Romain Bardet cut a disconsolate figure in Marseille at the end of last year’s Tour de France. He’d previously dismissed pressure to improve on his time trialling, arguing he didn’t want to jeopardise his natural qualities as a climber, but his fall from second to third place on the final podium – and almost off it entirely – forced him to admit he needed to put in some serious hours in the wind tunnel.
After two further underwhelming displays this season at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al País Vasco, this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné allows for some familiarization with his time trial bike ahead of the Tour de France.
With an early team time trial of 35 kilometres and a penultimate-day individual chrono of 31km coming up at the Tour, the Dauphiné opened with a 6.6km prologue on Sunday and will itself feature a 35km TTT on Wednesday.
Great French hope Bardet, who roused huge cheers from an otherwise quiet crowd in Valence, put in a solid prologue display, finishing 48th, 23 seconds down on stage winner Michal Kwiatkowski. He was roughly on par with the majority of GC contenders and was even a second quicker than Vincenzo Nibali.
“It wasn’t bad. I had a good feeling in the legs after quite a long period without racing. It was a very short prologue, and quite insignificant in the context of what’s to what’s to come,” Bardet told reporters as he warmed down.
“It was just 6.6km and there wasn’t much ‘relance’ [points where you need to change rhythm - ed.] so it was really a course for pure rouleurs. “It’s true, I didn’t do a bad ride. I enjoyed it, going fast. It wasn’t the stage I was most looking forward to this week, so I’m happy it’s over.”
Working in the wind tunnel
Speaking to Cyclingnews in Valence during the Dauphiné prologue, AG2R La Mondiale directeur sportif Didier Jannel explained that efforts have been multiplied since the winter in regards to Bardet’s time trialling.
“This winter we’ve worked since December on Romain’s time trial, and not just on exercises on the bike, but also on the position. We did some more work in January, and then some proper sessions to really look at his technique,” he said. “We’ve been looking at multiple areas – everything we can. And there’s still more to do – we’re still doing tests. We have another session after the Dauphiné.
“We have found some interesting points actually. There is still work to do, of course, and it’s something we know we need to address for future Tours. Maybe this year in the Tour he will be a bit better but we can’t get ahead of ourselves, it’s still going to be a difficult test for him. It’s a demanding time trial with some undulation, which will suit him better than the one last year. It’s also a time trial at the end of the Tour, after 19 stages, so it could be interesting for him.”
‘I’m at the Dauphiné to win’
Bardet has arrived at the Dauphiné fresh off the back of a two-week altitude camp in the Sierra Nevada, having last raced at Liège-Bastogne-Liège more than 40 days ago.
The week-long race in the south east of France is a well-trodden stepping stone to the Tour de France, but this year, with the football World Cup forcing an extra week between the Dauphiné and Tour, yellow jersey hopefuls are either taking a cautious approach to their form or skipping the race all together, preferring the Tour de Suisse.
Not so Bardet, who has made no secret of his desire to win this race, despite the Tour de France being more than a month away, and the mountain stages 10 days more on top of that.
“I have always targeted the overall victory here. I was second two years ago – and I hope to go one better this year,” he said on the eve of the race.
“The extra week between the Dauphiné and Tour doesn’t change much for me. I’m treating the Dauphiné as a target in its own right – not as preparation for the Tour. I haven’t raced since Liège; I’m keen to race.
“The Dauphiné and Tour go hand-in-hand – there’s no choice to make between the two. Having good feelings at the Dauphiné has never counted against me – quite the opposite. I love the Dauphiné – it’s one of the great WorldTour races, a race which does justice to our fine region with four stages for climbers in the last four days – how could you ask for more?”
Indeed, this is a Dauphiné route that suits Bardet better than any other, with four short and potentially explosive mountain stages – all with summit finishes – back-to-back in the second half of the race.
Before he can unleash his creative instincts on his favoured terrain, however, he’ll have to get back on the TT bike for a team time trial that, at 35km, could leave him with a fair bit of ground to make up in those mountains.
“We will maybe be a little bit below other teams in the TTT but the general classification will take shape mostly in the four days in the mountains, and that’s where we’ll see the collective importance of my team.”