When Romain Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale team crossed the line in the team time trial on stage 3 of the Critérium du Dauphiné the Frenchman's demeanour said it all. He and his team had been well beaten, losing a minute to winners BMC, and losing what seemed at the time as any realistic hope of Bardet finishing on the podium. Shoulders hunched, eyes down, the Frenchman talked bravely about aiming for a stage win, his overall ambitions finished.
However, the Dauphiné has a knack of breathing life into vanquished challengers and turning the race on its head at any given moment, and on stage 5 from Digne-les-Bains it was Bardet's time to shine with a stage-winning performance that moved him up to third overall, 20 seconds down on the yellow jersey of Tejay van Garderen (BMC).
The stage route, which will be replicated at the Tour de France next month, took on the Col d'Allos, which featured as the penultimate climb before the final ascent to Pra Loup.
It was on the Col d'Allos where Bardet made his move, attacking from the Team Sky led peloton with the summit of the climb less than 500 meters away. However, the stage was won on the treacherous descent with Bardet taking corner after corner as if he had nine lives in the bank. At times it was mesmerising to behold as he cut through apexes and opened up a gap of 1:20 before the start of the final climb.
"I didn't know the descent at all but I remember Christian Prudhomme talking about the descent back at the Tour de France presentation last October, and this is a stage that I've been dreaming about ever since," he said in the winner's press conference.
"My goal was actually to stay with Astana on the climb because I thought that they would give it a go, and then I tried my luck with 500m to go on the Col d'Allos and no one went with me. From there I had to carry on and I managed to hang on.
"I would have been happy with a top five place but a victory is really something else. It shows how I've grown as a rider and it's nice to have major success at last. I hope this is a major moment for me."
With more mountain stages to come, Bardet has a realistic chance of holding a podium place in the race. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are both out of contention for the GC, while former winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) is 10 seconds behind the Frenchman, in fifth place.
"I have to be careful because I'm not at my peak Tour de France level yet but that should come in good time," Bardet said. "Nibali and Froome remain the favourites for the Tour de France but psychologically this is a boost to my confidence. There's still a lot of work to be done in this race just to stay on the podium. I know that I won't be allowed to go away like that again."