Julien Bernard makes a party out of a time trial

What Julien Bernard lost in time by stopping to greet his friends and family in the Burgundy time trial, he gained in making the Tour a celebration of cycling fandom

Terroir is the word French winemakers use to describe the environmental factors that make each appellation, each vineyard even, unique and special. Terroir is soil composition, weather, topography, context, grape variety, farming practices, geology, orientation and more; or rather it’s the combination of all these things, and relates to how each affects the other. The point is that terroir is more than the sum of its parts. Wines are complex, because terroir is complex.

They know a thing or two about terroir in the corner of France in which the seventh stage of the 2024 Tour de France took place. The start and finish towns of Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin sit atop the Côte de Nuits, a chalky limestone ridge stretching north and south through Burgundy all the way to Dijon. The terroir here – chalky limestone on a sandy gravel base, highly varied soil composition, cold winters and hot summers and east and southeast-facing vineyards – brings out the best in the delicate pinot noir grape, from which the best red burgundies are made, and in the dozen or so kilometres that separate Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin there are six Grands Crus produced alone. 

Julien Bernard rides the Burgundy time trial (Getty Images)

This region is also part of the terroir of Julien Bernard, the Lidl-Trek domestique and silver medallist in the recent French national road race championships who is participating in his fourth Tour de France this year. Bernard’s terroir is a complex but heady mix: he is the son of Jean-François Bernard, who was third in the 1987 Tour, and while he was born in Nevers, he raced in nearby Dijon as a junior and lives there now. He was the local boy in stage seven, 
le régional.

Before today, Bernard was probably best known for being a dependable team rider, nine years on the same team so far. Nerds might be able to recall his single victory as a pro – stage three of the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var in 2020 – and cycling fans of a certain vintage go a little misty-eyed at the physical resemblance he bears to his father. (That physical resemblance is possibly where it ends – Jean-François was mercurial, moody and temperamental as a rider in a way that Julien is not, and Lidl-Trek’s primary-coloured kit is tasteful, believe it or not, in a way that Jeff’s trademark day-glo sweatband and Tour Combination jersey could never be.)

Jean-François once won a Tour de France time trial just up the road in Dijon; his son is now best known for stopping during a Tour de France time trial to greet the fans, friends and family who made a lower-key but heartwarming version during stage seven of ‘Pinot Corner’, where fans of the retiring Thibaut Pinot gathered to celebrate the passage of their hero in the penultimate stage of last year’s Tour de France. The D116 at Reulle-Vergy may not quite be the Petit Ballon in the Vosges, but to Bernard it was a celebratory parade of high fives, friendly faces, loud cheers and, most importantly, the opportunity to stop and kiss his wife and child. Bernard milked the occasion, conducting the cheers and clearly enjoying the once-in-a-career opportunity; fans holding ‘Allez JB’ signs were ecstatic to see him. The moment was a brief but profound communion between athlete and public.

Les Régionaux
 have always been part of the rich tapestry of the Tour de France. In years gone by, riders passing through their home regions were ‘allowed’ to pass ahead of the peloton to greet their friends and family. The whole point of the Tour is that it passes through France – it is a celebration of a whole country and its geography and people. However, social media is turbocharging the impact of these moments. The scenes of Pinot riding up through the crowds at Pinot Corner in the Vosges were among the most memorable of the entire 2023 Tour, and Netflix more or less hung an entire episode of their Tour series Unchained off them. And Bernard’s touching communion with his fans and especially family was going viral during the course of this piece being written. 

Of course, there was also a bike race going on, and the focus of the television coverage was the four-way battle which is slowly emerging at the head of the general classification. However, the Tour is and always has been about more than its winners, and the interaction and proximity between athlete and fan is one of the best things about cycling. There has always been a porous barrier separating the sport of road racing and the real world. For a short period in today’s time trial, Julien Bernard had a foot in both worlds. He understood what it was like to be us, and we understood what it was like to be him. It was a fleeting, transcendent and profound moment, which encapsulated everything that is compelling about the Tour de France.

And then, of course, Bernard was fined by the race jury for inappropriate behaviour and damage to the image of cycling. Cycling is the greatest sport in the world, but also the most contradictory.

*Cover image by James Startt

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