Finishing second overall at last year’s Tour de France has hardly left Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) with much margin for improvement, and the subtext to the opening question in his pre-race press conference in Düsseldorf was clear. “Have you progressed since last year?” Bardet was asked. In other words, can he bridge the 32-year gap and become France’s first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985?
“I think I have progressed but the road will reveal more,” Bardet said carefully. “I’ve prepared very seriously and we’ll see over the three weeks.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Pierre Carrey of Libération last week, Bardet employed a neat formula to downplay the weight of carrying home hopes on the Tour. “I’m not riding to win the Tour. I’m riding for my best performance,” Bardet said then, and he returned to the thought on Friday morning.
“There are greater expectations,” Bardet acknowledged. “But this is my fifth Tour and my fourth aiming for the general classification, so I know what I’m facing into. Finishing on the podium last year was a validation of the work we’re been doing on this team. The objective is to be at that level of performance year after year, but the result isn’t determined solely by how you perform physically. We have the experience, too, to turn the race to our advantage at certain points.”
Chris Froome (Sky) was a dominant victor at last year’s Tour, where Bardet’s invention on the road to Saint Gervais helped to separate him from the clutch of riders on his coattails to claim second place in Paris. On the evidence of the season to date – and the Dauphiné in particular – the gap between Froome and his rivals seems to have narrowed. The clutch of contenders for overall victory this year – Bardet poetically referred to them as a pléiade – should, at least in theory, making for a very different race to the controlled fare of twelve months ago.
“From my point of view, I’d put Richie Porte on the level of Chris Froome in the mountains and the time trials, even though he doesn’t have the same experience when it comes to winning the Tour,” Bardet said.
“But there is a whole host of contenders, like Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Jakob Fulgsang and Fabio Aru. There are eight or nine riders who will be up there in the mountain stages, so there will be an important tactical aspect that could make the difference between these riders. It’s rare to have so many favourites at the Tour. It could make for a more open race.”
Bardet has little control over the playbooks of his rivals, of course, but the route of this year’s Tour certainly seems to lend itself to the kind of race he has in mind. As well as the reduced diet of time trialling kilometres, there are just three summit finishes on a parcours where medium mountain stages abound and where there seems to be ample scope for invention.
“It’s true that there are only three summit finishes, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be big gaps in the mountain stages that finish at the bottom of a descent,” Bardet said. “Stages with a summit finish can often be a waiting game for the last climb, whereas here we might see the favourites making a move earlier on during the stages, so tactical sense will be important.”
A feature of the Critérium du Dauphiné’s dramatic final three days in the high mountains – and, in particular, the breathless concluding stage to Plateau de Solaison – was the inability of any one team to control affairs. Team Sky, like its leader, has been less imposing than usual in the build-up to the race, while Richie Porte was left isolated by his BMC team on occasion, but Bardet – who placed 6th overall at the Dauphiné – warned that Tour selections carry greater strength in depth.
“At the Dauphiné, a lot of teams were a bit less strong than normal, and the big leaders were often isolated, like we saw with Porte on the last stage in particular,” Bardet said. “But at the Tour, when the big teams have nine riders on top form, there’s less room for manoeuvre. But hopefully this race will be more open, and I hope we have one or two days where a scenario like the final stage of the Dauphiné could develop.”
AG2R La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu announced on Friday that Bardet has signed a contract extension that will keep him at the team until the end of the 2020 season. Oliver Naesen and Tour debutant Pierre Latour have also extended with Ag2r La Mondiale through 2020.
“I’ve had linear progress since turning professional in 2012, and I’m happy to have some continuity,” Bardet said. “There’s a good synergy.”