Romain Bardet said it was a "hell of a day" as he climbed onto the AG2R La Mondiale bus at the end of Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Caked in mud, the Frenchman looked completely spent after rolling home in the first gruppetto, nearly seven minutes down on the winner.
Bardet stood out on the start line, a lightweight climber in a field of heavyweight cobbled Classics specialists. He was in Belgium to gain first-hand experience of racing on cobblestones ahead of the Paris-Roubaix-inspired stage of this year's Tour de France, and the miserable conditions meant it was far from the gentlest of introductions.
Blighted by mechanicals and crashes, it was a trying day for Bardet and the whole team, who lost their leader Oliver Naesen due to a crash that could rule him out of Sunday's Tour of Flanders.
"It was complicated, with the wind and the rain. It was a hell of a day," Bardet told Cyclingnews and L'Equipe in Waregem. "I spent quite a bit of time back at the cars – I had a few mechanical problems and I even crashed near the start of the race. So I spent my race largely on the back foot, but there you go, that's how it can be in these races.
"It was a tough day. Oliver unfortunately had his crash, and that made it difficult for us as a team today."
Bardet had said before the race that this was chiefly a learning exercise. He has done recons of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles in previous months but wanted to get a feel for pavé – albeit of the Belgian variety – in a race scenario. However, his podium finish at Strade Bianche earlier this month had shown his versatility, in being able to perform in one-day races over rough terrain.
So, despite surviving the day and finishing alongside fellow Tour de France contender Nairo Quintana, there was a feeling for disappointment for the 27-year-old.
"For me personally, my lack of knowledge of these roads was evident," he said.
"On the Taaienberg I wasn't far away from making it into the top 40 over the top. I wasn't very well placed, and when you're behind it's complicated. A difference of five metres and I'd have been up there with the top 40. These races come down to fine margins. I think you have to do these races regularly to have a chance of performing well.
"There was really a lot of tension. There were 180 [173 –ed] riders on the start line, and 180 hungry riders. So that's it, you have to be up at the front. If not, it's tough."
Bardet will now head to Spain to race the Vuelta al País Vasco before returning to Belgium for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he finished sixth last year.