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Frank van den Broek and Romain Bardet cross the line as Bardet wins stage 1 of the 2024 Tour de France. They're both smiling wide, shocked smiles and pointing at each other in pure joy. Behind, slightly blurred, a furious field finishes an unsuccessful chase.

Belief wins the day

Neither Romain Bardet nor Frank van den Broek could have won today without the other, and they knew it.

Kate Wagner
by Kate Wagner 29.06.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images
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There are wins in cycling that make us all reconsider our view of ourselves, and Romain Bardet’s win in Stage 1 of the 2024 Tour de France is one of them. Inevitably there will be lots of analysis about who screwed up and how in what was a very difficult and complex stage, about how a situation formed in which a two-man break couldn’t be pulled back by a charging peloton, or whether it was “fair” for the young and talented Frank van den Broek to cede the victory and yellow jersey to the elder Bardet instead of the teammates racing two-up, as if this victory and how people feel about it is really about any of those things, which it isn’t.

I can only speak personally, but the unlikely sight of Romain Bardet coming across the line victorious on the first stage of his very last Tour de France, a race with which he has always had a fractious relationship characterized by a mix of tenderness, perseverance, and disappointment, had me thinking about myself and my own life and my own struggles, had me wondering whether it is possible to overcome what sometimes feel like inescapable burdens. 

One of the bleakest human feelings is wondering, “is it ever going to happen for me again?”

“It” can be anything – success, happiness, love, vigor, freedom, material comfort – but as the days and the years pass in almost unceasing monotony, or very real toil, the question doesn’t get any easier to answer. Cycling works emotionally as a sport because we are able to craft narratives across all timescales and can project some of our own anxieties and hopes onto athletes who seem to be doing something much harder, physically, visually, than whatever it is we have going on in our lives.

Age, of course, is one of the most powerful anxieties there is, and with it a fear that there is a lastness to everything. It matters that Bardet is nearing retirement, it matters that this Tour is his final Tour, it matters that his generation, the generation of 1990, is coming to a close, a generation that has had the misfortune of coming of age during the elision between the Froome years and the current era of young super-talents.

It matters that this generation is one of the last to have been thoroughly entrenched in an old-school romantic form of cycling with its narratives of passion and weird chivalric rights, something that would prove untenable when required to compete with post-Sky tactics and an ever-rapacious culture of energy and strategic micromanagement, though I should acknowledge here that Bardet himself was always very attuned to and considerate of these changes. 

Despite the sport’s internationalization, it still matters that Bardet is a Frenchman at the Tour de France. It matters that he tried many times to be in that yellow jersey and never once, despite being second in the Tour in 2016 and third in 2017, had it been wrapped around his shoulders until today, which is the very last first day of the Tour de France for Romain Bardet.

Romain Bardet stands backstage at the Tour de France podium on stage 1. He's shown framed in a small vertical gap in fencing, the blurred white of the foreground on either side of his face, with deepset, expressive eyes under a helmet with sunglasses tucked in the vents.
Respected, cerebral, perceptive, and in his last Tour, maillot jaune for the first time.

Eloquent, gentle, and cerebral, Bardet, both through words and action, has always been able to turn himself into more than a simple story. When speaking to him, one gets the impression that he is hyper-aware of himself, which is not the same thing as being self-conscious. Every Bardet interview is a gift. “I have been really close before [to yellow], it has been within touching distance, and I’ve just never been able to do it,” he said at the finish. What changed this time? “I can finally show the real me. I rode as if it wasn’t the Tour de France,” he said. He’s always been the closest thing to having a novelist in the peloton. 

It also matters how he won. When I think about Bardet wins, I think about him languishing solo on some horrific mountaintop draped over his bike, respirating thin and ungrateful air. I saw him round agonizing hairpins with my own eyes on Pico Villuercas at the 2021 Vuelta a España, and I remember writing down in my diary: Never have I seen someone so alone. Even the mountains seemed to disappear, as well as time, people, everything. On those slopes, it was as though Romain Bardet had only his body for company, which is a specific type of climber’s aloneness very few of us will ever know. 

