrated he could be transformed into a grand tour rider. Yet he would probably have to change teams, with his Deceuninck-Quick Step outfit having more of a focus on one-day classics.
Brailsford, who’s guided four Tour champions — Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Bernal — has an eye on the prodigy and has long said he would love to win the Tour with a French rider.
Team Ineos have the budget to afford the most exciting rider in this year’s Tour, but Alaphilippe still has two years on his contract after extending last month.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Chadband