Christophe Moreau proved he still had strong legs this week with a comprehensive stage victory on Mont Ventoux in the Dauphiné Libéré, and sweet revenge for last year’s narrow loss to Denis Menchov on the climb.
“Une victoire de prestige,” said three-time Dauphiné winner Charly Mottet, part of the race organization.
For the thirty-six year old French journeyman, it will surely be a satisfying addition to his palmarès in what is likely to be his penultimate year as a professional cyclist.
“I don’t want to be some sort of record-maker for the longest pro career, he was reported saying ahead of the Dauphiné. “The objective is two seasons more; I am active in the races and the legs still work when I attack.”
Moreau has been a consistent performer over the years, with his latest win proving that his aging legs do indeed still work. Climbing has always been a strength and he has been the dauphin, if you like, to Richard Virenque’s crown as the best French grimpeur in the last ten years.
Like Virenque, Moreau’s career has been tainted by doping, but his lower profile in the peloton and the public spotlight kept him out of the on-going controversy over Virenque’s climbing records.
Moreau turned professional in 1995 aged 24 with the Festina squad, quickly showing his capabilities with a second place overall in the young riders Tour de l’Avenir.
He also showed his distinctive à bloc style, earning the casual nickname from fans, le chien – the dog.
The year 1996 was less than spectacular, however, with only a 75th placing at the Tour, working for Virenque and Laurent Dufaux. In 1997, though, he rode strongly in the Tour ITTs, securing a top-twenty overall finish.
The following year, 1998, was, of course, l’Affaire Festina. Moreau was already under suspicion at the start of the Tour, having failed a doping test. Still under investigation, he reportedly blamed a soigneur for giving him a banned product.
This all became moot, however, when he confessed along with most of his Festina teammates (except, Pascal Herve and, famously, Virenque – who were the biggest supporters of doping in the team, according to Willy Voet) to doping as part of the organised team plan run by director Bruno Roussel and doctor Erik Ryckaert.
Moreau served his 9-month suspension and was back racing in 1999. Even now, he seems discouraged by doping in cycling.
“The confessions of Riis and the others arrive too late. What good does it serve? This only proves that those of us who were forced to (take the blame) in 1998 that the same thing was happening elsewhere,” Moreau said in a recent interview. “To be honest, I’d prefer not to even know. For my part, I paid for what I did. All I know is that I came out of it stronger. It transformed my life.”
Post, suspension, Moreau’s results were mixed. Still riding for Festina and concentrating only on several major races, a 27th in the 1999 Tour was a disappointment. In 2000, though, he ride strongly at the Tour – particularly in the mountains – and grabbed 4th place overall as the best French rider.
A strong start in 2001 saw him win the Dauphiné, but abandon the Tour after stage 12 having won the prologue and wearing the yellow jersey. This trend continued in 2002 with a third in the Dauphiné, behind Landis and Armstrong, and another abandonment at the Tour, despite being the leader of his new Crédit Agricole team.
In the three years from 2003 to 2005 he rode strongly for Crédit Agricole. At the Tour he was 8th, 12th, and 11th respectively and the top French rider. There were race wins, such as the up-and-down Trophée des Grimpeurs in 2004, but high-profile victories were absent.
In 2005, his contract with Crédit Agricole came to an end and it seemed like the team no longer had a place for him. Moreau switched to Ag2r, after looking at other offers. His presence, along with Francesco Mancebo, boosted the team’s prospects to upgrade to a Pro Tour licence. The team was able to step up to the pro level, but lost Mancebo along the way to doping.
Having been criticised in the past for not doing enough, and concentrating only on being the top placed French rider at the Tour, Moreau announced that with Ag2r he would try a different approach.
“What I wanted after finishing fourth on GC in 2000, was the podium or at least the yellow jersey for a few days,” he told CyclingNews last year. “Today, I think my riding style has to be more offensive: there are the stage victories, the yellow jersey or even the polka dot jersey.”
He looked set to deliver at least on some of that promise, placing 2nd overall at last year’s Dauphiné and taking the climbing title.
But Moreau has had to share the spotlight at Ag2r with rising stars such as Cyril Dessel, who was the highest placed French rider in last year’s Tour in 8th (just ahead of Moreau in 9th) and who also spent time in the maillot jaune. Some observers expected that Mancebo would be the star for the team, but his absence did not stop them from placing fourth in the team ranking, the best performance by a French team.
This year the team has reportedly announced that John Gadret, with an unproven record and carrying the burden of expectation on his rather slight shoulders, will the joint team leader at the Tour, alongside Dessel and Moreau.
“I’d like to do my best in the Tour GC and play the opportunist to look for a beautiful stage win in the Alps or Pyrenees,” Moreau told the Le Dauphiné. “If things go well, maybe I can try for the polka-dot jersey. I’d switch my eighth place last year for that. I’d like to be in the top 10 and maybe be the best French rider.”
Perhaps Gadret and Dessel already know that, should they falter, Moreau is not ready to retire quietly just yet.
The French press refer to Moreau as le Belfortain, as he comes from Belfort in Alsace area in the east of the country.
In the town of Belfort is a sculpture, Le Lion de Belfort, by the locally-born sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, who was also the architect of the Statue of Liberty. The Lion commemorates the resistance of the local garrison in 1870-1871 during the Franco-Prussian war. The courage shown by the resistors was so respected by Prussia that they excluded Belfort from their annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region.
If Moreau shows some of his Ventoux courage at the Tour, he might just be able to challenge Rasmussen for the maillot à pois rouges. The old dog may yet show us some new tricks.