July must be a claustrophobic month for Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), who finds teeming forests of microphones and cameras sprouting up around him at every stage start and finish. Same as it ever was for a Frenchman endeavouring to win the Tour de France.
On the slopes of Alpe d'Huez on Thursday afternoon, Bardet carved out some space for himself by launching a stinging attack with more than seven kilometres of the mountain still to go. Despite the redoubtable pace-making of Team Sky's Egan Bernal behind, Bardet was finally alone, with only thousands of screaming fans for company.
His unzipped jersey flapping as he bobbed his way up the mountainside, Bardet gamely guarded a lead of 10 seconds over the favourites for Tour victory, and his aggression continued even when he was eventually joined by Chris Froome, yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) inside the final four kilometres.
Bardet was uninhibited by that company, and he fired off a volley of rasping accelerations on the approach to the summit, though he was unable to shake off the men who look set to define this Tour. The leading quartet fanned across the road in the last kilometre, as their thoughts toggled between the GC battle and the immediate prize of claiming victory atop the mighty Alpe.
In the sprint that ensued, Bardet could only manage third, three seconds behind the startling Thomas, who claimed a second Alpine stage win in as many days. In the overall standings, Bardet is now sixth, 3:07 behind Thomas, and 1:28 down on Froome.
"There was a very strong Sky team today. I did the maximum I could, and I don't have any regrets," Bardet said upon emerging from anti-doping, where a scrum of cameramen jostled for position around him. "I tried my all-out effort from distance. I didn't think we'd come in a group to the finishing straight. I'd made my main efforts before that, but it was a good stage for me all the same."
A few minutes earlier, AG2R La Mondiale directeur sportif Julien Jurdie had stood in the same spot and stated that, in his opinion, Bardet had been the strongest rider on Alpe d'Huez. "He proved that by attacking several times," Jurdie said. Now midway through his sixth Tour, Bardet was far too adroit to stumble into the trap of repeating the statement.
"I never said that, I know only too well how hard the Tour is for me to say that," Bardet said. "I had good legs, I felt better than yesterday so I wanted to attack to test my rivals. But voilà… there were still three Sky riders and they were riding tempo, so it was hard. But I was finally able to express myself today, so I'm happy.
"I was really thinking about the stage win today in the final, but it's hard to race for the GC and stages. In the end, I didn't have the freshness needed to fight for the stage win."
Although Bardet declared himself pleased with his outing on Alpe d'Huez, his deficit in the general classification remains a substantial one. Sky's collective strength, meanwhile, seems even more imposing than a year ago, when they seemed able to hold Bardet at arm's length for most of the Tour. Jurdie, however, maintained that there is a world of difference between this year's Tour and last.
"We know that Christopher Froome has already done the Giro, and Geraint Thomas often has difficulties in the third week," Jurdie said. "That's why it's very important to stay in contact and chip away at the seconds. We've got a few days before the Pyrenees, and I think the third week will be decisive."
Bardet was more circumspect, wondering if the loss of Tony Gallopin – his abandon leaves AG2R La Mondiale with just five riders – might limit his prospects of launching a grand offensive in the Pyrenees. "We'll fight with our heart and soul," Bardet said. "That's all I can promise you."