The Tour de France is many things to many people. But for Frenchman Warren Barguil of Team Sunweb, the 2017 race will be remembered as the Tour in which he was reborn.
Words and Images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton Magazine
The current crop of French riders has long been considered the best in generations. And they have confirmed their promise in this year’s Tour de France with no less than four stage wins in the first two weeks. Prior to the Tour, while Romain Bardet, Arnaud Démare, Nacer Bouhanni or Thibaut Pinot were often in the headlines, Warren Barguil largely remained out of the spotlight. But that has now changed. At this 2017 Tour, he is unmistakable, constantly on the attack in his distinctive polka-dot jersey. And while he came up just millimeters shy of victory on stage 9 to Chambéry, he could not be denied on stage 13 to Foix, where he sprinted to the win ahead of Nairo Quintana and one-time hero Alberto Contador.
What better way to put years of frustration behind him? Barguil, of course, has long been one of French cycling’s great hopes. Winning the Tour de l’Avenir in his final season before turning professional in 2013 bestowed him with real racing pedigree. He quickly grabbed the attention of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Like Hinault, Barguil hails from Brittany in western France, and Hinault has championed his fellow Breton for years.
And when Barguil quickly confirmed his promise, winning two mountain stages at the Vuelta a España in his first season as a professional, he attracted international attention. Such results immediately caught the eye of Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford, who stated flatly that Barguil was the French rider who possessed the most potential.
But further victories for Barguil were slow in coming. And any progress came to an abrupt halt in 2016 during an early-season training ride in Spain when a tourist’s car crashed into him and five of his Giant-Alpecin teammates. He nevertheless managed to return to the spring classics where he finished top 10 in the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège before going on to finish third in the Tour of Switzerland. But victory for one of France’s biggest hopes, was clearly missing.
Such a void, however, has quickly been filled at this year’s Tour, where his stage win and the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best climber are simply the fruits awarded to one of the most consistently visible riders in this year’s race. Since the first real mountain stage to Les Rousses, Barguil has made virtually every early breakaway, grabbing up additional points to protect his polka dots.
His newfound success has been a long time coming. And Barguil, who is still only 25, is enjoying every moment of it. “I always stayed positive,” Barguil said about his long victory drought. “But, yeah, it was starting to drag on. There just always seemed to be something that got in the way of my progress. There was the training accident, or the crash I had in the Tour de Romandie this year. People were starting to criticize me because they had a lot of expectations after my two stage victories in the Vuelta. This time, I thought, I’ve shown that ‘Wawa’ is not dead!”
In many ways, this year’s Tour is a sort of homecoming for Barguil because, outside of cycling circles, he has remained largely unknown in France—partly because he is on a Dutch squad. “Not riding for a French team has good points and bad points,” he said. “The good point is that I have a lot less pressure since I am not in the eye of the [French] media. I don’t have the pressure of someone like Romain [Bardet]. But I also have come to understand that few people know me. Often I hear, ‘Who is Barguil?’ It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes I feel far removed.”
Clearly Barguil is savouring the attention, and he hopes to remain in the spotlight during the final week of racing in this year’s Tour. And needless to say, the upcoming stages in the Alps will provide him with the prefect stage. In addition, he has virtually no serious competition for the polka-dot jersey, as he has nearly three times as many points as his nearest rival, Slovenian Primoz Roglic.
“You know, after my crash in the Tour de Romandie, I came into this Tour with a lot of question marks. I really struggled to regain my condition. But now I am very nearly at my best. And I’ve got freshness on my side.”