There’s a good reason why the French like their champions. They won with style. The two most recent (if you can call it that) French Tour winners, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, didn’t win a quiet Tour. They won time trials and in the mountains. Hinault wasn’t afraid to go after a sprint or two, either.
If there was one aspect of Miguel Indurain that the French (and others) didn’t like, other than his being Spanish, was how his Tour wins were dominant, but never stylish. You almost never saw him attack in a show of force meant to do nothing so much as intimidate. Were it not for Hinault’s incredible force of will, as evidenced by his ability to intimidate, he would likely only have won four Tours.
At first, the French loved Lance Armstrong. That he attacked viciously and used his efforts to win and put an alpha-male stamp on the race had all of France clamoring for the cancer survivor. His invincibility is what turned their love to disdain and near revulsion; for some, the accusations of doping were just used as justification for how they felt.
And sometimes, the greatest moves don’t even result in wins. In 1995, the first year the Vuelta a Espana was held in September, Laurent Jalabert was dominating the race as only Eddy Merckx could. One French magazine ran a cartoon showing Jalabert passing close to finish-line barricades and signing autographs “Jaja” as he passed. In one mountain stage he dropped his companions only to reel in Telekom’s Bert Dietz within the final half kilometer. “Jaja” passed Dietz, sat up, and then waived for him to get on his wheel. Twenty meters from the line he pulled off, sat up and let Dietz take the win. Afterward, Dietz said he would repay the gift by never riding against Jalabert, no matter what his team asked. A true champion knows when to throw a bone.
Looking back over this year’s season, one move stands out as a win for the ages: Fabian Cancellara’s win on Stage 3 of the Tour de France. Sure, the yellow jersey sometimes wins a stage, but those stages are usually either time trials or mountain finishes. The maillot jaune might win a sprint stage only if he is a sprinter and the Tour is in its first week. Given that none of those conditions were true for Cancellara—he is a time trialist—and his original motivation to ride at the front was only to protect his yellow jersey for another day, that he even rode on the front so late in the stage was incredible. That he dropped the sprinters was stunning. That he caught the break seemed unbelievable. That he passed them and took the stage was a shock beyond belief. Was anyone in the world still seated when he took the “V”? Can you name a better move this year?