Put the Bernie in the turnie.

Put the Bernie in the turnie.

Guest Article: The Wait of a Nation

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The Tour de France is France’s race. Actually, that isn’t quite fair. The Tour de France is France’s Olympics, World Cup, and National Identity all wrapped up into one big sweaty peloton of hopefuls. My first trip to France to watch the Tour in 2003 (I’d ridden there many, many times before, but never to watch the Tour) was an eye-opener in terms of its sheer impact on society; everything was on hold while the race happened – politics, the economy, everything. Except France hasn’t won it since 1985. They came close in 1989 but they were not close enough. They’ve had podiums in the interim but podiums don’t make it into a country’s collective memory the way winning does. Only the top step matters. 

@Wiscot returns for a pre-Tour Guesty on just how hard it is to carry the collective weight of a nation upon a single rider’s shoulders.

Yours in Cycling, Frank

When the 1987 Tour rolled around, the expectation of French success was high. Why wouldn’t it be? After all, in the previous 25 years the Gallic nation had enjoyed considerable success winning 14 times since 1962. Although the legendary Bernard Hinault had retired the previous year, established stars and young riders such as Laurent Fignon, Ronan Pensec, Charley Mottet, and Jean-Francois Bernard were rising to the top of their profession. It was upon these young shoulders that France laid its expectations and they were justifiable. Who could possibly have thought that Hinault’s last win in 1985 would be France’s last to date? No-one, that’s who.

The 1987 Tour was one of the most open. Only one former champion was riding: Fignon, and he wasn’t at his best. How wild and unpredictable was it? The whole race of 24 stages saw 10 riders wear yellow. The racing was wild and unpredictable. Even Sean Kelly, no shrinking violet when it came to riding on the rivet, expressed his concern to Fignon over the crazy style of racing, lamenting the absence of Hinault who, in his role as patron of the peloton, would have imposed order and sanity on affairs.

Of the French favorites, it was Jean-Francois “Jeff” Bernard upon whom the weight of expectation was greatest. Slender, stylish but with surprising strength, he had learned his craft under Hinault in the La Vie Claire team. At Toshiba he had new pressure – he was team leader and worked for Bernard Tapie, a flamboyant businessman who promised Jeff a Porsche if he won a stage. As the race wore on he was promised a ranch if he succeeded overall; his teammates received no such inducements. Over the course of the race, Bernard was cautious and mindful, staying out of trouble, waiting until the moment to assert himself arrived. His impeccably rationed efforts saw him clad in the (now sadly defunct) multi-colored Combine Jersey as the highest placed rider overall in the main classifications. His waiting game was over when Stage 18 was reached– a shockingly tough individual time trial up Mont Ventoux that was “only” 36 ½ kilometers long but had a wicked profile. It would be the stage for riders to finally show their true form and set the stage for the run into Paris.

Sitting at 2nd overall to Mottet, Bernard rode those 36 ½ kilometers like a man possessed. This was it – his big move: a ride to justify the hype. A ride to put him in the position to win the biggest race in cycling. His chance to join the greats of his sport. An opportunity to be the number one French rider. He had reconnoitered the course to the point where he knew every inch of road. He had practiced and practiced a bike switch because he planned on using two bikes, first a TT bike for the first flat section then on the mountain he would ride an early model carbon bike equipped with Dura Ace. Wearing the Combine classification’s multi-colored skin suit and yellow headband, his effort up the mountain, through a deafening cacophony of sound from thousands of crazy fans, was one of pure commitment. He held nothing back. Every picture of him during that ride shows a face wreathed in pain. A big glob of saliva rested on his left leg. His expression conveys not just the physical effort but the unseen expectation of an entire country’s hopes sitting atop his shoulders. Bernard didn’t just win the stage – he decimated his rivals: Herrera was second at 1’39”, Delgado at 1’51”, Parra at 2’04” and Roche at 2’19” and Bernard took the yellow jersey by a margin of 2’34” over Roche. Things were looking good – especially with one more TT to come.

The win was unquestionably incredible. But there were a couple of problems with Bernard’s plan to win La Grande Boucle. Although the upcoming Stage 23 was a time trial he was expected to win, there were still six stages to go including three nasty mountain stages. Comments that Bernard made after the Ventoux win showed some cockiness that the race was essentially in the bag. These did not sit well with his fellow competitors and rivals who schemed to prove him wrong.

