There seem to be two winners at this Tour de France. Chris Froome all-but sealed overall victory on Saturday, but such has been the Sky rider's dominance over the past three weeks, it almost felt like a separate race had been taking place behind him. In that respect, Romain Bardet, second overall, felt every bit a winner
Indeed, there were two 'winner's' press conferences in Morzine's Palais des Sports after the penultimate stage; Froome fulfilled his duties but special arrangements were made for Bardet to meet with the media also – as had been the case two years ago when Jean-Christophe Péraud finished second behind Vincenzo Nibali.
That's what happens when you're a Frenchman carrying the hopes of a nation that has been undernourished in terms of success at its flagship sporting event in recent years. There hasn't been a home winner of La Grande Boucle since Bernard Hinault in 1986, and there had been no home stage winner this year until Bardet's pièce de résistance on Friday, which put him into the second place that he was able to defend in Morzine.
"This was unimaginable for me. I'm struggling to believe it still," said Bardet as he sat down in a room – an ice hockey rink in fact – full of good will. "Everything has gone by so quickly since yesterday and I think it's going to take a bit of time to let it sink in.
"Each year I meet with you before the Tour, and I say I'm going to have a better Tour than last year. I believe it but I can't be certain when I say it. Each year it's happened, and I'm aware of the positive dynamic and of how lucky I am."
'Heroic' yelled L'Equipe's headline on Saturday, the morning after Bardet had reinvigorated what some were labelling a lifeless Tour by launching an instinctive attack that yielded the stage win and a leap from fifth to second overall.
As his highlight from the race as a whole, he picked out that moment when his teammate Mickaël Chérel said 'follow me' and went full gas on the descent preceding the final climb to prize open the door.
"That gave me a huge boost. It was more than emotion when I raised my arms – it was that force that the collective effort and spirit allow you to draw upon internally and mentally," said Bardet, who told of how he's received messages of support for the instinctive panache of his victory.
"On the key stages it's audacity that pays off"
Panache is something few have ever doubted Bardet, who soloed to victory at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne 12 months ago, to possess. What has been questioned, however, has been his consistency over three weeks and whether he can realistically become the first French Tour winner in 30-odd years.
Bardet has done a lot of answering this July, with a string of consistent displays in the mountains. He puts the considerable stride forward he has just made down to a series of factors – both mental and physical.
"It's a slow evolution. A slow progression in my careers," said Bardet, who is still young at 26.
"It's the addressing of environmental factors that troubled me until now. I used to spend so much energy on the little details affecting my performances. Now, I feel I've managed to unlock my full potential. All that energy I might have spent in the first or second weeks – going through different tactical plans and having the impression of risking my life each day – is what has allowed me to pedal stronger in the third week and create gaps.
"It's very much the acquisition of experience, and having the ability to put things into perspective. You have to enjoy it, and that wasn't necessarily the case in my first Tour de France."
Bardet was also modest enough to point out that he hadn't been struck by bad luck of the sort Richie Porte had to deal with. He's had no significant crashes or untimely punctures to speak of, and it has allowed him to get the very best out of himself.
"When there's not much separating second and fifth, on the key stages it's audacity that pays off."
And boy did it pay off. Bardet may not have got anywhere close to threatening Froome's yellow jersey, but he nevertheless feels his Tour was as successful as it could have possibly been.
"I'm convinced now that this is the best result I could have hoped for. It's crazy, a four-minute gap – it's a gulf. I'm perfectly confident I did everything I could in this Tour, so I have no regrets."