Julien Bernard takes a moment with fans to sign his autograph.

Julien Bernard’s illicit ‘dream moment’: What is cycling if not this?

It was a dream for hometown hero Julien Bernard to spend a few seconds with his family and friends on stage 7, but the UCI was having none of it.

Julien Bernard (Lidl-Trek) with fans before the start of stage 6 of the 2024 Tour de France. Photo: © Cor Vos

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 06.07.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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There were bigger stories to preoccupy ourselves with during and after Friday’s individual time trial, but with, let’s face it, no big surprises on the GC or even stage win front, another more significant and systemic story emerged late in the day. It’s a story that gets to the very root of cycling itself.

It actually began early in the day when word spread that Lidl-Trek’s Julien Bernard, neither a TT specialist nor a team leader, would be followed by a TV moto throughout his effort on the understanding that his family and friends would be lining a particular stretch of his home roads. The resultant images were beautiful, heartwarming, the kind that send tingles up the spine of all watching, only for Bernard to be sanctioned and fined by the UCI for “inappropriate behaviour during the race and damage to the image of the sport.”

Sorry, what?

The damaging moment in question …

Bernard is one of the quiet workhorses of cycling, and of the Tour de France. The 32-year-old is the son of retired pro Jean-François Bernard, himself part of the elite club whose members have won stages in all three Grand Tours, and a bona fide GC talent who won Paris-Nice and Critérium International in 1992, five years after finishing third in the Tour de France behind Stephen Roche. Bernard junior is a different sort of rider from his father, but he’s beloved and valued in that perhaps uniquely French way: he’s reliable, he’s passionate, he’s strong, and he’s immensely valued – just look at his career: he’s been with the same squad since his stagiaire season in 2015.

Bernard is currently racing his fourth Tour de France, his tenth Grand Tour, lining up as a key cog in the machine designed to help Mads Pedersen win stages. Bernard has already found his way into a breakaway on stage 4, and he might well have pinned his hopes on another opportunity later in the race – especially after his second-place finish at the French National Championships the weekend before the Tour – but his is first and foremost a team role, he’s a teammate.

And then the Tour visited his home region. His young son joined Bernard on the stage for sign-on before stage 6, then the stage 7 time trial paid a visit to his training roads, which had been covered in his initials. What’s more, it’s actually quite rare for a rider to race on their home roads, even a Frenchman in France, and for Bernard his house was just beyond the finish line.

What could be more perfect?

His TT would take a little over half an hour, and of course, he’d have to finish inside the time limit, but it would be ample, so he planned ahead of time that he would make the most of it, absorb every possible second with the people he loves most and the community that adores him, and take a few moments with his wife and son in a scene that would be immortalised for themselves and all watching by the TV camera on his tail.

I was really looking forward to this day. I knew my wife and my friends did something on the climb. I started quite fast in the TT, and then I wanted to enjoy every second on this climb with, as you see, my friends and all my family. It was a dream moment for me.”

It’s moments like this one that remind us what these riders sacrifice, often relocating their whole families for better weather and training roads, then spending vast amounts of time away from home, missing out on key events, missing first steps, missing birthdays, first days of school, anniversaries … All those people lining the roadsides brandishing their signs and the tricolore, welcoming home their hero. This is cycling.

Sure, it’s possible to argue that a time trial is a uniquely carefully organised discipline with meticulous timing, riders and vehicles interspersed a couple of minutes apart, and a particular focus on details. But I’m not even going to bother getting into why Bernard’s plan was still reasonable and respectful to the race and the riders around him – he started six minutes ahead of French national TT champion Bruno Armirail (Decathlon-AG2R), the next rider likely to be going all out.

Bernard and Lidl-Trek chose passion, the very thing that must drive the whole peloton. And for a legacy rider who has been part of cycling for so long, but who’s rarely been the centre of attention, in that moment, Julien Bernard felt like a real hero.

This is cycling. Just as Mark Cavendish’s celebration with his family is cycling. Or Jonas Vingegaard’s resolute determination to call home after every stage. Or Wout van Aert’s delight at seeing his young sons during warm-down. Marianne Vos and her cats. Or Magnus Cort’s reunion with his partner on the Galibier … Or Thibaut Pinot soaring through the sensational ‘Virage Pinot’ on his own home roads during last year’s stage 20.

The UCI have missed the point, again, just as they did on stage 5 when Davide Ballerini was fined for pausing to watch his teammate sprint to a historic victory on a big screen. Really, who or what is that hurting?

Bernard’s fine was received with derision, mostly acknowledging the laughable myopia on display from the sport’s governing body. And the man himself? He reacted with a trademark stoicism borne of the very sentiment the UCI was attempting to condemn.

“Sorry to UCI Cycling for having damaged the image of the sport,” Bernard wrote in a tweet. “But I am willing to pay 200CHF every day and relive this moment.”

And I think all watching would agree.

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