Last year's Tour de France had something of an unsettling effect on Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale). Second place overall was an undoubted breakthrough but, for someone who sets himself very precise parameters for his progression, he admitted it had arrived 'sooner than expected'.
Suddenly, the only way up was the top step of the podium, and no Frenchman has been there since Bernard Hinault in 1985. Bardet didn't necessarily feel ready, and he suffered from that 'what next?' complex, even flirting with the idea skipping this year's Tour.
Now, those nerves seem to have made way for renewed self-confidence as Bardet finds himself in a position, on the second rest day, where winning the 2017 Tour de France is not a faint possibility but a realistic prospect.
Third overall, just 23 seconds behind race leader Chris Froome, it's all to play for in the Alps in the third week.
"It's my best start to a Tour de France so far, so everything's possible," Bardet said, sitting down in front of the press on the veranda of AG2R La Mondiale's hotel in Chambon-sur-Lignon.
"The important thing is that I feel I'm progressing year after year. I don't know if I'm closer to the yellow jersey but I'm closer to my top level, and I feel stronger than last year. That doesn't mean that for sure I'll be on the top step of the podium in Paris, or even second, but the morale is high."
If Bardet feels physically stronger than last year, he has also matured psychologically, according to Vincent Lavenu, the long-standing general manager of the AG2R La Mondiale team. Lavenu in the past has described Bardet as a 'faux calme', someone who appears placid but who has bags of nervous energy that he's always eager to unleash.
"He is much more at ease than in previous years," Lavenu told Cyclingnews on Monday.
"With time he has learned to master his energy and his emotions. Cycling is an endurance sport where you cannot become agitated before or after – you have to be agitated in the moment. That's the mark of a champion. The great riders are all capable of it. Romain has gained that maturity and the ability to master his emotions up to the point where you have to release that energy to make your impact."
'If I see an opening, I'll go for it'
Bardet, as was the case last year, is at pains to point out that the general classification is very tight. Last year there was little between the riders behind Froome before Bardet's coup d'eclat in Saint Gervais two days from Paris, and this year's is one of the tightest Tours in history, with fewer than 30 seconds separating the top four.
The Tour will come down to two days in the Alps and a penultimate-day time trial in Marseille. Wednesday's stage takes in three major climbs and finishes with a descent to Serre Chevalier, while Thursday sees the marquee summit finish at the Col d'Izoard.
It's where we should see Bardet at his best. With a true endurance physiology, he 'stays' better than most in the deep end of a Grand Tour, and on top of that he sees the altitude as a potential advantage over his rivals.
"With the accrual of two big stages, and also the altitude, there will be big gaps ahead of the time trial," he predicted.
"The Izoard will be crucial. With Serre Chevalier, we’'ll see, there'll be a lot of wind and a lot of things to take into account, but perhaps it's the accrual of both that will lead to big gaps on the Izoard."
And gaps will be needed ahead of the 22.5km Marseille time trial, where Froome, already in yellow, is expected to put time into all the GC contenders. Urán, fourth overall at six seconds, is also a threat to Bardet, given the time trial performances he has mustered in the past, if not in the past couple of years.
"I'm not thinking at all about the time trial," countered Bardet. "I'm thinking about the mountain stages, and we'll take stock on Thursday evening. It's really about those Alpine stages, and riding them like classics. I'm not making any calculations about the time trial."
One of the reasons for Bardet's post-Tour vertigo was the fact that there was little between the podium contenders on a physical level, with his leap into second place courtesy of opportunism.
It was just the latest audacious feat in a growing portfolio for Bardet, and he knows he'll have to be at his inventive best once again in the Alps.
"Last year I had to wait for an opening to make the difference and that's definitely still the case here," he said, "If I see an opening, I'll definitely go for it.
"You know, I really appreciate a guy like Dan Martin – he doesn't ask any questions; he just goes. But when you're in the top spots, there's always a guy like Froome or Aru on my back wheel, so it's impossible to do that the whole time. There are times when you have to follow, and I'm waiting for the right moment when I can really go all out. I hope it comes. It gives me confidence to have put it all on the line last year and to have secured a great result."
Bardet hasn't put a foot wrong so far, and excitement among the French public is reaching fever pitch. There's no underestimating the scale of the task ahead of him, but there's a feeling brewing that Bardet could do something special in the final week of this Tour de France.
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