But this time, this last time, he wasn’t riding up punishing 15% gradients. He went earlier than expected on a stage full of rolling category 3s, bridging across to the early breakaway containing the very talented and very young Frank van den Broek. It was Van den Broek who dropped back briefly to help his teammate cross the gap. It was the two of them who worked together to drop their companions. Out there, peloton looming behind them, close then far then close again, they formed an intergenerational pact.

They needed each other in order to win. Without Van den Broek, Bardet would have perished, succumbing to the furious chase behind. Without Bardet’s rather surprising move, first-year pro Van den Broek wouldn’t have seen the wily vision, wouldn’t have been out there with his leader. It matters that Van den Broek helped his teammate win, and that this was a choice that was made because they were teammates, which is a type of social and emotional bond that extends beyond mere utility.

I’ve seen an increasing amount of rhetoric both in my personal cycling fan circles and online that teammates should, like Visma Lease-a-Bike did in the Vuelta last year, ride against each other producing a kind of “real” winner (which is to say a winner in the test of bodily strength alone). I think that one of the side effects of the last 10 years of data, full-televised point-by-point strategic analysis, and hypercompetitive micromanagement is that there is a growing tendency to think that cycling is just about winning on sheer biological or strategic merit, a kind of Social Darwinism that ignores the role of emotions and relationships in why riders make the decisions they do. 

The point of the matter is, the two DSM-Firmenich-PostNL riders, in what can only be described as a nail-biting and self-effacing act of teamwork, of live-wire human interdependence, came to the line together. They celebrated together. Van den Broek, although he probably could have, did not want to sprint for victory against his older comrade in said comrade’s last year of the Tour, and we have no discernable reason to believe his true intentions were otherwise. The young Dutchman will have many opportunities to be in this situation again. Bardet will not. The reality and the gravity of that truth, the finality of it is real. Van den Broek’s decision can’t be reduced to orders along the line of petty inter-team hierarchy. We should all recognize that there is a lot of resentment in the word “deserves.” 

With four kilometers to go, I really thought it was over, that the peloton was going to catch these two men, sweat-drenched, parched-faced, out all day in the stinking heat. It was a menacing pursuit, and there is no bigger prize than the yellow jersey on the first stage of the Tour. If you watch the last 10 kilometers again, the two rode, fundamentally, as a pair, not as two individuals. They weren’t eyeing each other, but rather tending to one another, checking in, looking around. Even when Bardet struggled, even when he couldn’t pull when he ought’ve, it matters that Van den Broek stayed with him, that he burned his candle so that if they were going to go down in tragic glory, it wouldn’t be alone. “It brings so much more because it was the only way we could do it today,” Bardet said. “I say ‘we’ because he won as much as me today.”

Romain Bardet and Frank van den Broek cross the finish line of stage 1 of the Tour de France. Pictured from behind, they're both sitting up on the bike, hands placed on their heads in disbelief as fans lining the barriers roar their approval.

That’s solidarity, and the fact that we are increasingly unable to recognize it only speaks to the barren alienation of our times. Neither man was “robbed” of a “real” victory. Their relationship, their social bond is what enabled them to win. I don’t think the win would have been possible – for Bardet or for Van den Broek – if either did not believe in the other. That matters. 

Everything in the whole world came together in a specific way to produce this specific, unalterable result. Bardet’s win proves that in a changing sport amid a period, one of a historical handful, marked by unceasing domination by the few, there still exists that spark of romance, that sense of impetuousness, those bonds of devotion and sacrifice that characterized the old and rapidly-retiring way of cycling. These are rare wins that implore us to keep watching, perhaps even forever, because they reveal the true resilience of the human condition, but also of human relationships. For Romain Bardet, there is some closure and joy at this particular finish line. For Frank van den Broek, there is an entire open road that’s his for the taking. The torch has been passed. With some joy, too. 

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