Romain Bardet said his ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné was something of a crescendo, and his place on the podium will once again ensure that French expectations grow between now and the Tour de France depart on July 7.
The Frenchman has finished on the podium of the past two editions of the Tour de France, emerging as the great hope to end France's 33-year wait for a home winner.
Though he has yet to win a major stage race – the 2013 Tour de l'Ain being his only victory – Bardet has always fared well at the Dauphiné, with sixth place being his lowest finish across five participations.
On Sunday he sealed a second podium place after a strong showing in the mountains, though Geraint Thomas proved unshakeable in the yellow jersey and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) skipped clear to win the final stage and cement second place.
"The assessment of the week is good. I would have liked more, of course. I really wanted to win a stage and to be even closer to the maillot jaune. But in terms of the feelings in my legs I'm really happy," Bardet said.
"I felt that I built through the race and had that crescendo, even if I wasn't at all at 100 per cent. Little by little it started to go better with each effort and it's a good base for the work I'll now need to do in the lead-up to the Tour de France."
Bardet was disappointed not to have won a stage and especially disappointed in particular not to have won the final one, which finished on the Bettex climb in Saint-Gervais, the scene of his memorable triumph at the 2016 Tour de France.
"I felt I had it in the legs," he said. "Yates was riding behind me just to conserve his second place overall and then at the end, he went around me and won the stage. Bravo to him… That's the emotion after the stage, but it motivates me even more for the Tour de France."
As for Thomas, AG2R La Mondiale threw the proverbial kitchen sink at Team Sky but the Welshman, who built the bulk of his lead in the stage 3 team time trial before riding away from Bardet towards the end of the summit finishes on stages 5 and 6, would not be denied, even if he lost 10 seconds on the final stage.
After an exchange of words, some fair play
Despite an exchange of words over AG2R's pace-setting on the front of the peloton when Thomas punctured on the descent of the Col des Saisies, the pair had a warm exchange behind the podium in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.
"I said well done. We've known each other for a few years now, we speak a lot in the peloton. I have a lot of respect for him, I know he works very hard," Bardet said.
"He deserves his win. He was really the strongest this week. Chapeau to him. He never panicked. On the Côte des Amerands [the penultimate climb on the final stage] I tried to light the touch paper but I had a hard time isolating him.
"I think he's taken a step forward this year and he's a serious rival at the Tour de France."
As well as the feeling in his own legs, Bardet was keen to point out the work of his teammates over the past week. Part of his own progression as a rider has been the progression of AG2R La Mondiale as a force that can impact and shape a race. Aside from Team Sky, AG2R were the only team taking it up at the head of the peloton and, even if Thomas couldn't be shaken, there were times when Team Sky were destabilized, notably on the penultimate stage when Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon were dropped early on.
"The team have genuinely been remarkable all week," said Bardet.
"We've taken confidence from riding on the front, for a couple of years now, being up there when it has mattered. That allows me to go and get results, so I'm really proud of my teammates and their total commitment. Having given everything like that, we can be happy. We went down fighting."
If there's one thing Bardet can be relied upon to do, it's to go down fighting. He's finished on both of the lower steps of the Tour de France podium, but the big question now is can he make it to the top.
"I'm progressing each year, in terms of experience, and physically as well," he said.
"I came into this Dauphiné with the condition a bit lower than normal but I really got better as the race went on. So there's still a fair bit of form to gain before the Tour de France."
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