By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - French riders' chances of winning the Tour de France have long been hampered by their inability to perform in time trials, but Thibaut Pinot's FDJ team have changed their approach and the youngster may now be ready to take on the best against the clock.
The 25-year-old, third overall in the 2014 Tour and winner of the prestigious Alpe d'Huez stage last year, beat specialists Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome in last week's individual time trial at the Tour de Romandie, in which he finished second overall behind Nairo Quintana.
"We did not have the culture of time trialing in France," FDJ head of performance Frederic Grappe told Reuters on Tuesday.
While Germany or Switzerland have a time-trialing culture, France has won only one world title, with Laurent Jalabert back in 1997.
"We've had a big problem with that for decades now, and it starts with the young riders," Grappe added. "Some under-18 riders arrive at the world championships having never ridden the distance. Time trialing is a matter of culture, muscles and material."
FDJ has changed the way its teams work with their suppliers.
"What teams used to do is take the material they were provided and just shut up," he explained. "Now we start from scratch (with French bike maker Lapierre) and both ask ourselves how we can do better."
FDJ have hired the services of consultants who helped them develop a state-of-the-art TT bike, the Aerostorm DRS (Drag Reduction System).
"It's the result of one year and a half of development with (leader) Thibaut Pinot, Lapierre as well as the performance team with (material tester) Sebastien Joly," said Grappe.
"We are the only elite team to develop the bikes in direct contact with our partner. We got the green light from Shimano to create our own home-made handlebars. They are shaped like plane wings."
So who better than an Airbus engineer to work on that?
"This guy who is an engineer with Airbus, who helped design the Airbus A320 wing and is a cycling fan, called me once to offer his services," said Grappe, who would not name the engineer because of a confidentiality agreement.
"We also hired an expert on composite materials. The carbon we use inside the frame is very special," he said, again giving no further details.
With the new bike, FDJ's results have dramatically improved this season, and they won their first team time trial in 21 years in the Mediterraneenne race in February.
"My riders would laugh at them when we'd see them on their TT bikes in pre-season training camps," a French sports director who declined to be named told Reuters.
"But we now see the results they got."
While he may not be ready to dominate the race in the mountains just yet, Pinot can now trust his time trialing abilities, meaning he may be able to take time off Quintana, who will likely be his main rival in the coming years.
"We have switched the mental process. (Pinot) can see that he can be better than the others (in time trials), and a good time trialist forces his rivals' respect more than any other rider," said Grappe.
"We (French) used to be pathetic. This has changed."
(This story corrects the second name in paragraph 2 to Dumoulin, from Rumoulin)
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)