panache /pəˈnaʃ/ noun
flamboyant confidence of style or manner.
Sitting in an airport on Thursday evening, KONM read an article in the French daily paper, L’Équipe, featuring Total Direct Energie team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau. In discussion with Philippe Brunel, the journal’s unnervingly pale doyen of cyclisme, Bernaudeau held forth on, among other things, the spectacular Tour de France performances of Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe.
Nothing surprising there, you might think. And you’d be right. But what caught KONM’s eye was the recurring mention of “panache” in relation to the Hexagonal duo who became, in 2019, the true darlings of French cycling.
“Their panache compensated for my own frustration,” said Bernaudeau at one point, simultaneously bemoaning his team’s modest showing at the Tour and celebrating the purported rebirth of the sport. “What they did on the way to Saint-Etienne, with that grain of necessary folly, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen that!”
In case you needed reminding, on the 200km Stage 8 from Mâcon to Saint-Étienne, Alaphilippe attacked on the 14% slopes of Côte de La Jaillère. Only Pinot followed – or could follow. The pair opened a 10 second gap and kept attacking. When they’d finished attacking, they attacked again before following up that attack with another attack.
The peloton had no answers. Ala was rewarded with the yellow jersey and Pinot with valuable GC seconds on a stage that few had imagined would separate the favourites. The grain of necessary folly, indeed, Jean-René.
But there’s more to panache than just attacking. At some stage, almost everyone attacks – even Team Sky were known to do it, and you couldn’t accuse many of their riders of having panache.
You must somehow contrive – without being contrived – to seem utterly reckless while also utterly in control; on-the-limit yet abnormally unruffled. The sort of person who, while falling from the sky without a parachute, finds time to adjust their cuffs. You can be a loser and have panache, and you can be a winner and have none. No wonder so few can master it.
It’s Alaphilippe’s swishing rear wheel skid after finishing the Stage 13 time trial. It’s Pinot in floods of tears in a team car. It’s Romain Bardet in polka dots. It’s literally anything Tommy Voeckler ever did on a bike. Is it simply a French thing? Maybe.
Or maybe panache is best defined by what it’s not: power meters, super-domestiques, marginal gains. And what it’s not is often what wins races. That’s probably why no Frenchman has won a Tour since the Bronze Age.
But who cares about that? Certainly not anyone with panache, and certainly not Jean-René Bernaudeau.
Header image: Adrien Tombu/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence, edited by KONM