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With Bardet and Barguil, France hoping to end Tour drought

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN

AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) The drought could soon be over for French riders at their home race.

It has been 32 years since the last one of them, Bernard Hinault, won the last of his five Tour de France titles on the Champs Elysees back in 1985.

Hinault's fifth crown put an end to a glorious era for French cycling, a period (1975-85) during which the home nation won nine Tour titles out of 11.

But from the long, disappointing drought, an ambitious pair of French riders has emerged to rekindle hopes of a home victory.

With his bold temper and cold-blooded attitude, fan favorite Romain Bardet embodies the renewal of French cycling. Bardet secured a second consecutive podium finish at the Tour on Sunday, ending his summer odyssey across France in third place, 2 minutes and 20 seconds behind four-time champion Chris Froome.

A year after finishing runner-up to Froome, Bardet was again lauded for his courage and attacks throughout the race. A strong climber with a natural instinct for racing, Bardet rode more consistently this year but he cracked in the final time trial in Marseille. Yet he still salvaged his podium finish by one second, holding off Froome's teammate Mikel Landa.

It was a mere consolation for the 26-year-old rider, who showed throughout the past three weeks that he is now on the same foot as Froome in high mountains. His fighting spirit in the few hundred meters leading to the time trial finish line in the Stade Velodrome also spoke volumes about his gritty mindset.

"I'm pretty excited about the future," Bardet said.

Froome, who is six years older than Bardet, still has the upper hand in time trials, but the British rider has lost the ability of dropping his rivals with ease at altitude, like he did in 2013 and 2015.

Bardet was quicker than Froome in mountain stages this year and dropped him in the steep climb to Peyragudes in the Pyrenees. But he needs to hone his skills in the race against the clock, a discipline he neglected a bit, if he is to compete for the overall win next year.

"I can improve a bit, especially in the time trial," Bardet said in Marseille. "I made a choice not to focus on the time trial because it's not the way I like to ride. Going out to train on my time trial bike is a little bit boring for me. I paid a high price ... but I'm still only 26. I want to fight in the next few years for the win."

Bardet will have another weapon of choice in his bid to dethrone Froome: his AG2R La Mondiale team, which has emerged as the second most potent team behind Froome's Sky.

In the Massif Central and in the Alps, Bardet's teammates took their responsibilities as they tried to unsettle Froome. They almost succeeded on the road to the Puy-en-Velay when they set a high tempo that provoked splits in the peloton. Froome, who also had a mechanical problem on his bike that day, was dropped but ultimately made the junction after Bardet failed to join forces with other contenders including Rigoberto Uran, who placed second overall, and Fabio Aru.

In the alpine stage leading to the summit of the Izoard pass, AG2R riders again rode at the front until Bardet attacked Froome on the last huge climb of this Tour.

Another Frenchman to watch in future is 25-year-old Warren Barguil, a rider with a fiery character and big potential.

Barguil, who won the best climber's polka-dot jersey, sent a strong message by claiming a prestigious win at the top of the Izoard. On a brutal day of racing at an altitude of 2,360 meters, Barguil won his second stage of the tour after he attacked with six kilometers left to climb.

It was an even more impressive feat considering he fractured his pelvis in a crash in April and was struck by a car on a training ride last year, fracturing his wrist.

Barguil, who rides for Team Sunweb but has reportedly been approached by Sky and Astana, also won Stage 13 on Bastille Day.

"He is very strong, and still young," Froome said. "We will see him more often in the future."

Updated July 24, 2017