By Julien Pretot
OYONNAX France (Reuters) - After years of competing for stage wins and the occasional spell in yellow, the door is now ajar for a Frenchman to win the Tour de France.
It should not be this year, as Italian Vincenzo Nibali is still a cut above, but veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud and youngsters Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot lie in wait.
France has not won its own grand tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and no Frenchman has featured on the podium in Paris since Richard Virenque in 1997.
After a solid start to this year's Tour, Bardet is fourth, 3:01 off the pace and 14 seconds behind third-placed Alejandro Valverde, of Spain.
Australian Richie Porte is second, 2:23 behind Nibali.
Can a Frenchman finally win the Tour?
"It is possible, yes, but in the two or three coming years we're going to be too short," Pinot, sixth overall and 3:47 down on Nibali, told reporters on the Tour de France's first rest day.
"But Romain and I still have 10 years to ride so there is time."
Pinot, 24, finished 10th in his first Tour de France two years ago, becoming the youngest rider to secure a top-10 finish on the Tour since Belgian Raymond Impanis in 1947.
He pulled out injured after an under-par performance last year but bounced back in the Vuelta to end up seventh overall, strengthening his grand-tour credentials.
Pinot has improved in time trials and if he could come close to Valverde in the 54km final effort against the clock on the penultimate stage, he should lose time to Porte.
"There is a difference between finishing fourth or third and winning the Tour," said Pinot.
The 23-year old Bardet, who will contest the white jersey for the best young rider with Pinot, lacks power to be competitive in time trials but like his compatriot is an excellent climber.
He refuses to get carried away, though.
"Let's be realistic. The goal at the start was a top-15 finish," said the AG2R-La Mondiale rider, who finished his first Tour last year in 15th place overall.
"Now we can look a bit higher and think about a spot in the top 10. I still need to gain time on other team leaders before the time trial.
"But I'm happy about what I've been doing in the mountains. I want to attack now."
Bardet and team mate Peraud, who at 37 will not have many more chances to shine on the Tour, have the advantage of being in the same team, meaning they can attack one by one and make it harder for Nibali's Astana team to control them.
Peraud is eighth overall, 3:57 off the pace, but his decent time-trialing abilities mean he can aim higher should he sustain the pace in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
"I think we will all go on the attack and that Valverde and Porte will go for Nibali. Team Sky, with (Mikel) Nieve, and Movistar, with (John) Gadret, can isolate him."
Defending champion Chris Froome and Spain's double winner Alberto Contador crashed out of the race, but this should not diminish the achievements of the French riders.
"Crashes are part of the race. A Tour de France is not just about climbing, it's also about avoiding crashes, riding on different terrains," said yellow jersey-holder Nibali.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Neville Dalton)