For the next day, Stage 19, Mottet (who was a local and knew the route well), Roche and the other overall contenders studied the parcours carefully and planned a move. At Leoncel there was a feed zone after a downhill and a narrow bridge, followed by a steep uphill – they knew there would be a bottleneck. The rivals, now allies, planned to take on extra food and not slow up at a point in the race where a truce would normally be in order. Unsporting? Perhaps. Shrewd tactics? Yes. Evidence of a lack of patron? Yes. Like I said, this was a crazy race. The rivals were also well aware that Bernard was not terribly tactically astute and during the stage several teammates were in breaks rather than shepherding and protecting their leader. Bear in mind two things here: Bernard rode for a French team – Toshiba, and Mottet and Fignon rode for Systeme U; this was not just rider rivalry, this was team rivalry too. Another critical factor was this: Systeme U had Cyrille Guimard as its manager and Toshiba had the far less experienced Paul Kochli. Guimard was the wily ex-pro who had mentored Hinault and Fignon to their Tour wins and was a master tactician. Kochli was more akin to a trainer whose expertize lay in new scientific methods of training and nutrition.

As the stage unfolded the unexpected and the expected happened – Bernard punctured on the Col de Tourniol and had to chase madly to get back to the bunch which was by then strung out on the descent. The high pace meant getting to the front was almost impossible. At the feed zone at Leoncel his chain slipped off. The Mottet/Roche plan worked perfectly: the bunch slowed to almost a stop because of the bridge and feed zone. It was green light time for the rivals/allies who were right up front and they went full gas. With three Toshiba riders away in a leading break (instead of looking after Bernard) Martial Gayant of Systeme U launched the attack. Roche, Mottet, Fignon, Delgado, Herrera and Lejarreta were in the break and worked like dogs together. These were all the main contenders from the strongest teams. Bauer, Garde and Imboden, Bernard’s teammates who were way up the road, had to wait for their leader as the second break thundered past. Despite valiant efforts by Toshiba, the damage was done. Delgado won the stage from Roche and Bernard tearfully lost the jersey, undone by a rare collusion of rivals, bad luck and tactical naivete. He never wore yellow again and finished third in the Tour overall – despite winning the final time trial by 1’44”.

After the 1987 Tour, Bernard’s star never quite shone so brightly. He was injured in the Giro in 1988, the following year he had knee problems and in 1990 a saddle sore forced him out of the Tour. In 1991 he joined Banesto to be a super domestique to Delgado and Indurain. He bounced around various teams before retiring in 1996. Today he commentates for TV, still sure that the 87 tour could–should–have been his.

In recent years French riders have again begun to percolate near the top of the Tour podium. To call them contenders would be fair, but it’s been three decades since a Frenchman won his own tour – compare that to 14 Italians winning the Giro since 87 and 13 Spaniards winning the Vuelta in the same time period. The wait of a nation is invisible but nonetheless a heavy thing (ask tennis player Andy Murray about Wimbledon) and gets heavier by the year. Will the weight be lifted from the Gallic shoulders in 2015? We shall see.

// Guest Article

  1. Holy crap!




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  2. Cracker of an article Wiscot, obviously the UCI wasn’t as concerned with inter-team collusion back in the day!




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  3. Also, the Toshiba mechanic hanging out on the top of the team car in the background there is a lesson in casually deliberate.




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  4. Great story and perspective – thanks.




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  5. 1. If there are any more internecine than the French, please advise . . ..

    2. The Italians are cycling fans year round, the French, mainly. one month of the year.




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  6. @wiscot What a superb retelling of a classic Tour story, thanks!




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  7. I would have read the article if I could get past “Guesty”




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  8. Fascinating, thanks.




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  9. @Joe

    1. If there are any more internecine than the French, please advise . . ..

    The Belgians are probably worse.

    Italians at the Worlds too but not so bad at other races.




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  10. Interesting analysis, thanks!




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  11. Great article – thank you!




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  12. Great article, @wiscot




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  13. Great stuff as usual, wiscot




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  15. Great article.

    I do wish that they would bring the combine jersey back to the Tour. From an aesthetic viewpoint I always thought that it was the coolest looking of all the jerseys.




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  16. @Jay

    Great article.

