On Monday, the Tour de France’s mini-tour of famous cycling locations in the bike racing heartland of Brittany takes it through Plumelec and up the legendary Cadoudal hill. The ascent will be brief and probably inconsequential, but after a weekend full of reminders of French cycling’s glorious past it will serve as yet another reminder of a far longer and more existentially painful battle: the 35-year hiatus since the home nation won its Tour.

In 1985, Plumelec was where Bernard Hinault won the prologue in front of 100,000 baying fans, the first stepping stone towards the “Badger’s” his fifth Tour win, the last victory for a Frenchman.

At 66, Hinault isn’t as prominent as he once was – he’s stepped back from frontline work at the Tour de France – but during the opening weekend in the region there were constant reminders of his long and distinguished career.

On Sunday, the race will go through his former stamping ground of Saint-Brieuc, where he rode to and from school and work, and where he was the terror of local Grand Prix du Comité des Fêtes, the amateur races run in every neighbouring village. On Saturday, it was Chateaulin, where the 21-year-old Hinault made his mark in the celebrated circuit race in 1975, disobeying senior riders who wanted it to be run their way, and making a derogatory gesture at the legendary Eddy Merckx, as he mopped up one lap prize after another.

As always when the Tour visits Brittany – which, because of its location on the French fringe, isn’t as often as may be imagined – the régionaux have been given the attention they deserve. They aren’t as numerous as they once were, and they are Badger-lite not Badger-like.

Warren Barguil (whose home town, Hennebont, figures on Monday’s stage) was tipped as a future Hinault once but will be lucky to win a stage. Valentin Madouas, from the start town of Brest, is a strong team rider at Groupama-FDJ, where his leader is David Gaudu, whose home town of Landivisiau is just up the road from Saturday’s finish. A stage win for Gaudu, and a place in the top six overall, would be viewed as a success.

Although a third Groupama-FDJ rider, sprinter Arnaud Démare is also a potential stage winner, the home nation’s hopes rest on the slight shoulders of Julian Alaphilippe. Now 29, he is the reigning world champion, he led the Tour for 14 stages in 2019, won two stages and ended up fifth overall. He has started the Tour well, claiming the yellow jersey as he soloed to victory after two crashes marred the opening stage. He is interesting in the ways he differs from the great Hinault as well as in the echoes of the Badger that can be discerned in him.

Where Hinault exuded bluff confidence, and still does, Alaphilippe is a nervy looking whippet, constantly fidgets in a race, adjusting this, looking out for that. Where Hinault would bludgeon a field into submission using brute strength, “D’Artagnan” uses the cycling equivalent of the rapier, winning with a single, perfectly timed move. They share modest roots, but there is no sense Alaphilippe is on a mission to take revenge on the world; there is no undercurrent of atavistic violence about him as there was with Hinault.

Unlike Hinault, whose career was rooted in France, he has never raced as a professional for a French team; he is devoted to the Belgian Deceuninck squad. Most importantly, where Hinault was a Tour rider who had the brute strength and speed to win one-day races, Alaphilippe is more a Classics rider whose limits in a three-week race have yet to be measured.

Bernard Hinault shows of his four yellow jerseys won in previous years (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982) on a rest day during the 1985 Tour de France, which he also won.
Bernard Hinault shows of his four yellow jerseys won in previous years (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982) on a rest day during the 1985 Tour de France, which he also won. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

He does resemble Hinault in certain ways. He seems to relish the act of racing as competition as Hinault did, albeit in a less primeval way. He also has Hinault’s capacity to achieve a target, to deliver when expected, most notably in last year’s world championship. And he is also willing to take risks, most probably because he has never once had to save his strength to salvage a worthy yet dull place in the top 10 of a Grand Tour.

Rainbow jersey notwithstanding, he is not expected to end France’s Tour famine. Only the most one-eyed of fans felt his 2019 run in yellow would reach the Champs-Élysées and this year he is not seen as a serious challenger for Slovenia’s finest, Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic. Hinault, amusingly – and typically – is among those who have written him off. “In the mountains, after a day or two, he will struggle: when the big favourites fight it out, he won’t be with them.”

Alaphilippe has downplayed his chances. He recognised the route may suit him, with only two major summit finishes, but conceded Deceuninck have not selected a team that can support him in the mountains. The squad has no climbing core like those of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, being structured around the – absent – sprint star Sam Bennett.

He pitched a simple plan: the stages in Brittany, with their hilly finishes, will suit him on paper and he can limit his losses in Wednesday’s time trial. “After the first week, we will see,” was his mantra. It is either a bluff or an acceptance of reality; he may not know either.

Whatever he achieves, it could help France move out of the shadow of Hinault, who should probably have the last word. “If a Frenchman wins the Tour, it will be by mistake,” was the Badger’s view in 2014. That still applies today. If Alaphilippe were to win the Tour, it would be a glorious aberration, but he and France can dream, for now.

William Fotheringham is the author of The Badger: Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling, published by Yellow Jersey Press.