Monday, July 23, 2012

'A Pois, Si Je Puis! To French go the Dots

The Tour de France is the greatest bike race in the world. But the French have enjoyed very little success in their national tour for the past twenty years. The exception to francophone failure in le Tour is the Maillot 'a Pois, the mountains jersey.

The French have certainly had their share of GC winners. I was surprised to find that 36 of the 98 overall winners were French, twice as many as any other nation. But most of these victories occurred before 1960. No Frenchmen has won the yellow jersey since Hinault in 1985, 27 years ago.

In fact the last French green jersey winner was exactly 20 years ago. In those two decades a French rider has won the white jersey only two times. Stage victories aside, very few Frenchmen have stood on the final podium in Paris, the Arc d'Triomphe looming behind.

The one category in which Gaelic pride has been preserved is the mountains jersey, the polka dots. The french have won the polka dot jersey 12 times in the last 20 years. Those wins are not just due to Ricky "pretty boy" Virenque's exploits; four other frenchmen have won the polka dots in those decades. Laurent Jalabert won that jersey twice with great panache.

Most years the mountains jersey, however, seems like a second rate prize. It's typically won in the middle of the high mountain stages. The GC battles occur behind the KOM leaders, or at the end of a stage, ahead of the fight for the polka dots. The jersey when matched with a polka dot bicycle looks silly. The poor podium girls who present the maillot pois always have the most hideous outfits, like they're wearing Mini Mouse's castoffs. The polka dot jersey contest frequently is a sideshow to the yellow and green jersey's.

But this year, with Sky dominating the GC after the first time trial, and Peter Sagan achieving a hulk like margin in the points tally, the KOM contest was actually, a contest. Where there was little drama in the final week of the tour, Fredrik Kessiakoff and Thomas Voekler made a stiff battle of the KOM prize. Voekler, the frenchmen, won. He fought for every point, and won the queen stage of the race as well. While he is not every fan's favorite racer, he impressed me. While other racers of his ability seem content with minor victories, when Tommy Voekler has a chance he grabs a hold like a junkyard dog on a bone. His tenacity elevates him from a good racer to a memorable one. Whether he is clinging to the yellow jersey for a handful of days, or battling for a stage win in a breakaway, or going for the KOM points this year, he seems to enjoy pouring himself all out.

I have no idea whether Voekler will target the polka dot jersey again. But recent history would suggest that some frenchmen will. To the French go the polka dots!

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