After explaining on the eve of the Vuelta a Espana that the Spanish Grand Tour was "a voyage into the unknown", Romain Bardet showed no inhibitions on the first mountain stage of the race on Monday, racing in his usual aggressive manner.
The Frenchman has finished second and third overall at the last two editions of the Tour de France, but despite turning professional in 2012, the 27-year-old is only now getting a taste for Grand Tour racing outside of the July furnace.
At the Tour, Bardet was consistently the most aggressive GC rider at the race, attacking on the downhills and putting his rivals under pressure. Stage 3 of the Vuelta into Andorra featured the late category three Alto de la Comella before the drop down into the finish line. Bardet was unable to immediately match the acceleration of Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) at the top of the climb, explaining "I wasn't in a good position at the base of that last climb, so I had to make a big effort to catch back up to Froome."
With the gap less than 50 metres as Bardet crested over la Comella in third place, it appeared he would quickly catch on but it was Fabio Aru (Astana) driving the pace ahead of Bardet. The two caught Froome and Chaves and it appeared the quartet would battle it out for the bonus seconds and red jersey with just a handful of kilometres to race.
However, a regrouping of GC rivals from behind swelled the group to ten and in a similar move to his Sheffield heist of the 2014 Tour, Vincenzo Nibali got the jump and held on to take the stage win. Bonus seconds saw Froome move into the race lead.
"It was a good day. The legs were there, obviously, and I was able to be at the front in the final climb. I really wanted to win but I got surprised by those who jumped on us in descent," said Bardet, who finished in fourth place. "Still, it's not bad. We're very much involved for the general classification battle. I'm happy with today."
Bardet now sits in tenth place at 48 seconds to Froome. After the first mountain stage of the Tour to La Planche des Belles Filles, Bardet was sitting seventh at 47 seconds with the penultimate day time trial ultimately ending his bid for the yellow jersey. While the stage 16 Circuito de Navarra to Logroño time trial is nearly double in length of the Marseille test against the clock, Bardet will be buoyed by the amount of summit finishes to come in the race and the possibility of repeating his Paris podium in Madrid.
With a rare day for the sprinters on stage 4, Bardet's next opportunity to trim his deficit to Froome comes on the short steep finale at Alcossebre on stage 5. While the Spanish Grand Tour may be a departure from the norm for Bardet, it appears the Frenchman will remain true to his attacking style.