The French and their passion for defeat

"The French do not lose more than others. But they lose better."

David Gaudu and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) attempt to limit losses on the Puy de Dôme on stage 9 of the 2023 Tour de France. Photo © Gruber Images

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 25.07.2023 Photography by
Gruber Images
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“I hope that I’ll be the next rider to win the Tour de France.”

The immortal words of David Gaudu at the end of the 2022 Tour, uttered bravely into a camera wielded by the Netflix ‘Unchained’ crew with a glint in his eye. This moment came not long after the enigmatic young Frenchman was shown turning his back on the world in a tiny elevator with the energy of a distraught child saying, “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me”; he cast a desperate imploring look at his soigneur, at a loss for what to do with himself after losing time in the Alps, a podium finish looking less and less likely.

He finished fourth in the end, a pretty damn good placing for a GC hopeful at the Tour, especially a rider not really built for the rigours of modern general classification, given the necessity for TT formidability (if it’s not a word, it should be). But despite his commendable finish twelve months ago, these words elicited something much closer to “bless him” than real hope for a step up this summer.

But this is about as optimistic as French cycling fans can be these days. They’ve come accustomed to the sort of heartache they’re put through by messrs Gaudu, Bardet, Pinot, Barguil, Latour, Martin, even Voeckler and Virenque, all heirs, once upon a time, to the likes of Hinault, Fignon, Thévenet, etc.

French cycling has become a cult of defeat. And the fans love it.

A six-time Tour stage winner, Julian Alaphilippe has long been a reliable animator at his home Grand Tour, even threatening a top GC result in 2019 before losing the yellow jersey and tumbling off the podium on the final weekend.

We know now that Gaudu was not the next man to win the Tour de France, not even close. While the dominant Danish-Slovenian duo needed only eyes for one another, Gaudu was in a race of a very different kind, desperately clinging onto the remnants of a GC result, which he just about achieved despite a crash he frankly brought upon himself on the penultimate stage.

On that same day in the Vosges, his older teammate Thibaut Pinot went on a heroic and ultimately ill-fated solo mission on his home roads – his last chance to do so – where he would be greeted by a phenomenal arena of fans, friends and family on the side of a mountain. There was something ever-so French, ever-so-Groupama, ever-so Pinot/Gaudu about the two of them being at either end of the dramatic spectrum.

That said, it was pointed out to me by someone familiar with the Fédération de la Lose that it would have been all the more fitting if he’d have reached the Virage Pinot on the back foot, and in the rain. To the uninitiated, his leading the race alone through the amassed FFL couldn’t have been more beautiful, but he was defying their mission statement, their purpose, their passion for defeat.

“France has always had a special relationship with defeat,” reads the FFL website. “From Raymond Poulidor to Laurent Fignon via the square posts or France-Bulgaria 1993, magnificent losers and sporting tragedies occupy a privileged place in the hearts of the French.

“Don’t we prefer to talk about the events of Seville 1982 rather than Euro 1984? To recall Laurent Fignon’s eight seconds on the Champs rather than Bernard Hinault’s victories? Lived live, on radio, on television or through the stories of our parents and grandparents, these legends continue to rock new generations of sports lovers of our dear country.

“Does this love of French defeat make France a country of Losers? No, we don’t see it this way. The French do not lose more than others. But they lose better. Panache, envy, combativeness; where some countries swear by the result, the French celebrate the romanticism of the effort and cherish above all their emotions as supporters.”

Quentin Pacher traverses the packed fans on the Grand Colombier on stage 13.

Pinot did not win stage 20, it was not the fairytale so many international cycling fans prayed for, in vain. But the French argued that’s just what they got – a fairytale befitting only of cycling’s stalwart romantic, Thibaut Pinot. Groupama-FDJ’s own scribe wrote: “This Saturday July 22, 2023, in his beloved Vosges massif, Thibaut Pinot did not taste victory. However, he experienced something much bigger.”

“I lived some incredible emotions, I had goosebumps for the whole stage,” Pinot himself said afterwards. “The emotions of success are special, but this goes beyond sport. I left a mark in the hearts of the people, and that’s almost more beautiful than a victory. There will be emotions in Paris, but my public, my region, my stage, they were here. The Champs-Élysées is different, it’s the yellow jersey’s day. This was my day, and these will be my last images of the Tour.

“I can’t believe it was all for me. I never imagined I was going to be alone on the Petit Ballon, and when I found myself there, I wondered if it was really true or not. The best farewell would have been to win, but I can’t be too greedy. That only happens in books or television shows, even if I wasn’t far off winning.”

Expectations in French cycling these days stretch to how many home riders can make it into the top 10, with half an eye ever on the junior and U23 ranks – pray for Romain Gregoire et al. who have been encumbered with will-they-won’t-they wonderings since their first signs of promise. This year, the philosophising Guillaume Martin slid covertly into the top 10 just behind Gaudu, profiting off the heavy crash of Sepp Kuss on top of a couple of his customary breakaway efforts, as Pinot too managed 11th overall. You might argue that the French are doing pretty well, saturating the higher echelons with quality riders; only Spain has as many riders in the top 20 as their neighbours – and there’s another story to be told there.

Pinot on the Col de la Loze on stage 17.

In the months building up to the 2023 Tour, this edition was touted as the best chance the home riders had to get a decent result in a very long time with its relative dearth of TT kilometres. We know Gaudu had lofty aspirations, and a revitalised Romain Bardet was perhaps the only other possible, even more likely, podium contender. After this year, the 2024 edition returns to the more TT-heavy parcours that has become traditional, and there’s the added complication of the next great Belgian Tour hopeful, Remco Evenepoel. This year it didn’t work out. Expectations were high(er) and the best French GC result was ninth overall. Next year, we return to low(er) expectations – happier hunting ground.

If expectations are low, they can only be exceeded, and happiness is easier to come by. It also means a whole lot more when they finally taste victory.

It might seem they’re settling for less, accepting compromise, but the land of poets, romantics, and revolutionaries creates riders with defiance running through their veins. Their life’s work is to mount resistance against modern cycling’s superpowers, and in the spirit of revolution, any attempt is to be celebrated, even and especially that which results in defeat.

The French will see one of their own return to the top one day, but until then they’re more than happy cheering on their contingent of underdogs. And that’s something we can all get behind.

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