France's top Tour de France hope Christophe Moreau may not be among the immediate favourites to win the race's fabled yellow jersey. But the AG2R rider will saddle up for the July 7-29 race hoping to end years of agony for the hosts thanks in part to two relatively new acquisitions.
The first is his baby daughter Margaux, who was born barely two months ago. The second is the tricolour jersey of French champion, which he won in majestic style at the national championships last week.
France have not celebrated a home winner since Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five victories in 1985. In between times the cycling landscape has changed dramatically, and on the world's toughest race the French, despite sporadic stage victories, have found it hard to compete with an increasingly international and competitive field.
Moreau, however, has given the French a glimmer of hope that one of their own can finally end years of failing to get on the podium.
The 36-year-old finished eighth overall last year, and comes into the July 7-29 race in superb form having won the Dauphiné Libéré stage race less than a month ago. Moreau won two stages and the overall prize of a race that was otherwise dominated by the Astana team of yellow jersey contender Alexandre Vinokourov.
Moreau won the Tour de France prologue at Dunkirk in 2001, shortly after he had claimed the first of his two Dauphine crowns, but with the advancing years he seems to have refound his climbing legs. In recent months he said he would forget about aiming for a top finish on the Tour, and would instead aim for stage wins or the race's polka dot jersey for the "King of the Mountains".
But thanks to his recent form, he has revised his plans. "I had thought about going for the polka dot jersey mainly because in the past five years I've found it difficult to fight my way into the top five," he said. "Now, I'm thinking, 'why not?'"
While the battle for the yellow jersey is likely to be staged in the second round of mountain stages in the Pyrenees from stages 14-16, Moreau wants his team to hit the gas in the Alps. "We have to get into the thick of things in the Alps, and we'll review our options on the rest day at Tignes," he said. "If I've had an off-day, we'll see whether I can produce something spectacular in the Pyrenees. But we can't have two aims at the same time. Today, I'm aiming for a top finish in the general classification."
The last French rider to finish on the Tour de France's top three was Richard Virenque, who finished runner-up to Jan Ullrich in 1997 but who a year later was at the centre of the Festina doping scandal.
Moreau is on the form of his life, has the serene glow of a new father, and knows that if he plays his cards right he could finally end years of frustration for the hosts.
"It's my 12th Tour de France, and it's the first time I've come in feeling so calm," said Moreau. "I know I've got nothing to lose. I feel totally relaxed and ready to go and have the best Tour of my career. I couldn't feel any better."
The only thing he should look out for, however, is the danger of peaking too early. American Levi Leipheimer won the Dauphine last year, and slumped to 16th overall at the Tour.
"It's important to be on form at the Dauphine, and I've managed my form well since then. The most important thing is my morale, and that is the best its ever been."
© AFP 2007