Cruelly, the gradient at Green Mountain offers no respite even beyond the finish line. Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) managed about 20 metres after placing second on stage 4 of the Tour of Oman before he ground to a halt at the roadside and unsteadily dismounted.
While riders inched over the line in ones and twos in the minutes that followed, Bardet sat on the tarmac, seemingly oblivious to all around him as he stared at his shoes and recovered from his attempt to match and then out-kick stage winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on the final ramps. Bardet eventually came home 9 seconds down on Nibali, and now lies in second place in the overall standings, 15 seconds behind the Italian.
Once his breathing had gradually returned to normal, a group of reporters approached and Bardet beckoned them closer, the Frenchman’s by now sufficiently reanimated to joke that he could at least take shelter from the mid-afternoon sun in their shadows.
“It was very difficult, very steep and with the heat, it’s stifling,” Bardet said. “But it was a good test. I lost the sprint in the last 150 metres against Nibali, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I couldn’t react when he went, but I did what I could on the climb.”
While Nibali’s Astana team had looked to dictate the terms of engagement all the way up Green Mountain, Bardet proved a most unwilling subject. He was, as Nibali said admiringly afterwards, the “most active of them all” on the climb, making several attempts to force his way clear as the gradient sharpened in the final three kilometres.
“In the end, I was very close to getting the win against one of the biggest champions of his generation in Nibali. When I got back up to him with 150 metres to go, he accelerated again and went very, very hard,” Bardet said.
“I didn’t have the legs to follow that but I’m still happy because I rode the way I wanted to ride, and I went on the attack and I enjoyed it. It’s a shame there wasn’t a victory at the end of it but I feel like I’m progressing every year and that’s a good sign.”
The moniker ‘Green Mountain’ is not quite the misnomer it appears – a micro-climate at 3,000 metres above sea level means that there are trees at the very top – but the Tour of Oman climbs only to 1,465 metres, up the most exposed and arid of mountainsides.
On that wide, steep road, Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale stable-mate Domenico Pozzovivo drew up a game plan that saw the Frenchman delegated to follow Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, while Pozzovivo was to track Nibali. That particular division of labour may ultimately have drawn some of the venom from Bardet’s bite in the final kilometres, as Fuglsang hit the front early and he was forced to follow.
Bardet nonetheless had the strength to seize the initiative towards the summit and he led into the final kilometre with Nibali, before giving best on the last approach to the line. He lost 9 seconds to Nibali on that last ramp, but held off Fuglsang, who placed third, a further three seconds back.
“I made an effort early on that Nibali didn’t make and that perhaps played a part but I like to ride like that, going on the attack. I have no regrets,” said Bardet.
“You can’t forget that this is my first stage race of the year, so this is a good measure of my condition. Two years, I was eighth here, and now I’ve come back and done better.”