Laurent Fignon 1989 Time Trial Paris Tour de France

The French Tour de France Yellow Jersey Problem

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Richard Virenque King of the Mountain Jersey
Richard Virenque in the polka dot jersey
The Yellow Jersey is the pinnacle of cycling, the well-known symbol that transcends from cycling fans to everyone else. Starting life as an excellent marketing gimmick in 1919 by founder of Le Tour, Henri Desgrange, the yellow jersey became something to aspire to as leader of the most famous race in cycling. All of France celebrated victories, but in the last 30 years they’ve proved harder to come by – no French rider has won the Tour de France since 1985.

Lucien Petit-Breton
Lucien Petit-Breton

French Riders and the Yellow Jersey

The French have never experienced a drought quite like this, from the earliest days where 8 of the first 10 editions were won by Frenchmen such as Maurice Garin and Lucien Petit-Breton, there has always been a generational talent that arrives and dominates for a period. After initial success there was a period including the First World War which saw only a single Frenchman win in 18 years, but the single win was placed in the middle and the Belgians were simply stronger. 6 wins in the 1930s made up for the wait, especially given the dominance within those races. After the war Louison Bobet won three on the bounce, before Jacques Anquetil won five on his own – at the time a new record. After Eddie Merckx took over for Belgium, Bernard Thevenet, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon gave France 9 wins in 11 years to take us up to 1985. At the time it would be inconceivable that France wouldn’t win again…

Laurent Fignon 1989 Time Trial Paris Tour de France
Laurent Fignon in the 1989 Time Trial Finale

1989 saw the closest that the French have come to winning a yellow jersey since. Laurent Fignon, wearing the yellow jersey, lost out to Greg Lemond by 8 seconds on a final time trial on the Champs Élysées (the sprint finish we now see as traditional wasn’t part of the race at this point). Quite possibly the last time trial we saw with a rider sporting a pony tail without a helmet.

The Yellow Jersey Drought

Unlike the Netherlands which hasn’t found a way to have a rider in the yellow jersey at all since 1989, France has managed to get quite a few riders in Yellow, even if only for a day or two at a time. Most of these riders are the breakaway specialists, shooting off for a chance of glory early on in the Tour. With the time gaps still close, riders can gain the jersey simply by picking the right move on the right day. Thomas Voeckler took the lead and held the yellow jersey until late into the 2011 Tour, forcing himself up over the mountains with the GC contenders before eventually finishing 4th.

Thomas-Voeckler-Stage-14-Tour-de-France-2011
Thomas Voeckler gurns his way through the Pyrenees in 2011

French Yellow Jersey Wearers Since 1985

Rider NameDays in YellowYears
Thomas Voeckler202004, 2011
Pascal Lino101992
Thierry Marie71986, 1990, 1991
Cedric Vasseur51997
Laurent Jalabert41995, 2000
Francois Simon32001
Stephane Heulot31996
Sylvain Chavanel22010
Jacky Durand21995
Martial Gayant21987
Christophe Moreau22001
Ronan Pensec21990
Richard Virenque21992, 2003
Laurent Desbiens21998
Jean-Francois Bernard11987
Cyril Dessel12006
Romain Feillu12008
Dominique Gaigne11986
Tony Gallopin12014
Luc Leblanc11991
Frederic Moncassin11996
Jean-Patrick Nazon12003

Where the issue arises is that since Fignon, they haven’t really even come close to winning Le Tour. Often finishing a distant second (or third) place on the podium but without ever really challenging for the win, effectively the best of the rest to a dominant winner. A number of riders have been presented as the next great hope, which has never really materialised. Richard Virenque was the most successful with two podium finishes and winning a large number of King of the Mountain titles. Sporadic podiums have been claimed by in-form riders at the time but these have flattered to deceive. Thibaut Pinot in particular has blown hot and cold, with a top 10 in 2012, followed by a well documented fear of descending, a podium in 2014 and then a 16th and a non-finish in the two years since.

Thibaut Pinot 2016 Descending
Thibaut Pinot descending

French Podium Finishers Since 1985

Rider NamePositionYear
Bernard Hinault2nd1986
Laurent Fignon2nd1989
Richard Virenque2nd1997
Jean-Christophe Peraud2nd2014
Romain Bardet2nd2016
Jean-Francois Bernard3rd1987
Richard Virenque3rd1996
Thibaut Pinot3rd2014

France compared to other countries

The lack of French overall success in the Tour de France is even more stark compared to the success that other countries have had over the same period.

French riders have spent 74 days in yellow, with 0 overall wins, 1 green jersey and 14 KoM jerseys
British riders have spent 69 days in yellow, with 4 overall wins, 1 green jersey and 1 KoM jersey
Spanish riders have spent 107 days in yellow, with 10 overall wins, 1 green jersey and 2 KoM jerseys

It begins to give a pattern of ‘heroic defeat’, where French riders who know they cannot win overall have instead placed a great focus on winning the King of the Mountains competition as their best bet of winning something. Teams and riders do get bonuses for this, so it’s not an awful idea but does seem to have come at the expense of being able to push on for overall honours.

Country wins throughout the Tour de France’s history

Despite not winning the Tour de France for over 30 years, France still has the most overall wins. A byproduct of the race being from France so nearly all early editions of the race were won by Frenchmen.
In second place is Belgium, again somewhat due do its closeness to France, many early editions were won by Belgians. However they’ve not won the Tour de France since Lucien van Impe won in 1976.

Spain are in third position and have a modern dominance over the race with 10 wins since 1988.
Italy were similar to Belgium in have a traditional base of wins in each decade from the 1920s to the 1960s – Vincenzo Nibali’s win in 2014 was the first since then however.

Luxembourg seem to have a generational set of wins, with some very early and Andy Schleck in 2010.
The UK didn’t win the Tour de France until Bradley Wiggins in 2012, since then Chris Froome has dominated.

Since the demise of Lance Armstrong, the US have fallen down this list to only show Greg Lemond’s 3 wins. The other countries to have a win have also been similar ‘once in a generation’ types such as Jan Ulrich, Stephen Roche, Cadel Evans and Bjarne Rijs.

Richard Virenque King of the Mountain Jersey
Richard Virenque in the polka dot jersey

French riders record with the other jerseys

Despite a number of French sprinters throughout recent years, only one has won the green jersey. Laurent Jalabert won it in 1992 and 1995 before going on to win the polka dot jersey in 2001 and 2002 to match Eddy Merckx’s achievements in multiple jerseys. Other than Jalabert, only 5 other French riders have finished in the top 3 of the competition since 1985 – the great Bernard Hinault, Frederic Moncassin (2 stage wins), Christophe Capelle, Damien Nazon and Bryan Coquard.

The King of the Mountains competition has been a happier hunting ground in modern times with 14 victories since 1985. 7 of these from Richard Virenque who dominated the competition in the 90s and was often the French national hope for a victory. Other than Laurent Jalabert’s wins, the French winners have been one-offs.

Christophe Rinero won the jersey on his way to 4th overall in 1998 (effectively carrying on the Virenque style). Anthony Charteau took the jersey early in the 2010 race after a breakaway, lost it, and then reclaimed it for good a few days later. Thomas Voeckler was aiming for the overall win after finishing 4th the year before, but as that aim became unrealistic he took 26th overall and the mountains jersey.

French King of the Mountain Winners Since 1985

Rider NameYears Won
Bernard Hinault1986
Thierry Claveyrolat1990
Richard Virenque1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2004
Christophe Rinero1998
Laurent Jalabert2001, 2002
Anthony Charteau2010
Thomas Voeckler2012
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