PIC BY TIM DE WAELE
It's an eloquent comment on the current state of French cycling that one has to go back to the 2000 Tour de France to find a better overall finish by a Frenchman in a major tour than Sandy Casar's sixth-place in La Corsa Rosa on Sunday.
In that 2000 Tour, Christophe Moreau's fourth-place passed largely unheralded as the Frenchman's Festina team-mate Joseba Beloki earned the first of his three consecutive podium finishes.
Similarly, on Sunday, Casar's breakthrough performance received hardly a mention in dispatches as Gilberto Simoni and Ivan Basso stole any column inches not already allotted to Basso's brilliance .
But a breakthrough is exactly what it was for Casar. The champagne with which his Franaise des Jeux team-mates toasted the 27-year-old's result was testimony to that, even if Casar's modesty inclined him not to admit it. This left FDJeux directeur sport Martial Gayant to put Casar's Giro campaign into context: "Sandy perhaps doesn't know it yet, but he's exactly where he should be. He's a real leader. His result here is really satisfying, because it confirms his potential in major tours."
Speaking to procycling on the final morning of the Giro, Casar acknowledged that the 7-44 he gained in an 11-man break on stage 14 from Aosta to Domodossola was crucial to his final ranking in Milan. Prior to that, his focus had been on preparing for the Tour de France and perhaps nicking a stage on the way.
"I actually felt pretty tired at the start of the Giro, because I'd been sick in April and had to skip Lige-Bastogne-Lige," Casar explained. "I did a good individual time trial (13th, 2-52 from winner Jan Ullrich) but really the key was the breakaway to Domodossola. On one hand it made it impossible for me to get into breaks and aim for a stage win after that, but on the other hand it gave me the chance to finish high up overall. I'm very pleased [to finish sixth] and to be standing alongside guys like Cunego and Savoldelli, for whom the Giro was the main objective of the season."
Many were ready to bank on Casar's downfall in the Dolomites, but the Frenchman's confidence was growing in step with his form. "What pleased me the most was my progress in the mountains," he told L'Equipe. "Until now that's been my weak point. I've finally worked out how to pace myself on a climb, how to accept getting dropped so that I can slowly come back to the leaders. I was used to be scared of blowing up, scared of being swept away in the mountains. At this Giro, I've realised that I've improved in this area."
As delighted as Casar undoubtedly is with his best finish to date in a major tour, there is no danger of him getting carried away. He is well aware that his 13th place in the Tour in 2003 may have given rise to unrealistic expectations. "The team wants me to ride for the overall in the Tour, but I'd rather go for stages and hope that a good overall finish just follows naturally, he tells us. "I've never taken any notice of these 'next Virenque' or 'next Jalabert' labels that people have given me - I'm just happy when I give everything," he affirms.
Perhaps most encouraging for French cycling is the news that their riders - be it Casar or someone else - need no longer view the general classification in major tours as an arms race pitting their water pistols against their neighbours' weapons of mass of destruction. This is why French riders competing in the Giro could barely conceal their glee when "Fuentes-gate" erupted in Spain last week. Casar was no exception: "Of course I'm pleased," he said on Sunday. "There's a general feeling amongst us French riders that this is long overdue. Some of my team-mates rode in the Vuelta last year and came back disillusioned. But the fact that I can finish sixth in the Giro proves that not everywhere is like Spain."