Romain Bardet wasn't in Paris last week for the presentation of the 2019 Tour de France race route, but the AG2R La Mondiale team leader liked the mountainous, high-altitude, limited-time-trial route. With stage 9 on Bastille Day also finishing in his hometown of Brioude in the Massif Central, Bardet could not ask for a better route for another shot at overall victory.
Yet Bardet would like even more mountain finishes, more dirt roads and anything that could help him break Team Sky's stranglehold on the Tour. In an exclusive interview, he tells Cyclingnews he is in favour of anything that "shakes up the race", including six-rider teams, as proposed by UCI President David Lappartient.
"What's more boring than a few big teams controlling the race until the sprint or until the last kilometre of a climb? That's not the cycling we want," Bardet told Cyclingnews in an end-of-season interview.
"I'm in favour of everything that shakes up the Tour de France and gives a chance to the brave riders who want to take some risks and give their all. It would be really good to put some fantasy back in the Tour. I think if we had 30 teams of just six riders at the Tour de France, it would be great, as then we could see some unexpected things happen. That's what cycling needs.
"It's a very beautiful route, which looks quite difficult on paper, with very little downtime," Bardet said of the 2019 route, noting few stages on which the overall contenders will be able to relax and recover during the 21 days of racing.
"There are a number of middle-sized mountains, and any time there are mid-sized mountain stages, you know that they're going to be very tricky, with uncertain outcomes. Then there are the high-mountain stages, with those mythical passes: the Izoard, Tourmalet, Galibier and Iseran. These important tests at altitude should be able to widen the gap between the favourites."
France's greatest hope for the Tour
Bardet is arguably France’s best hope of winning the 2019 Tour de France and ending the 34-year gap since Bernard Hinault won in 1985. The 27-year-old finished sixth overall this year and is keen to get his Grand Tour trajectory back on track in 2019 after finishing second in 2016 and third in 2017.
"It's a bit frustrating, but it is what it is. I still think my season was a success," Bardet says, with his natural balanced character and French aplomb.
"It was my sixth ride in the Tour de France, and I was on a nice upward curve, perhaps aiming at the moon, but it didn't work out as planned. If I'd finished 30th or not even finished, then I'd have been disappointed, but I'm not ashamed of my result, even if I expect more in the future."
Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale team struggled to make up the minute deficit they lost to their overall rivals in the stage 3 team time trial, and then he lost a further 30 seconds after a mechanical problem on the hilltop finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne. He fought back in the Alps but then suffered on the 65km stage to the summit of the Col du Portet and lost 1:48 to Thomas. A further loss of 2:35 in the final time trial left Bardet sixth overall at 6:57.
"I think I was as strong as ever during this year's Tour, but I wasn't quite as lucky as other years," Bardet argues.
"It's hard for me to look at the final result of the 2018 Tour de France because it doesn't explain what really happened, and definitely doesn't show if I had a good season or not. Results are just results – they're numbers on a line. A successful season is measured in lots of ways: how you feel in training, how you approach events, how things go in the team and how you ride."
Incidentally, despite Bardet's Grand Tour abilities and his role as leader at the Tour for AG2R La Mondiale, he performed better in a series of one-day races in 2018, confirming the depth of his cycling talents and his love for racing before and beyond July.
He was second at the rain-soaked, mud-covered Strade Bianche in March after going on the attack with cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert. Later in the spring, he was third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and then worked hard after the Tour de France to peak for the Innsbruck World Championships, where he stepped up when Julian Alaphilippe floundered, and finished second behind Alejandro Valverde in the road race.
"It was a big season for me – maybe my best ever," Bardet says.
"Everyone expects a lot at the Tour de France and it's a huge part of the season. I know that, and I'm OK with that, but the other races are important, too. It was good to be up there in all of those other races. I don't only want to be good at the Tour de France. I like to mix it up."
Looking to the future, not the past
Bardet prefers to look ahead, to the future, down his personal road, rather than look back and concern himself about the past, be that his results at the Tour de France or even the doping problems of others in the past, including those of Valverde, who beat him in Innsbruck to win the world title.
"You'd go completely mad if you thought about it too much. The past is part of cycling, but it's the past,” Bardet said when asked about Valverde.
"I know a lot about my performance and how I live my life to be the best possible. I don't have time to reflect on what others do, and especially not to reflect too much on what happened in the past."
Bardet is enjoying his break from training and racing but knows he cannot escape the hopes and expectations that he can be the next French Tour winner. He has felt the expectation ratchet up each spring and summer as the race approaches, and has been forced to shoulder the disappointment each August when someone else wears the yellow jersey in the post-Tour criteriums. He has learned to live with it.
Bardet has the phrase 'Take the risk or lose the chance' next to his profile photo on his Twitter page. It's also written on the top tube of his bike. It reflects his style of racing and his approach to winning and losing, including at the Tour.
"The essence of racing is about attacking and trying to get an advantage, about taking your opportunities when they come, rather than reflecting too much on what happened," he explains.
"It's how I approach the Tour de France, too. I love the challenge of the Tour, even if it demands a lot from you mentally and physically, and creates huge expectations. You can't be disappointed if you don't win the Tour de France because it's extraordinary when you do win. Only one person can ride into Paris in yellow. I know I just have to try to do my best every year because you never know – one day I could win it."