    I do wish that they would bring the combine jersey back to the Tour. From an aesthetic viewpoint I always thought that it was the coolest looking of all the jerseys.

    And no one looked as good in it as LeMan. Full stop.




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  17. Have never even heard of this racer, much less this story. Thank you, wiscot!

    Also, I have the Combined Jersey in jacket form. More of a casual ride wind breaker than any real training jacket, but it was too cool to pass on when I happened upon it.

    This has me excited for Le Tour, which is awesome. I was getting a bit bogged down with all the doping questions of late, which is a shame. Thank you, wiscot!




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  18. @Ron

    interesting you say that Ron, it may be the cynic in me, but I have a feeling that’s why the majority of these stories break in June during the lull between the Giro & the Tour. Soon enough everyone will be obsessing over la grand boucle & (in the deluded minds of the administrators) forgetting all about how dirty the sport is…




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  19. One Frenchman who won”t be riding… Bouhanni is out.

    http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/bouhanni-says-hes-probably-out-of-the-tour-de-france-after-french-nationals-crash

    But wow, those legs.




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  20. @ChrisO

    huh, always assumed he’d be bigger in the upper body (bulkwise) with the boxing background…but a quick google seems to disagree.

    Also, ouch.




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  21. @Mikael Liddy

    @ChrisO

    huh, always assumed he’d be bigger in the upper body (bulkwise) with the boxing background…but a quick google seems to disagree.

    Also, ouch.

    Lightweight for sure, no less though, but yeah those guns!




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  22. Great article. Winning a Grand Tour for the French is like Murray winning Wimbledon last year – the weight of expectations is insane. Of course Murray is Scottish which possibly deflects the pressure to some extent.

    Is there a French ex-pat like Froome is to the UK who could have a go without feeling the pressure so directly?




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  23. @ChrisO

    It’s going to make for an interesting sprinters competition as I hear Kittel is out. Johnny D is Giant’s chosen sprinter. And with no Viviani on the Sky Team, it looks like the path is open for Cav to do his thang fairly uninterrupted, assuming he can stay up right.

    I’d love Thibault to smash it, though I doubt he has the maturity yet to take it.




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  24. @VeloJello

    @ChrisO

    It’s going to make for an interesting sprinters competition as I hear Kittel is out. Johnny D is Giant’s chosen sprinter. And with no Viviani on the Sky Team, it looks like the path is open for Cav to do his thang fairly uninterrupted, assuming he can stay up right.

    I’d love Thibault to smash it, though I doubt he has the maturity yet to take it.

    Thanks for all the kind comments. I love writing this stuff. Judging by Cav’s performance in yesterday’s British RR championship, he’s in fine, feisty form. That Lincoln course wasn’t exactly a sprinter’s paradise yet he hung on until the very end. Well worth watching if you can see it on Steephill.tv

    As my VSP chances have been shot since MSR, I’m going to shoot for Alaphilippe in the top 5. I think him and Tony Panzerwagen will be allowed to go stage hunting while the rest of the team take care of Cav.




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  25. @ChrisO

    Looks like he’s more hopeful today. X-rays showed no break




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  26. As a kid, I watched him guarding Hinault and thought that Jean-Francois Bernard would be the next badass. He ooooozzed PRO.

    But 1987, ah, I think it wiped him out. I think he was more sensitive than we all knew. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

    But he was awesome — even on the stupid weekend wraps on the TV and in the pages of Winning.




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  27. I’d love to see Pinot take it as well, but I think @VeloJello is right. I don’t know if he has the wherewithal to string together a complete Tour.

    I’d be fuckin STOKED if Alaphilippe placed top 5. I like that kid. Plus, he actually WEARS A FUCKING CYCLING CAP ON THE PODIUM. Here he is next to a couple of NASCAR drivers (that is what I will assume them to be based on their chosen headgear).




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  28. @TBONE

    So much for that extra light Ti BB, eh Bernie?




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  29. Solid effort here…great article!




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  30. @Matt

    I’d love to see Pinot take it as well, but I think @VeloJello is right. I don’t know if he has the wherewithal to string together a complete Tour.

    I’d be fuckin STOKED if Alaphilippe placed top 5. I like that kid. Plus, he actually WEARS A FUCKING CYCLING CAP ON THE PODIUM. Here he is next to a couple of NASCAR drivers (that is what I will assume them to be based on their chosen headgear).

