Another day, another uphill finish, another cobweb blown away. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) was where he was expected to be in the finale of stage 3 of the Tour of Oman, and he's where he wants to be ahead of Saturday's decisive leg to Green Mountain.
The Frenchman placed seventh on Thursday's stage to Quriyat, finishing in the same time as winner Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), an improvement on his showing the previous afternoon, when he conceded seven seconds to Ben Hermans (BMC Racing) in the last push up the final drag.
After crossing the line on Thursday, Bardet soft-pedalled on a short warm-down on the plateau past the finish, before doubling back to where the AG2R La Mondiale team cars were parked. On arriving, Bardet's teammates were swapping war stories from the rapid finale, but they scarcely needed to ask the boss as how his afternoon had finished. It was simply another day in the office, and as he sat on a cooler box to change, Bardet told reporters that he was pleased with his progress thus far.
"I'm just back to racing so I'm missing a bit of rhythm but that's normal. Still, every day I'm going a bit better, so that's encouraging ahead of what's to come," said Bardet, who lies sixth overall, 21 seconds behind the red jersey of Hermans.
The grand denouement of this Tour of Oman arrives on Saturday with the summit finish atop Green Mountain, a stiff proposition at this early juncture in the campaign. Like a singer practising the scales, Bardet is glad of the chance to run through his range on shorter uphill finales early in the week ahead of the major recital at the weekend.
"It's good, and it suits me. The structure of the race is allowing me to gain in power every day before Saturday," Bardet said. "The finish on Saturday is the one that I'm most interested in."
Bardet placed second on Green Mountain a year ago, edged out by eventual overall winner Vincenzo Nibali on the final steep ramps before the finish line. In Nibali's absence, Bardet is the favourite for the final general classification this time around, although he warned that Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) and Jakob Fulgsang (Astana), currently second and third overall behind Hermans, are more advanced in their early-season condition.
"For me, the two big favourites are Fuglsang and Rui Costa," Bardet said. "Fuglsang and I were more or less equal on Green Mountain last year, so for me he's the favourite, and Rui Costa has already won a stage race this year [the Vuelta a San Juan – ed.]
"They both have a stage race in their legs already this year, so that probably puts them at a bit of an advantage compared to me. They're in better condition than me. I knew I wouldn't be 100 percent in Oman, but that was never the goal. I can just feel that the legs are going better and better, and that's encouraging."
Fabio Aru (Astana) was also in the shake-up at Quriyat, even if he conceded four seconds to Bardet et al on the final haul to the finish line. "For Aru it's his first race, so he's not at 100 percent, just like me," Bardet said. "It's hard to expect to beat the guys who have race days in their legs already from January."
From Oman, Bardet will proceed to the Abu Dhabi Tour, where he will have an early opportunity to score WorldTour points, even if the principal aim of his sweep through the Gulf is to prepare for loftier objectives later in the season. The Tour de France, where Bardet finished second in 2016, overrides all, of course, but Paris-Nice in March and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April are important intermediate goals.
"For sure I don't really like the early season," he said. "It's hard for me to find good form, but I just try to keep improving and see what happens."