A new French hero

The scrawny Frenchman wins a stage, and the hearts of many

On the rest-day afternoon when I met Brice Feillu at the Tour of Portugal last August, I already knew that I was coming face-to-face with a young man who would one day win mountain stages in the Tour de France.  

The young man’s name was…Daniel Martin, and he rode for Garmin.

Later, when I was finished with Martin, I called up to Feillu’s hotel room to ask if he also fancied a quick chat.

The first thing that struck me – and strikes everyone - about Feillu is his height. His brother, Romain, is 173cm tall. Brice is a sky-scraping 188cm.  

“I carried on growing at 18. I don’t know what happened with Romain…” was Brice’s laconic explanation in Andorra this evening.

That day in Portugal, Feillu’s other impressive feature was the calm he exuded. This afternoon, it was the same when Romain gate crashed his post-stage TV interview, tears in his eyes.

“I knew, I knew that if he had seven minutes at the bottom of the climb, he could win,” Romain blubbed. “He loves finishes like this one. There were people saying that he didn’t deserve his place in the team but I said no. I always knew he could do it…”

Standing alongside him, Brice looked about as flustered as if he’d just popped to the corner shop for a pint of milk.

Tonight the Tour has a new King of the Mountains. French cycling has its new heir apparent. As an amateur, Feillu’s biggest claim to fame was two major races that finished atop the first mountain ever visited by the Tour, the Ballon D’Alsace.

Two weeks ago, the Agritubel bosses asked him if he was absolutely certain he wanted to ride the Tour barely six months into his pro career. I wasn’t there, but I can well imagine him greeting their question with the same nonchalant expression that he wore on the podium in Andorra.

“The week before the French national championships, I had decent legs so I thought, ‘Why not?’,” he recalled this evening.

As laid-back as he appears, like his brother, Feillu doesn’t lack ambition. Otherwise he would never have latched onto such an audacious move, just eight kilometres into the Tour’s longest stage. He would never have attacked alone five kilometres from the line. He would never have mentioned that his 24th birthday falls on the day that the Tour reaches Paris, or that he hopes to celebrate it wearing the polka-dot jersey.

I stand by what I thought last year in Portugal: one day Daniel Martin will win mountain stages of the Tour de France. All that’s changed now is that I believe I encountered two future stars of the Tour in a single day in Portugal in August 2008.

This afternoon Martin watched Feillu’s triumph on a TV set at home in Girona. It didn’t make comfortable viewing: had it not been for the tendonitis in his knee that forced Garmin to replace him last Thursday, Martin could and probably would have been there. Perhaps not in the breakaway with Feillu but somewhere close to his leaders Christian Vande Velde and Bradley Wiggins. In the mix. In the race.

Not so long ago Brice Feillu was an English’s journalist’s afterthought. Today he was the toast of the Tour and Daniel Martin was entitled to feel jealous.

Follow Friebe's Twittering here everyday during the Tour and thereafter.

Back to top