The underdog has their day at the Tour de France

In the wake of Anthony Turgis's stellar gravel stage win, here's a tear-strewn vibe-check from the Total Energies bus.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 08.07.2024 Photography by
Kramon, Cor Vos and Gruber Images
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There’s not a dry eye at the Total Energies team bus, parked down the end of a long narrow road heading out of the centre of Troyes, lined by apartment towers and small businesses. Team staff move from one to another, embracing, shouting, crying. Jean-René Bernardeau, the team’s general manager, is surrounded by microphones from French outlets; as far as I can tell I’m the only English-language journo there, and only because I got lucky: I was chasing a much more tangential story, ending up at a bus surrounded by very happy people who can’t speak to me and I can’t speak to them. 

Anthony Turgis’s win was a bit of an unlikely triumph for the TotalEnergies squad, one of the battlers of the ProTeam circuit. They don’t win much, but they add important colour to the rich palate of his race’s tapestry. In that, there’s an unspoken deal: the Tour gives them their biggest platform, and they presumably do their best to animate the race through the timeless medium of the Doomed French Breakaway. Until today, that hasn’t really happened. But then – ah, but then. On the gravel roads around Troyes, Turgis got into a breakaway full of heavy hitters – people called things like Thomas Pidcock, Derek Gee, Ben Healy, Alexey Lutsenko, Jasper Stuyven: people who hit out again and again, trying to break the break on the way to the finish.

Across a frantic finale, most of those riders played their card for the win, and there was Anthony Turgis, biding his time. In the sprint finish, he simply outlasted the others, not so much victory by knock-out punch as grinding battle of attrition. “I was looking for a big victory for a couple of years, purposefully,” a stunned Turgis said after the stage. “I didn’t take part in many races that I could have won. Because I wanted to win the big one. I have worked hard on that.“ And now it’s here.

Turgis working with the breakaway early in the stage.

At the Tour de France, you spend a lot of time thinking about the teams battling for the win – the likes of Visma, UAE, Ineos. The typically doomed French likes of Total Energies present problems from a storytelling perspective: even in the beautiful win today, that seeped in at the edges. At the bus this morning, I spent about 20 minutes trying to find an English-speaker, got ignored by a press officer, and finally found a couple of nice people to communicate that Mathieu Burgaudeau didn’t want to talk to me today. A team like this has its niche, and a dedicated cohort of supporters to go along with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you’re trying to understand one of the more enigmatically French teams as an outsider.  

Post-win human emotion goes a long way to cutting through the language barrier. You don’t need to speak French to understand why Jean-René Bernardeau is crying and what it means to him. You don’t even need to understand the team’s deep lore to see how the eyes of young fans light up when Bernardeau goes onto the bus and comes out again, like Grandpa with a treat, to give them team hats. Another team staff member is obviously overcome at the significance of Turgis’s victory – she wells up, voice cracking as I talk to her about the win before she excuses herself from the conversation, dabbing at happy tears under her glasses. Another woman working for the team does a little dance outside the bus, to a song I think she’s made up by herself – its lyrics are ‘Allez Allez Allez’ [repeat]. It’s catchy.

Turgis lobs his bike into the air with delight.

And then there are the riders. Steff Cras, the lone non-Frenchman on the Total Energies Tour team (and just one of two in the entire roster) rolls toward the bus, smiling widely, and gets hugged by all of the many and growing number of Total Energies staff that keep arriving from all directions. His wife’s there too, holding their friendly (and outrageously fluffy) Pomeranian, Pom. “It was a long time since the team won a race at the Tour de France. We’re super happy and we can enjoy this – everything else is a bonus,” Cras told me, a stripe of white dust running down the front of each leg. We agree that it would be rude not to celebrate with some Champagne tonight, and then the four of us – me, and Pom, and Cras and his wife –  have a nice little chat. I pat Pom on his outrageously fluffy back. My hand sinks into his cloud-like fur and he gives an appreciative little wiggle. 

I’ve been standing there for about 20 minutes now, and the team Toyotas keep rolling in, disgorging directors and soigneurs. People lift each other up in huge hugs. Mathieu Burgaudeau rolls in smiling, which I haven’t seen him do for several days. I ask the ‘Allez Allez Allez’ woman if there’s any English-speaking directors who I can talk to; she thinks for a moment and points me to Benoit Genauzeau. “We were focused on the best result – we never spoke about victory, just the best result, no regrets at the end,” he tells me, eyes a little misty. They’d picked this stage out for Turgis, thought it was one for him – Cras, too, had said that they’d meant this one – and when I ask what it means for TotalEnergies he struggles to find the words. “It’s the Tour de France. It’s the best race in the world. It’s really really really important for all the team and for sure for the sponsor,” he says. A few tears in the car? A gentle smile, a nod. “Yeah.”

The riders keep rolling in. There’s poor Sandy Dujardin, racing across today’s rough gravel with a bruised bone on his wrist and a plaster cast. He’d been crying at the finish yesterday for a different reason; today his girlfriend is waiting for him, gently wraps him in a quiet hug, an oasis of calm in the mayhem. He reaches up his non-wounded hand to wipe a tear from under his sunglasses. 

Turgis has been knocking on the door of a big one for a while. His second place in the 2022 edition of Milan-San Remo is as close as he’s gotten – and for all the moments of glory, there have been plenty more of pain and questioning whether he was good enough. Speaking in his press conference today, he seems to have found some time to wrap up all those years of toil in some introspection. “At the Tour de France, I’ve been dropped even on the flat because of my injuries. I have finished some Tours de France in pretty bad shape,” he said, not self-pitying, just matter of fact. The kicker: “But I’ve always believed that I could make it up. And every time I get sick, I know that I will get better.”

Turgis holds back the tears, just, on the podium.

There are many dozens of people involved in running a cycling team – from the general manager all the way to soigneurs and logistics people, although most of the time you just hear about the riders. Turgis’s win makes it more obvious today than it ever has been for me that when a rider wins it’s because of a whole team of people putting their time in to help lay the groundwork. At the bus in the moments after the win, they’re standing all around me – unloading boxes of champagne flutes from the car, helping me find someone that will speak to me in English. In that moment, this is a less a team, and more a family.

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