An empty parking lot on the fringes of Muscat is about as far removed as possible from the white heat and intense scrutiny of the Tour de France, but Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) was not remotely concerned as he prepared for stage 1 of the Tour of Oman. Despite his exploits in La Grande Boucle, he is a French rider with a healthy appetite for life and racing beyond the month of July.
“I had a good winter of training, but there’s always a bit of uncertainty and doubt about how your condition will be in your first stage race of the season [Bardet raced the GP Marseillaise last month], especially with the heat here in Oman. I think it’s a good course for testing your form and maybe trying to win a stage along the way,” Bardet told Cyclingnews as he took shelter from the sun in the passenger seat of a team car.
By day’s end, Bardet would have solid indications that his was a winter well spent. Present and correct when the front group was reduced to just 16 riders on the final climb of Al Jissah, he was prominent among the chasers behind stage winner Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep), eventually placing third.
Bardet will face greater examinations later in the week on the finish on the slopes of Green Mountain, although next month’s Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya are his first bona fide targets of the year. The race he covets above all others this and every spring, however, is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a love affair spanning back to his amateur days, when he placed second in the under-23 edition in 2011.
“That’s a race where I go in with ambition every year, I have a good feeling with it,” Bardet said. “2016 will be my fourth time to do it, so I think I now know a little bit about how the race plays out and I’d like to able to get a big result at Liège pretty soon.”
Finishing sixth in the front group last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege was confirmation that the mammoth distance is no obstacle.
“I’ve often found myself up against riders a little bit quicker than me, like Valverde and Alaphillippe last year,” he said. “I need to get away earlier, or why not, anticipate the finale a bit like Dan Martin has done.”
The Tour de France
For a sizeable portion of French followers, the success or failure of Bardet’s season will be judged solely on what he achieves at the Tour de France in July. It’s hardly a phenomenon unique to France or even to cycling – the British relationship with tennis is filtered through the prism of Wimbledon, for instance – but the weight of expectation is no less striking for it.
“On the Tour de France, everything is multiplied, amplified. You can feel that pressure because the people want results from the French riders and so on,” he explains. “But I think having that pressure so young means I’ll be able to manage it better and better as I get older.”
If anything, one has the impression that the pressure Bardet exerts on himself exceeds any stress transmitted to him from the roadside or from the television crews camped outside the AG2R La Mondiale team bus, though he is relaxed about his status as the team’s sole leader at the Tour de France this July.
“I’m used to this pressure already from last year, when we already knew that Jean-Christophe Péraud wasn’t in the same form as 2014,” Bardet said. “You just have to get cope with it. This will be my fourth Tour de France, and I think I’ve got the maturity now to get closer to being in the top five.”
At first glance, ninth place in Paris in 2015 seems a regression following his sixth place of the previous year but the manner in which it was achieved tells a rather different story. After struggling in the Pyrenees, Bardet responded to the setback by going onto the offensive in the Alps, soloing to victory at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and leaping back up the overall standings.
“Everybody saw it as a lost cause, that I wasn’t at the same level as in 2014, but then in the space of a week in the Alps, I managed to win a stage, get into the top ten and wear the polka dot jersey,” he said. “It’s true that there were highs and lows in 2015, but it turned out to be my most successful Tour all the same.”
Rivalry with Thibaut Pinot
Bardet’s rise has taken place almost in tandem with that of his contemporary Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), and their fortunes at the Tour these past two years have seemed to mirror one another. After the success of 2014, they struggled through the opening half in 2015 only to find redemption and stage victory in the Alps.
“Thibaut is a friend off the bike, but obviously on the bike, there’s a bit of rivalry, which is built up a bit by the public, and we’re often placed in this sort of head-to-head,” Bardet said. “But we each have our own career path. Thibaut’s already been on the podium of the Tour de France, so he’s maybe more of a general classification rider whereas I like to target stages too.”
Their entwined destinies came sharply into focus at Mende midway through last year’s Tour when, each desperate for a result to salvage his race, Pinot and Bardet marked one other and allowed Steve Cummings to sweep past and snatch victory from them both. Even then, however, Bardet insists that there was no lingering ill will.
“None at all, we sorted it out that evening. That day we just both wanted to win and we both made mistakes. I made a big one myself, I didn’t know the route,” he said. “But that’s the beauty of cycling.”
Bardet and Pinot will doubtless generate more headlines at this year’s Tour de Fance but the following month should line up as teammates at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
After sampling the course at the test event last summer, Bardet sees life beyond July too in 2016.
“The timing of the race is perfect, I think,” he said. “A week after the Tour de France would have been too short a gap, whereas two weeks is just right for recovering while being able to hold onto your form.”