'Bardet Jusqu'au Bout'. The French have had precious little to celebrate so far in this Tour de France, but the front page of Thursday's L'Equipe issued a rallying cry to the sole torchbearer of the hopes of a home nation. And boy did he deliver.
'Bardet all the way'. On a day when the heavens opened in the Mont Blanc Massif, Romain Bardet did indeed go all the way – all the way to stage 19 victory and all the way to the podium. He's now set to go all the way to Paris to record his best-ever Tour de France result.
The stage victory and the leap from fifth to second overall were significant enough in and of themselves, but it was the manner in which they was executed that made this a day to savour, as the AG2R La Mondiale rider brought to life a race that was in danger of sleepwalking all the way to Paris.
After Wednesday's summit finish at the Emosson dam, where Sky once again dominated and Froome gained more time, L'Equipe wrote that the race was "sliding slowly towards a chronic disinterest". On Thursday morning, Le Dauphiné Libéré published an interview with Marc Madiot, who said the race was emblematic of "sterilized" modern cycling. Even the receptionist at Cyclingnews' hotel in Le Grand Bornand held forth about how Sky were killing the spectacle.
Bardet's display was the perfect antidote.
"It really was instinct," he said of his decision to jump away with teammate Mikael Cherel on the descent ahead of the final climb of Le Bettex, while the wet weather was causing crashes and chaos behind.
"That's the kind of riding you want to be doing. The greatest emotions on a bike often come like a flash, and you say to yourself ‘this is the moment'.
"Mickael planted the seed today, I knew straight away that it was a good idea, and we gave it everything."
Bardet soloed up the mountain with poise, dropping the final breakaway survivor Rui Costa and impressively holding off the GC group. He later revealed he had no time gaps feeding through to his earpiece. It was just him and his bike – riding of the most visceral sort.
"I had no information about what was going on in the race, so it was just about enjoying myself on the bike. It was like having the wind behind my back with the support today – wherever I looked I saw so much emotion among the spectators. These are unique moments – we suffer so much throughout the year, so when things go your way and you have the chance to express yourself, it's simply amazing to be able take advantage."
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In the press room, the French journalists waited with baited breath as Bardet entered the final kilometre, but the first claps of applause were interrupted by exclamations of disbelief as the Frenchman sat up, zipped up his jersey and soaked in the moment – rather than pushing for every single second.
"I wanted to enjoy the fervour," he countered. "I just wanted to get away from the calculations that constrain us in the race, and let the emotion take over."
'Being on the podium in Paris would be a fairytale'
Having moved up from fifth to second overall, the inevitable question soon came – can you win the Tour de France?
With Froome having turned this into a one-horse race, way out in front with a lead of 4:11, it may simply be a case of wishful thinking – even if the Sky rider crashed and hurt his knee today. There may be a gulf ahead of Bardet but it's anything but behind him, with Nairo Quintana 16 seconds in arrears, Adam Yates at 35, and Richie Porte at 1:05.
As such, Bardet recognised it was a fight for the podium, rather than the maillot jaune, that will play out Saturday with the hors-catégorie ascent of the Col de Joux Plane and the descent to the finish in Morzine.
"It's very complicated," said Bardet. On the Joux Plane anything can happen and I'll need to be at my best. I'm already thinking about holding onto a podium spot in Paris."
Bardet stoked French hopes when he finished sixth at his second Tour in 2014, and there is no doubt that he has grown immeasurably in terms of maturity and consistency here to make a podium possible.
"With the stage win in 2015 and the experience I've gained, I've realised what I can do in this race, and to make it happen is amazing," he said, recognising that he wouldn't have won this stage had it taken place last year.
"You learn from your mistakes," he added, referring to the queen stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné in June, where he was away with Thibaut Pinot but was beaten to the line by his compatriot.
"Today I was more in control of myself."
Keep control for just one more day, 146 more kilometres, and four more mountain passes, and Bardet will indeed be on that podium on the Champs Elysées.
"It would be a fairytale," he concluded with a smile.