By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - So great are expectations placed on French riders every time the Tour de France comes around they could be excused for feeling as though they are pedalling up an Alpine road carrying pannier bags full of lead.
For comparison think of the Brazil soccer team at a home World Cup, Andy Murray, pre-hip surgery, and his annual Wimbledon quest or a Ferrari driver racing for the chequered flag at Monza.
So spare a thought for Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot when they mount their bicycles in Brussels on Saturday to begin a 3,480km route, including 30 mountain climbs, hoping to arrive in Paris on July 28 in a yellow jersey.
No Frenchman has done that since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and every passing year deepens the desperation of a Tour-mad nation.
In recent years a British team, of all things, have become the pantomime villains for the French fans who line roads across the country in hope, with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome (four times) and then Geraint Thomas all winning for Team Sky.
But as the 106th edition looms, there is a genuine belief, not just blind loyalty, that this could be the year. "Now or never" is the narrative of the local media.
Bardet, AG2R La Mondiale's leader, has been France's best bet since finishing sixth in 2014 but the closest he has come was second in 2016, four minutes behind winner Froome.
With Froome out this year after a dreadful crash on a training ride at the Criterium du Dauphine, Thomas struggling for form and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) also missing, it feels like a golden opportunity for Bardet on a climber-friendly route that should play to his strengths.
"There is always lots of pressure. As a Frenchman, there is this big expectation for you to perform because of this long wait since Hinault's last win," Bardet, who also finished third in 2017 and sixth last year, told reporters on Thursday.
"I always try my best with this expectation and pressure but, honestly, I think it is a good thing for me and a good thing for the French public that we have this expectation."
Bardet has earmarked a brutal final week in the Alps, when the Col de Vars, Col d'Izoard, Col du Galibier, Col de l'Iseran and Val Thorens await, as his opportunity to write history.
"This will be the hardest third week I've ever seen," the 28-year-old said. "There will be big time gaps but I have been training at altitude for this and I am ready.
"I am actually a fan of this route because I can see a lot of opportunities in the mountains to attack."
Bardet and Pinot both warn that Team Ineos, formerly Sky, are still the team to beat if they are to end the 34-year wait.
"In spite of Froome's absence, I have no doubt that Ineos will still have the strength to control the race," Bardet said.
Pinot, the Groupama-FDJ leader, has not been on the podium since 2014 and missed the race altogether last year after abandoning the Giro d'Italia because of pneumonia.
But, at 29, he feels he is nearing his peak.
"I've still got quite a few years ahead of me. On the other hand, this is a year in which I'm hitting peak form, I'm keen to do well. I'm ambitious," he said this week.
Quick to try to release the pressure, however, Pinot says a big mountain stage win is the team's target, and listed several other riders ahead of himself as GC favourites.
"Team Ineos is enormous," he said. "They have the keys to control the race. To me, there are three top favourites: Thomas, Egan Bernal (Ineos) and (Jakob) Fuglsang (Astana)."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams)