July 15, 2017

French Success

What a race the French are having! Arnaud Démare's won in Vittel and grabbed the Green Jersey, Lilain Camejane triumphed at Station de Rousses, Romain Bardet smashed them on the wall at Peryagudes, throwing the race completely open in the process, with yesterday’s marvelous win by “Wawa” Warren Barguil in Foix, resplendent in this Polka Dot Climber’s Jersey, on Bastille Day no less, added to the host country’s triumphant tally.

And us, the Americans? What has happened to our cycling? It’s so painful for me to see how far we’ve fallen – don’t forget, the Men’s Olympics were no better (thank goodness for our women in Rio!). In theory we have three American teams in this Tour, BMC (it’s Swiss), Trek-Segafredo (it’s Italian) and Cannondale-Drapec (at least it has three Americans – who, apart from Phinney’s great ride remain invisible and mired in the back).

While many still point to Lance Armstrong as the culprit, saying that our domestic sport never recovered from his on-going scandals, that is not true in the slightest. The issue is a lack of leadership and especially vision from the people responsible for our domestic sport. Their strategy has been one of offshoring our cycling to Europe, and focusing on a few, massively funded domestic stage races – the biggest of which, California, is now a French race with ASO in command. Chapeau!

The French essentially rebuilt their cycling community after 1998’s Festina scandal (I was there with ESPN – it was flat out scary). Their Federation (FFC) worked closely with the police forces to eliminate the blackmarket drug distribution networks – very effectively I assure you – and they suffered through years of no results as the sport transitioned into the what is now one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest, professional sport in the world. The French supported their riders through this dry period, revised their training systems and now are reaping the fruits born of that long-term vision.

A look at the domestic French racing calendar is humbling for an American race producer. On top of their wonderful pro races, they have a 20 Division One teams with their own weekly calendar of great races, with D2 and D3 having their own circuits to follow. It’s all organized, logical and, obviously, effective.

You know what? It’s really hard to base one’s entire career in Europe and to never, or rarely, have the chance to race at home. The French, Italians, Germans, Swiss, Spanish all to varying degrees have robust domestic calendars where their riders can build the moral one only gets from racing on home soil. Just ask Adrian Costa how demoralizing it can be – the young riding American star has put his career on hold as have so many Euro-circuit burnouts.

I’ve said it for years: for the price on one Tour of California (that had 19 Americans in it) a full, 25-weekend series of live streamed road races along the lines of my Univest Grand Prix – which was based on the production levels of a top French race like Paris-Evreux -  could be created offering opportunities for new talent to emerge. Our current system cherry picks a few of the best and sends them overseas, often to never be heard from again.

The French protect their cycling: the Teams press release for the Tour stated that “logiquement” there were five French teams and almost 40 French riders in the Tour. When are we going to wake up? At this point, sadly, I don’t think we will.

Watch Greg Van Avermaet today, he’s clearly on form. Maybe we’ll get an “American” win after all..