Amidst all the media fuss about Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) at the Vuelta a Andalucia, other top stage racers such as Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) have been flying under.
Sixth in the Tour de France last year, in Andalucia's hilly stage on Saturday the 24-year-old finished a strong eighth despite an untimely puncture at the foot of the final, very difficult, climb to Allanadas. How well Bardet would have done without having to waste energy by fighting to get back on after his puncture therefore will remain an incognito but Bardet's strong third place behind Contador and Froome at 1:39 on the ultra-hard Hazallanas climb the day before suggests that he could have done very well.
"Without that puncture, Romain could have maybe made it onto the final podium overall, to have had him standing alongside Contador and Froome would have been a nice photo," AG2R La Mondiale sports director Julien Jurdie told Cyclingnews somewhat ruefully on Sunday.
As it is, Bardet took home a fifth place overall at 3:13 and the satisfaction of having been ‘best of the rest' behind Contador and Froome on the crucial Hazallanas climb. On the downside, there's the frustration of a puncture at exactly the wrong moment on stage four, and when he says he was feeling stronger, too, than on stage three.
"On Saturday [stage three] to Allanadas I was feeling much better than when I finished third [on Friday]," Bardet told Cyclingnews before the final day's racing. "I felt better and I'm improving day-by-day, I'm very happy to be in good shape."
"It would have been possible to get on the final podium without that puncture, but I have no regrets, Froome and Contador are racing really impressively."
"I still have to work and improve my form, I'm not at 100 per cent right now but this has been a very good race for the upcoming goals. I wanted to finish inside the top five, and afterwards I saw the podium was possible, but that puncture wasn't helpful."
His next races will be Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, although he is not so optimistic about the French race. "It doesn't suit me very well, there are two time trials. But it's a good test for the Tour de France, because there are the flat stages first" - like the Tour's first week - "some crosswinds and so on. So it's good, but Catalunya is my biggest goal before the Classics."
Bardet will then return to Andalucia for an altitude training camp at Sierra Nevada for roughly 10 days prior to the Classics in April. "That's the Ardennes Classics," he says with a grin, "we're leaving Paris-Roubaix for another year."
His ascent of Hazallanas was a morale boost for the season, Bardet says. "It was a pretty hard climb but I really like it. We haven't got a lot of climbs like this in France and I regret that because I guess it suits me better when it's really steep. The cols in the Tour are long but they are usually six or seven percent, not where I'm the best. So I'm very happy to race here."
AG2R La Mondiale have had a Vuelta a Andalucia of mixed fortunes, with 2014 Tour stage winner Biel Kadri suffering a bad crash and breaking four ribs, and Jean Christophe Peraud, the 2014 Tour runner-up, finishing over 28 minutes down.
"Biel's still in hospital [on Sunday] at Toulouse and he should be able to leave on Monday," Jurdie told Cyclingnews at the start of stage five. "He's got four broken ribs and is badly bruised as well, which is why he's had to be under observation for quite a while in hospital. But the team doctor's report on him yesterday [Saturday] was pretty reassuring. [But] He'll have to do some rehabilitation work before getting back on the bike in about two weeks or so."
On the plus side for AG2R La Mondiale at the Vuelta a Andalusia, Jurdie said, was Bardet's performance. "It's our main reason to be pleased with this week. Romain was physically in great shape, with that good third place at Hazallanas, and that puncture at the foot of the [stage four] climb was a pity. But there's nothing you can do when that happens, it could happen to anybody, be it Froome, Contador or Romain Bardet, it's very difficult to get back through the bunch at that point in a race."
"And in any case, we've had a good collective performance here by AG2R La Mondiale, Bardet was well supported by all his team-mates, and that's encouraging."
Peraud's much quieter week than Bardet was, Jurdie said, "more or less expected. He's had a pretty unsettled winter because of his second place in the Tour, which meant he had a lot of extra media appointments and other obligations to handle, as well as, unfortunately a few health issues. So his build-up has been slowed down and this week was all about him starting to get back on track. HIs performance in itself was average, but we were expecting that, it's no surprise. He's still got work to do and then he'll head for Paris-Nice after a couple of other races in France, but at Paris-Nice he'll still be more of an outsider than a leader. I'm sure he'll be in top condition fairly soon."
In Jurdies' opinion, what does 2015 represent for Bardet in terms of his overall progression? "It's to move closer [in terms of performance] to the top level stage racers. He's capable, right now, of ‘flirting' with the podiums, be it Paris-Nice, the Ardennes Classics or even the Tour. Obviously there's the big names who are odds-on favourites, be it Contador, Nibali, Froome or others, and who are targetting the overall victory. But Romain's still young, so it's a question of measuring himself against those and seeing what he can do. And he's already emerged as a really good, very professional team leader."