    Yup, ETQ know how to look good on the podium. Sky seem to have belatedly taken note. Most teams however, are still clueless.

    Jeff Bernard was super-talented, but as I think we all know, having the physical ability is one thing, if you don’t have the head/brains/psyche as well, a super champ you’ll never be. Look at all the great – Bernard Hinault to take the most obvious example. Physically phenomenal, mentally unbeatable. BH must have watched JFB in 87 and wondered WTF was he doing.Or at the very least, what was Kochli thinking with his tactics? BH would not have been surprised that Guimard outsmarted Kochli.




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  31. @Bruce Lee

    @TBONE

    So much for that extra light Ti BB, eh Bernie?

    Err, you mean, Larry, not Bernie? 1982 Blois-Chaville. Fignon up by 45 seconds with about 15kms to go. Titanium axle snapped. Shit happens when fragile components are paired with some Gallic awesomeness.




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  32. @rfreese888

    Tom Dumoulin sounds French?




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  33. And, when is the VSP for the TdF opening up? Thanks, do not want to Delgado it.




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  34. @KogaLover

    @rfreese888

    Tom Dumoulin sounds French?

    He’s Dutch though.




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  35. Although I realise after pressing ‘submit’ that you may well have known that…




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  36. Reckon Bardet might be one of my outside picks for the top 5, not sure he’s got enough to make it on the podium though.




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  37. @Oli

    Indeed ;-) Hope springs eternal I guess, although Tom will not be in my top 10 pick for the TdF, so I will need to set patriotism aside.




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  38. @KogaLover

    He could light it up in the TTs and flat to middle mountain stages, if Tour de Suisse is anything to go by. I liked his style.




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  39. The miserable amount of TT’ing in this year’s Tour is a disgrace, a disgrace I tell ya. 13.8 kms in the prologue and a 28 kms TTT. Proudhomme needs to get this sorted. I’m not saying there should be the 80-100 kms TTs of old, but a nice 50-60 would be good. And a 30-40 one too. It’s all bloody mountains. Now get orf my grass.




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  40. Tour guide as apparenmtly supplied to the teams can be found here……..(I have checked and this is a safe link/download)

    https://www.wetransfer.com/downloads/a57e90eb73b2364139647f03780d469820150629092928/e1e80de5735f14ead1a2cd2c76040bf920150629092928/a7686d




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  41. @wiscot

    Great article, as the TdF is now only days away it underlines the fine line between being a national hero and just another pro. No room for Alaphillipe in the Etixx line up but can you imagine how awesome it would be if his teammate, Der Panzerwagen, had a 100km TT to look forward to. Oooft!




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  42. @eenies

    @wiscot

    Great article, as the TdF is now only days away it underlines the fine line between being a national hero and just another pro. No room for Alaphillipe in the Etixx line up but can you imagine how awesome it would be if his teammate, Der Panzerwagen, had a 100km TT to look forward to. Oooft!

    Holding Alaphillipe out might be a good thing. Give him a Giro or Vuleta to test his GT legs before throwing him into a Tour. Guimard held Hinault back until 78 to ride his first Tour even though he turned pro in 74 and joined forces with Guimard in 76.You don’t want to waste good talent by throwing it into depths they don’t know how to handle.

    I sure hope Tony Panzerwagen decides to create his own TT to make up for the scanty official allocation. The drooling basking shark face is always a fine sight to see.




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  43. @wiscot

    @eenies

    @wiscot

    Great article, as the TdF is now only days away it underlines the fine line between being a national hero and just another pro. No room for Alaphillipe in the Etixx line up but can you imagine how awesome it would be if his teammate, Der Panzerwagen, had a 100km TT to look forward to. Oooft!

    Holding Alaphillipe out might be a good thing. Give him a Giro or Vuleta to test his GT legs before throwing him into a Tour. Guimard held Hinault back until 78 to ride his first Tour even though he turned pro in 74 and joined forces with Guimard in 76.You don’t want to waste good talent by throwing it into depths they don’t know how to handle.

    I sure hope Tony Panzerwagen decides to create his own TT to make up for the scanty official allocation. The drooling basking shark face is always a fine sight to see.

    You thinking another day long break a la the Vuelta a few years back?




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