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When will a French rider win the Tour de France?

By Paul Gittings, CNN
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
France's Jean-Christophe Peraud (left) and Thibaut Pinot flank winner Vincenzo Nibali of Italy on the podium for the 2014 Tour de France. France's Jean-Christophe Peraud (left) and Thibaut Pinot flank winner Vincenzo Nibali of Italy on the podium for the 2014 Tour de France.
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French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
French hopes of Tour glory
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • France has two riders on Tour podium for first time since 1984
  • Jean-Christophe Peraud finished second and Thibaut Pinot third
  • Last French winner was Bernard Hinault in 1985
  • Italy's Vincenzo Nibali won his first Tour Sunday

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(CNN) -- Whisper it quietly, but after years of foreign domination the prospect of a French winner of the Tour de France is more than just a mere pipe dream.

You have to rewind the clock to 1985 -- 29 long years -- to find the last time that a home winner stepped on to the podium on the Champs-Elysees -- with Bernard Hinault claiming his fifth and final victory.

Hinault is ranked among the all-time greats and one of only six men, 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali included, to win all three of the sports major tours in Italy, Spain and France.

But his legacy has been one of a steady decline with Richard Virenque's second place in 1997 the last time a French rider even made the podium -- until this year.

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Jean-Christophe Peraud and 24-year-old Thibaut Pinot may have finished around eight minutes adrift of Italy's Nibali in second and third spots respectively, but that hardly mattered to a French public desperate for success.

Read: Nibali matches greats with Tour triumph

Further hope came in the form of 23-year-old Romain Bardet, who battled it out with compatriot Pinot for the white jersey of best young rider, before coming home a creditable sixth.

"The French, promise for 2015," read Monday's headline in the famous sporting newspaper L'Equipe, already anticipating next year's Grand Boucle.

Pinot's burst to briefly distance Nibali on one of the 16th stage in the Pyrenees last Tuesday had set home pulses racing, although the team FDJ hope admitted he had made his move with thoughts of white rather the yellow jersey of the leader.

"My big objective was to gain time on Bardet," Pinot said after his heroics.

Read: Nibali time trials to Tour glory

He had eventually to give best to compatriot Peraud, who despite being 37 has only been a professional on the road circuit since 2009, having previously won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in mountain biking.

Peraud's superior ability at individual time trialing (racing alone against the clock) saw him edge out his French rival but it was the young men, Pinot and Bardet, who hold most hope for the future.

"It was great for the French to have two men on the podium," said Stephen Farrand, of Cyclingnews.com.

"With Pinot I think they are really optimistic for next year, he's quite a character.

Read: Contador joins Froome on the sidelines

"I think the Tour is always better when home riders are performing well, there's a lot more enthusiasm about the race and the French never need an excuse to be patriotic," he added.

Over the past decade that patriotism has mostly been reserved for the never-day-die attitude of Thomas Voeckler, still making brave breakaways, for team Europcar on this year's Tour at the age of 35.

Back in 2004, Voeckler became a national hero when he led the Tour for against the odds for 10 days with the fleeting prospect he could beat the all-conquering Lance Armstrong.

Even back then there was the suspicion -- particularly in the French media -- that Armstrong was getting extra help from banned substances, while home riders, personified by Voeckler were manifestly "pure" and free of drugs.

With Armstrong disgraced and stripped of his seven Tour titles, cycling is believed to have cleaned up its act and there have been no positive tests on the 2014 edition.

Read: French hero Voeckler wins Tour stage

Farrand believes the French have more to gain than most in the new era.

"In the past nobody really knew what was going on," he said.

"Now there are so many good signs, the French have always been anti-doping and now they are able to compete for the yellow jersey."

Whether that's a realistic prospect, certainly for 2015, will depend on if Nibali is able to repeat his outstanding performances, four stage wins included, and Froome and Contador can return with a vengeance.

"He's a most deserved winner," said Farrand of Nibali. "He had the yellow jersey for all but two days and his margin of victory is the second biggest in Tour history."

Read: Defending champion Froome goes out in the wet

Nibali's victory is also a shot in the arm for Italian cycling, which like its French counterpart, has been in something of a trough, hit by doping scandals and the poor state of its economy.

Despite previous victories in the Giro d'Italia and Tour of Spain, he had been lightly regarded by the media, "only about half a dozen journalists attended his pre-race press conference," said Farrand, but proved them wrong.

An audacious late break to win the second stage in Sheffield, England, saw him gain time on Froome and Contador and he rode brilliantly on the treacherous and cobbled fifth stage to open up a further gap.

After his main rivals exited, Nibali proceeded to claim a further three stage wins in the Alps and Pyrenees and comfortably hold off the challenge mounted by his French rivals and Spain's Alejandro Valverde.

Italy's main sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport gave him top billing with a nice tribute from Hinault, who congratulated him on the podium in Paris.

"Throughout the tour, Nibali has shown great wisdom, mastery, he never panicked," he said.

Read: Armstrong reflects on his doping past

The 59-year-old Hinault, who works for Tour organizers ASO, will doubtless be hoping against hope that over the next coming years he will be presenting the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees to a compatriot.

It is not only Pinot and Bardet who could break the overseas domination of the top step of the podium.

There are high hopes for 22-year-old Warren Barguil, described by Hinault as a "huge talent" after winning two mountain stages of the Tour of Spain last year.

Barguil was left off the Giant-Shimano squad because it concentrated on helping Germany's Marcel Kittel win four stages of this year's Tour, including the blue-riband finish on the Champs-Elysees.

French sprinting talent is also emerging, with young fast men like Bryan Coquard, third in the points classification to Peter Sagan this year and Nacer Bouhanni, who won three stages of the Giro d'Italia.

Whether they can challenge the likes of Kittel and Britain's Mark Cavendish, who did not make it past stage one after hitting the tarmac in Harrogate, in the future is again open to debate, but it all points to a welcome renaissance for the traditional home of cycling.

Read: American hero Talansky shows true grit

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